Religion Is Actually Spirituality

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published October 28, 2009, issue of November 06, 2009.
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Religion vs. spirituality. We hear the opposition all the time. “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” increasing numbers of Americans say every year. Conversely, many Jews insist that they follow Halacha, Jewish law, not out of any subjective spiritual motive, but because it is commanded by God. I, too, have often claimed that spiritual practice is distinguished from religion by its pragmatic focus — what a practice does — rather than its significance in a system of myth or dogma.

All Is One: The dichotomy between religion and spirituality is spurious, but the distinction is important to understand what their proponents value.
Bradley Arthur, 'OM' (2006) courtesy of Be-Art
All Is One: The dichotomy between religion and spirituality is spurious, but the distinction is important to understand what their proponents value.

But the dichotomy is misleading. Not because all religion is spiritual in the narrow sense — it isn’t — and certainly not because all spirituality is essentially religious, but because, ultimately, even the most diehard, hyper-rational, Lithuanian Orthodox, High Reform, or otherwise non- or anti-spiritual religionists perform religious acts because they want to feel a certain way. In other words, religion is a form of spirituality.

I think this point matters a great deal for how we conceive the development of secular and religious Jewish life in the 21st century, especially in the politically heated environment that produced the response to my previous Polymath column. (This topic is one of the things to be discussed at a Forward-sponsored forum October 29 in New York.) Let’s begin by defining our terms.

As I’ve suggested in past columns, “spirituality” may be used to refer to practices that transform the individual mind or heart in some way. Before lighting Sabbath candles, I am rushed and thinking of all the things I have to do; afterward, I am reoriented toward gratitude, love and the sacredness of time itself. Before doing yoga, I am tense; afterward, I am relaxed.

Of course, some transformations are deeper than others. A yoga buzz might last only a few minutes, whereas a pilgrimage to Israel (or India) may reorient one’s entire life. And spirituality can include almost any activity, from painting to jogging to Talmud study, and any transformation, from a naive “high” to a sense of grandeur, or moral responsibility, or an opening of the heart. But it has to do something.

But now I want to take a further step: I want to deny the claim that “nonspiritual” religion is really so different, after all.

First, traditional religion, like spirituality, brings about certain states of mind. In the case of New Age spirituality, these states are often love, harmony, balance and so on. In the case of traditional religion, they may be piety, groundedness, certainty and what used to be called “fear of heaven,” the sense that your actions are judged, and you are held accountable for them.

But while the vocabulary differs, the grammar remains the same. Despite the protestations of traditionalists, traditional religion is every bit as experiential and individualistic as New Age spirituality. It just values different experiences.

So, too, those “spiritually dead” synagogues I complain about all the time. They, too, promote individual and collective experiences: community, a sense of “doing the right thing,” perhaps a sense of tradition or history. Yes, these synagogues are devoid of ecstasy, inspiration, introspection and the other values associated with a successful prayer life, which is one reason so many younger Jews choose not to affiliate. But lame synagogues do promote mind states — just different ones from the ones I like.

Likewise secular Judaism (which cultivates mind states of, I submit, integrity, ethics, authenticity, and so on), social justice Judaism (clear conscience, righteous indignation, sense of moral goodness), Zionism (patriotism, strength, belonging, sense of security), Jewish environmentalism or what-have-you. Despite the different values, we’re all cultivating states of mind. We’re all doing spirituality.

Does this mean that all religious and secular forms are equal, and there’s nothing left to say? Not at all.

First, to understand traditional religion, empty religion, nationalism and so on as subsets of spirituality is a meaningful denial of some religionists’ claims that they are really trans-subjective and not like all those spiritual people at all. These claims are untenable. When an Orthodox Jew waits six hours between veal and cheddar, she is cultivating a spiritual mind state, in the same way as a Renewal Jew is by chanting “Yah.” She may have all sorts of myth and law in the mix, but ultimately she obeys the law because she values the subjective mental feeling of obeying the law (or maintaining tradition, or whatever).

Indeed, with a little mental training (such as meditation) you can discern the notes of such mind states yourself, just like the notes of a good Bordeaux. Transgression, belonging, guilt, being yotzeh (having fulfilled a commandment) — all of these are, essentially, states of mind. And traditional religion, patriotism and secular Judaism are no different from spirituality in cultivating them.

Second, if we understand the states of mind that religious and cultural forms are meant to bring about, we can make much needed adjustments. Take the “dead shul” scenario above. Will many young people, who tend not to gather in the same communal forms as older people, still value a “sense of community” enough to pay dues? And if not, should synagogues consider providing other experiences for them?

Third, and especially important in our overheated age, if we are clear about how we are affected by religious, cultural or political values, then we can take appropriate steps to moderate our behavior in relation to them. One reason that people become so agitated when it comes to religion and politics (Israel! Intermarriage! Antisemitism!) is that religion and politics create deep emotional bonds. Our religious community, people and nation are our tickets to immortality, and thus anything that threatens them threatens our very survival. No surprise many of us react with rage, even violence, when these sacred totems are questioned. Yet perhaps if we were more aware of how our hearts are triggered, our reactions could be more measured in response.

Finally, and no doubt the most threatening for those committed to a particular form of Jewish life, the more we can understand what a religious or spiritual practice does for us, the more we can assess whether it is worth continuing or not. Let’s look at all this quasi-spirituality in a rational, pragmatic way: You put something in, you should get something out. If we are clear about what “takeaways” a given ritual, communal structure, political action, class or other experience provides, we can be clearer about whether it’s worth the investment. But so long as we deny this calculus, we’re left with unquantifiable values and competing truth-claims.

In fact, most Jews are thinking quite pragmatically already. According to most studies, the Jewish community is providing a product that fewer than half its members want to buy. So far, most of the response has focused on marketing. But maybe it’s the product that’s the problem. Maybe the old Jewish products bring about mind states — particularism, security, traditionalism, Jewish survival — in which younger Jews have little interest. Maybe other mind states, like inspiration, joy or introspection, might work better. As one of my teachers told me, “People tend to do what they are interested in.”

I’ve seen this on a personal level, as well. During 10 years of Orthodox-style religious practice, I felt grounded in a system that sanctified every aspect of my life. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I felt secure; part of something. I was terrified of losing that sense of well-being, and resisted changing my religious lifestyle years after it had become oppressive to me.

But now I find it’s possible to cultivate similar mind states in different ways. Discernment, meditation, a commitment to advocacy and deep retreat practice have all brought about those same senses of orientation, security and groundedness — only without the vexing beliefs, stories or problematic values and with a moment-to-moment practice of letting go, opening the mind and heart, and relaxing the conventions of the self.

What I’ve tried to suggest is that these seemingly Californian spiritual values are not so distant from hard-core New York religious and political ones. The tone is different, and some may indeed prefer the mean to the cuddly, the strict to the soft. But the substance is not. Religionists, rationalists, nationalists, atheists, spiritualists and even the she’eno yode’a lishol — who don’t know there’s a question they’re not asking — all of us are cultivating the mind states we’re interested in, and our interests don’t vary as much as we suppose. Just ask yourself: What, exactly, are you getting out of your Jewish life?


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