Shifting From Myth To Function

Sounds of the Shofar: The ancient sounds of a ram’s horn, blown on Rosh Hashanah, can inspire religious awe.
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Sounds of the Shofar: The ancient sounds of a ram’s horn, blown on Rosh Hashanah, can inspire religious awe.

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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There was once a prisoner who yearned for freedom. One day, the prophet Mohammed appeared to him, and gave him a set of keys to his cell, saying “Your piety has been rewarded. Allah has set you free.” So the prisoner took the set of keys, mounted them on the wall, and prayed to them five times a day. — Sufi tale

Here’s a simple question: What does spirituality do? Television entertains, travel inspires, law patrols the boundaries — but what about the practices of religion? What purpose do they serve?

These are important questions — but within them lies a more subtle, and even more important, point: that religion is meant to do something in the first place.

Let me start with a story. Last Rosh Hashanah, I blew the shofar in the woods. Due to a variety of circumstances, I was away from my family and not near a synagogue. But I wanted to observe the holiday, albeit in a highly unorthodox way, and I wanted to do it in a setting that felt close to nature, perhaps even close to God. So, one cold day last September, I schlepped a shofar out into the forest, donned a tallit and sounded the blasts as prescribed by Jewish law.

It was a deeply profound experience. Transcending theology and rationality, the ancient sound of a ram’s horn instantly stripped away layers of ego, rationale, doubt and even the notion of time itself. I felt transported to some primordial moment of religious awe, at once pre-rational and trans-rational, nonsensical and deeply true.

I also felt a wave of gratitude for the weird, inex–plicable technologies of the sacred, these keys to the soul that Judaism has preserved throughout the millennia. I felt so lucky to be the heir of this long, complicated and often deeply problematic tradition — not so much for its cultural or intellectual heritage, but as a repository of, for lack of a better word, magic.

This is what spirituality does; it transforms the self in ways that ideology, philosophy, nationalism and ethnicity do not. And it actually works. The recent findings by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute that American Jews under 35 are more “spiritually inclined” than those of their parents’ generation have surprised many people, but not those who have experienced the power of real spirituality firsthand. Because unlike tired clichés of persecution and tribe, this stuff actually works.

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I do not claim to know why this is so. Maybe the shofar has mana or eros. Maybe its sound evokes angels, as the Kabbalah suggests. Or maybe it’s just childhood memories, or something from a vast collective unconscious, or the knowledge that the same sound is resonating in Kathmandu, Tel Aviv, Mombasa and New York and has been heard for thousands of years. Who knows.

What matters more, in my view, is that the ritual objects of Judaism are tools — and tools are meant to be used. While perhaps this may seem obvious, I think many Jews have forgotten this fact, much to our detriment.

Now, to suggest that Jewish practices have a purpose (spiritual or otherwise) is heretical in some quarters — and dangerous, because if that same purpose (say, ethical refinement, or spiritual awakening, or communal bonding) might be accomplished some other way, then the commandments might seem superfluous. Thus, in many traditionalist circles, the only reason for any religious observance is that God commanded it or that it is part of Halacha, Jewish law.

Within a holistic, usually Orthodox, framework, this view works well enough; everyone is doing the same thing, and the pieces fit together in a semi-coherent system — a whole that does very powerful communal and sacred work. Trouble is, at least 80% of American Jews do not live this way, and thus rightly regard much religious observance as empty of meaning, nonsensical or downright harmful. Thus, if we don’t first admit that religious practice is supposed to do something, and second address what that something is, we’ll never make a case for those not already convinced of its merit.

The conventional answers one gets to why Jews perform certain actions are mythic; they are tied to belief and (pseudo-) history. For example, we eat matzo to remember the exile from Egypt, or because God commanded it. But most American Jews don’t believe Jewish myths — or in a traditional God, for that matter — let alone notions of commandments, repentance, reward and punishment. Really, does anyone seriously believe in Rosh Hashanah’s Book of Life, or Passover’s miracles of the 10 Plagues? Maybe this stuff is okay for kids, but at some point, we grow up and leave childish things behind.

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Spiritual practice, on the other hand, is functional, not mythic. It’s pragmatic; we eat matzo because it calls us to reflection, or provokes some stirring of the soul, or brings us together as a family. See the difference?

