I love our contemporary vocabulary for personal spirituality; it’s so developed and rich. We talk openly about self-realization, about forgoing expectation and becoming grounded, about centering, dreaming, intuition and connection. Yoga, meditation, therapy are concrete and widely available. It’s a good era for the individual.
All that sophistication ends at the boundary of our own skin. The greatest spiritual struggle of our time is to articulate a meaningful, coherent message of the spiritual nature of life beyond the self. That’s why the message, “God loves you,” is a hell of a lot more powerful, today, than “And you shall love the Lord, your God.” It’s why The Secret is geared towards what an individual can get for herself, rather than, well, what the secrets of the universe are. It’s also why Amy Schumer is a genius.
Science and communication are the culprits. They’ve poked very, very persuasive holes in what we thought we knew about the nature of the world, and they’ve changed the way we “know” things. These days, what we accept is proven by empirical evidence, not by philosophy or wisdom received from elders.
I think my point is that most of us feel the way you do; you aren’t alone. Your struggle is part of a larger struggle; we are all trying to figure out, spiritually, the question, what do we know to be true?
I want to say that I write this as a deeply believing man, who strives to love God with my heart, my life, and with that which I own. But though I have faith in the big picture – I believe in God; I believe we have a soul; I believe it lives on after we die – there are a myriad of details that religious traditions teach that one struggles to give credence.
In the realm of advice, I’ll offer, with apologies for its paucity, what I do for myself. I try to look for beauty; I look for meaning and for depth; I study, searching for kindness, compassion, and wisdom. I look to serve something beyond myself. I especially work to make sure that I do these things with other people, who seek like I do. And I try to live a life that follows from what I believe, but one that, should I die and have been wrong about the spiritual nature of the universe, I would have been proud to lead anyway.
I think the thing to do is to start to study. Go learn some Torah, and listen to a few people. Then take your best guess as to God and the spirit; share your guesses with others; have the humility to accept you might be wrong, and the courage to live by them anyways. It will, I promise you, be a life worth living.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.