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‘Religion Is Actually Spirituality’: An Exchange

Last month, our Jay Michaelson, in a column titled “Religion is Actually Spirituality,” argued that “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.”

Michaelson’s take on the relationship between religion and spirituality drew spirited retorts from readers Aurora Mendelsohn, a Toronto biostatistician, and Alan Krinsky, a monthly columnist for the Jewish Voice & Herald in Providence, R.I.

Their critiques are published below, as is Michaelson’s response.

Aurora Mendelsohn writes:

I was raised in and have been consistently active in alternative Jewish communities that embrace innovation and seek to make ritual and worship more spiritual and relevant. That’s one reason I was surprised to find myself disagreeing so strongly with Jay Michaelson’s framing of religion and spirituality.

In his column, Michaelson suggested that a dichotomy between religion and spirituality is a false one. All religion, he argues, is a form of spirituality, which he defines as performing rituals or practices to achieve a desired mind-state.

While it is undeniable that all religion has a spiritual aspect to it, I would counter that its main purpose is not achieving desired mind-states. In my view, the purposes of Judaism are to enable people to behave ethically; to make the world a better place through our actions; to nurture community; to create meaning and sanctity in our ordinary daily lives; and to provide access to a wisdom literature and modes of thought that connect us with people past and present who struggled to answer the questions of what “a better place” or “behave ethically” means. Spirituality is a part of achieving those goals, no doubt, but it is not the primary purpose.

Michaelson defines achieving a desired mind-state to include everything from a feeling of grandeur to a mental stance of moral responsibility. The key, he writes, is that a transformation to a new mind-state has to do something to the experiencer.

Using achievement of desirable mind-states as an explanation for why religion is practiced is problematic for two reasons.

First, if a desire to achieve a particular mind-state is the explanation for our behavior and all choices can be defined this way, then what is the use of such an explanation? If it can cover everything we chose to do (from watching a movie to composting), then it really does not explain anything at all.

Second, there is an important qualitative difference between doing something to elicit a feeling of joy, well-being or calmness (davening, mediating…) and doing something one might not enjoy at all (breaking bad news to a loved one, cleaning the bodily fluids of children, disabled adults or of the dead before burial…) because one believes it is the right thing to do. This is true even if the latter type of act elicits a mind-state of thinking of yourself as a person who acts morally. Acting morally has an effect beyond one’s own mental state; most often there are other people who are affected by what you do.

The mind-states Michaelson attributes to secular Judaism (integrity, ethics, authenticity) and to the spiritually dead synagogues he rightly decries (community, a sense of tradition) differ qualitatively from those he attributes to modern spiritual Judaism (inspiration, joy or introspection). The former, for the most part, seem either other-directed or at least framed in the context of the self as part of a group. The latter are inner-directed.

But inner-directedness alone, for its own sake, is not the focus of Judaism. Judaism has historically been more interested in deeds, not thoughts, creeds or specific mind-states. Almost never in the traditional literature are we told to think a certain way. Rather, we are instructed to behave a certain way. We are not commanded to love our parents (because that is not always possible), only to honor them.

Of course, it is often hard to behave as we wish we would and as we know we should when presented with challenges in the messy, day-to-day, real world. That is where cultivating inner-directness plays an important role in religious life. When we are in tune with our own thoughts and feelings, when we know the situations where we are likely to falter, we are more able to behave justly and compassionately.

To be meaningful, the cultivation of mind-states through spiritual practice has to ultimately serve the greater goals of ethical behavior and repairing the world. If a spiritual practice does not make me a better parent, spouse and friend, or a better champion of justice, then what is the point of it? The question is not what is Judaism doing for me, but what is Judaism helping me do?

Alan Krinsky writes:

Jay Michaelson argues against what he calls the “dichotomy” between religion and spirituality. He explains that “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.” For Michaelson, the relevant question is thus: “What, exactly, are you getting out of your Jewish life?”

Michaelson, however, misses a critical, fundamental difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is primarily about what I get out of my life. It’s about me and about fulfilling my needs. If something does not please me, I reject it. If a practice no longer meets my needs, I jettison it. The search for spirituality, understandably, responds to a deep human longing, but does so in terms of individual meaning. It is focused on me, and not focused on God or on community. This, of course, does not mean that many quite spiritual individuals are not involved in their communities and engaged in helping others — but in the end, the only religious or spiritual commitment is to oneself.

Religion, by contrast, requires commitment and makes demands on us. After all, the word mitzvah, contrary to popular phrasing, does not mean a “good deed.” Rather, its root is commanding and being commanded. Judaism, among many other religions, is a religion of obligation. And even though, in the modern world, we choose it, and even though we can leave it, the experience for the adherent is one of commitment and obligation and service to God. Even when we fall short of expectations, as we realize every year by Yom Kippur, we do so within the context of a binding covenant.

A mitzvah is a commandment, not a nice thing to do if I feel like it, or if it brings meaning to my life. Judaism places us in a framework, obligates us, requires our commitment, and nonetheless challenges us, asks us to be creative, at times to overcome our inclinations, to become better than we were before, better individuals and better members of our communities, to fulfill our potential, to leave the world a better place than it was upon our entrance.