In fact, as James Carse described in his 2008 book “The Religious Case Against Belief” (Penguin) dogmas and beliefs have nothing to do with spiritual life. Nothing. Not only is Judaism a religion of “deed, not creed.” Not only do Jews hold every conceivable belief, from Divine determinism to materialist atheism. But if the point of religious practice is to shift consciousness — however that is understood — then it has nothing to do with what happened in 1446 BCE (a common dating of the Exodus) or 4004 BCE (a fundamentalist dating of Creation), and everything to do with what is happening now.

From this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether God is a benevolent father looking down on us all, or a delusion of the mind. It doesn’t matter whether the Exodus happened or not. What matters is that we possess technology that can transform the self, open the mind, unite a community, motivate ethical action and bring forth tears when your heart is broken. Before you light candles, you’re thinking of your mortgage; afterward, you’re thinking of your kids, or the meaning of life, or something else that actually matters. That’s what counts. Of course, if the Passover story, or the Yom Kippur myth, helps you do those things, great. If not, drop them. It’s the transformation, not the myth, that matters.

As I have already suggested, there is no one “transformation” that will hold true for everyone. For example, reciting a blessing before eating a meal may serve many functions: opening the heart, remembering our best selves, interrupting the demands of the ego or, for that matter, inculcating subservience to God’s demands, community affiliation and maintenance of cultural traditions. Some of these answers I agree with, others I don’t. That comes with the territory. United in action, we can diverge in interpretation. In an age of pluralism and multiculturalism, it is a very good thing.

But in all these cases, the doing is all. Objects and rituals exist to be used, and only in the using, in the experience, can they do their work. Naaseh v’nishmah, the Israelites said at Sinai: We will do, and we will understand. Religion and spirituality take practice, avodah, work. This is, unfortunately, why spirituality is difficult to communicate and why much spiritual writing reads like a cookbook. You have to walk the path in order to see the view; reading about it just isn’t the same.

If we are to take the S3K findings seriously, we must shift away from a belief-centered, ethnicity-centered, and history-centered religious worldview and toward a pragmatic one. “Spirituality” need not mean the same thing to everyone, and it need not involve chanting with your inner child (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But it does mean a shift from myth to function.

It also means a shift in how we understand excellence. American Jews have achieved intellectual excellence, financial and political power, and social organization. But there are no Harvards for spirituality, and no gold watches for enlightenment. This has always been the case; deep spiritual practice has always been an elite, rather than a mass, phenomenon, and one difficult to translate to the norms of householder life. But today, with spirituality often relegated to the mushy-headed New Age, it’s especially easy to look down on the personal-growth crowd, with its parade of fads from Kabbalah to the Secret.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the Kabbalah water. Spiritual excellence is every bit as real as physical or intellectual excellence, and to my mind, smart people who don’t do any work on themselves are as out of balance as bookworms who never go to the gym. I submit that if Judaism is to thrive, we must take spiritual growth as seriously as we do academic achievement or financial success. Again, the specifics will vary; some people will favor intellectual contemplation, others work on the body or the heart; some will recoil at patriarchal language and primitive myth, while others will embrace them. But if you aren’t doing something, you’re the spiritual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling.

Admittedly, real spiritual practice isn’t easy; it demands introspection and an unflinching look at the ways in which we live our lives. And it takes old-fashioned work. For example, I find, even after years of practice, that I almost never feel like meditating; I have to force myself to do it. But afterward, I marvel at how confused and “off my game” I had been without realizing it. Or, I may not feel like observing the Sabbath, but when it comes, I realize how exhausted, how obsessed with work, how out of balance I had been. Spiritual practice is transformative, but the nature of transformation is that you don’t know you need to transform until you do it. It’s most important precisely when it seems most pointless.

For all that, “spiritual practice” can be as simple as, say, pausing for five seconds before eating a meal: no blessing, no words, maybe a moment’s reflection on where the food came from and how fortunate you are to consume it. Just the practice, the openness and the intention — that’s all.

Although such advice may seem banal, even trite, it’s a fundamental reordering of the way in which many Jews regard their religious observance. The notion that these spiritual technologies might actually do something is threatening to those who maintain (for reasons of conformity or rebellion) that religion is about following orders and believing in myths. Yet, waking up to the subtle delights of daily existence, relinquishing the ego’s incessant demands and coming into the presence of the numinous — this is how Judaism creates a life well lived, not just for the walking wounded of the self-help world, but for all of us interested in living a full and rich life. Jewish religious practice is a technology for waking up to life. Use it.

Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the Forward, Reality Sandwich magazine, Zeek and the Huffington Post. He is the Executive Director of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture and Spirituality.


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