Michaelson is not incorrect when he points out that religious adherents would not stick with it if they were not getting something out of it. But this turns all of us into pursuers of our own self-interest. Or masochists, if we continue to perform mitzvot we do not find personally meaningful. Well, if all altruism can be reduced to self-interest, then I am not sure we are any longer saying anything very interesting or meaningful.

Whatever the self-interest or selfishness, religious commitment remains quite different from spiritual allegiance. It is Michaelson’s very framing of the entire problem in terms of what each of us gets out of it that causes him to fail to see the important, striking difference between religion and spirituality.

What do I get out of it? The search for spirituality does ask this question; this is its central, guiding question. But not so religion. Religion does ask what we get out of it, but this is one of many questions, and far from the most important one.

Jay Michaelson responds:

In my essay, I claimed that religious practices — perhaps “ritual practices” might be a better term — are performed to bring about certain mind-states (fulfillment, doing the right thing, inspiration, hope), despite protestations to the contrary, and that they are thus not so different from spirituality, which aims to do the same thing.

Now, when I speak of “practices” here, I refer primarily to what Jewish tradition calls acts bein adam l’makom, between a person and God, rather than bein adam l’havero, between a person and other people. Of course, both are religious in some sense, but only the former, I suggest, is particularly religious — only religious.

With regard to such acts, neither of the critiques printed here seems to shake my central claim. A bein adam l’makom religious practice may, as Aurora Mendelsohn states, “create meaning and sanctity in our ordinary daily lives.” Our awareness of these qualities, however, is entirely subjective, and entirely in the mind. Especially with terms such as “meaning” and “sanctity,” which have no objective referent, the only way we experience such — what, qualities? realities? — is through our minds, and indeed, the terms are more projections of certain mind-states (feeling meaningful, feeling holy) than anything else.

Now, if bein adam l’havero religious practice causes us “to behave ethically,” then indeed, there are yardsticks outside the individual mind: an action’s effects on other people. (Indeed, this is a crucial distinction between Judaism, which generally holds that ethical action is evaluated by its objective effects, and some other religious traditions, which prioritize intention. “Love your enemy” is a lovely sentiment, but as we have seen, it can be coupled with barbaric acts.)

Yet even for acts bein adam l’havero, I think if we look closely enough, then we’ll see that to the extent that an ethical act is impelled by specifically religious motivations — “fear of heaven,” for example — it is still subject to my claim that it, too, is about cultivating a certain mind-state. For example, suppose I decide not to cheat on my taxes. Many motivations may be in play: fear of punishment, the categorical imperative and, perhaps, some specifically religious ones, such as a desire not to compromise my human dignity, or even a desire not to offend God. These latter motivations are, I claim, about cultivating mind-states. Stealing feels icky in the mind. And while that may not be one’s sole or even primary motivation not to do so, it is no less “spiritual” than chanting mantras or bowing during prayer.

One common 21st-century move, which Mendelsohn repeats, is to reduce bein adam l’makom to bein adam l’havero: that “the cultivation of mind-states through spiritual practice has to ultimately serve the greater goals of ethical behavior and repairing the world.” This is neither a Jewish ideal, nor how most religious people, I think, lead their lives. Ethical behavior is indeed half of the ideal of kedushah, or holiness, but living a life of closeness to God (however that is understood) is the other half. Of course, each feeds the other. But to reduce one to the other is an error of history and of religious psychology.

At the other extreme, Alan Krinsky’s claim that religion “requires commitment and makes demands on us” does have deep traditional roots. This is what Jews and other religionists have been saying for millennia. But saying something does not make it so. In the 21st century, we are indeed free to take on these commitments and recognize the importance of these demands… or not. We are postmodern individuals, like it or not, and there are reasons why we take on such obligations.

Indeed, Krinsky seems to agree with my experiential understanding of religion when he writes that “the experience for the adherent is one of commitment and obligation and service to God.” Exactly so! This is precisely my point: that even an experience of obligation is an experience. Krinsky’s understanding of the commandments is indeed grounded in Jewish tradition, but he makes my point for me. No matter how traditional the feeling may be, it’s still a feeling, and is not different in kind from spirituality.

Krinsky and Mendelsohn both suggest that, if I’m right that religion is really spirituality, then everything has been reduced to preference and selfishness. Well, not quite. As I tried to suggest in the original essay, understanding the aims of a religious/ritual practice can help us pursue those aims more effectively; if we know what we’re trying to do, we can do it better. A functional approach to religion undermines the false claim of privilege and power that Krinsky repeats: that religion is somehow different in kind from, and better than, spirituality. And, of course, if we see commonalities across religious and spiritual lines, we might be less likely to attack those whose approaches differ from our own.

That’s not nothing — it’s a very useful loosening of some of the constrictions religion can bring about in the mind. Have you ever noticed the tightness, the piety of tone and supposedly righteous indignation, that defenders of a particular religious view often express? Do we really think this is good for the world? Wouldn’t it be useful, when a religious belief is threatened, to notice that these emotions are triggered, rather than be manipulated by them? And wouldn’t it be relaxing to admit that we do what we do because we want to — rather than cling desperately to ever farther-fetched myths of obligation and recompense?

To me, each incremental release from such clinging is a step toward liberation, toward peace, even toward God.

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