When Prayer Becomes Leisure by the Forward

When Prayer Becomes Leisure

It is no surprise that many American Jews are proponents of what they call greater spirituality. This is characteristic of what Ronald Inglehart has termed the “postmaterialist” generation. In his study “Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society,” based on survey data from 25 industrial societies, Mr. Inglehart argues that economic, technological and sociopolitical changes have transformed the cultures of these societies in profoundly important ways.

Following Maslow’s theory of “higher” and “lower” needs, Mr. Inglehart maintains that once individuals have satisfied their basic material needs and guaranteed their physical safety, they will look to the satisfaction of ore remote needs in the spiritual, aesthetic and interpersonal realms. They will think in terms of self-fulfillment and personal autonomy rather than identifying themselves with their families, localities, ethnic groups or even nations. Those of an earlier generation were socialized in a period where their immediate material and physical needs were unmet, and they therefore forged societies structured to meet these needs. But those who have come of age in the last few decades are searching for the satisfaction of the more remote needs.

There is also a shift from what Mr. Inglehart terms central authority to individual autonomy and from what I would call collective to individual concerns. Hillel Halkin [in his June 1997 article in Commentary, “After Zionism”] put the matter in terms closer to our concerns:

Those who have followed the trajectory of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi immediately sense the accuracy of Mr. Hawkin’s description.

Spirituality is not the answer to the Jewish problem. As understood by Mr. Inglehart and Mr. Halkin, spirituality is the problem. There is a term in the tradition for spirituality, rukhnius — especially popular in certain chasidic circles. But the more common virtue in the tradition is not rukhnius but kedushah, holiness. We are commanded to be a “holy,” not a “spiritual,” people, and the musar literature is concerned with holiness, not spirituality. Holiness is achieved in a minyan, as a part of a public observance. Spirituality points to individuality, transcendence, other-worldliness, while holiness points to the virtuous life. Kedushah evokes an outside source to which we submit; spirituality entails a process of self-realization.

The elevation of spirituality rather than holiness among American Jews, synagogue-goers in particular, explains many recent tendencies, of which I would single out three: informality, egalitarianism and ethicism.

Informality is a style, but it is also a mode of consciousness. It includes the manner in which Jews enter the synagogue, seat themselves, approach the Torah and the ark and even address the rabbi. Its most obvious reflection is in the casual way in which increasing numbers of JEws dress for synagogue services. This constitutes, I believe, a statement about the nature of the service — a statement I interpret to mean that the Jew has come to the synagogue not to stand before God the King but to engage in a leisure-time activity that includes chatting with God.

This is reinforced by another observation of mine. It seems to me that more and more Jews in Conservative synagogues enfold themselves in a tallit [prayer shawl] when they first put it on. The institution of this authentic Jewish custom in Conservative synagogues is to be applauded, but it stands in sharp contrast to the indifference that the same Jews show to the halachic injunction of standing at attention during the recitation of the Kedushah. Enfolding oneself — and even better, one’s child as well — in the tallit stresses the spiritual, man within himself, perhaps man and God. But indifference to the recitation of the Kedushah signals rejection of the notion that there is an authority before whom one is enjoined to stand at attention.

When Prayer Becomes Leisure

The second tendency associated with spirituality among modern American Jews is egalitarianism. The term seems to refer to more than the equality of the sexes; it suggests, really, the interchangeability of the sexes. Not only are differences between men and women to be ignored for the purposes of observing or celebrating the folkways of Judaism, but the differences between young and old, married and unmarried, knowledgeable and ignorant, pious and impious, observant and non—observant are also ignored. All these categories to which the Jewish tradition ascribes significance but which modern American Jews ignore. They pretend that these distinctions are of no significance to them. All that counts, so they claim, is the individual, or at the most the individual and God (i.e., the individual and his or when own benign self). The rephrase what I mean, differences between, say, an ignoramus and a learned Jew are important only if we think of the two as embedded in some community of people. Spirituality suggests that all that counts is the relationship between the individual and God. The fact that God has come to mean a reification of selected attributes of the individual himself only sharpen the tragedy.

This relates to the third tendency, ethicism, which is the opposite of ritualism. In this perspective, it matters not whether the folkways of Judaism are observed in the proper manner. What counts is the proper intention. It doesn’t matter if the individual who is called upon to lead the congregation in prayer or deliver a homily or read from the Torah knows how to do it properly. All that counts is that the person, male or female, young or old, married or unmarried — indeed, at its most extreme, Jew or gentile — wants to share the spiritual experience.

When Prayer Becomes Leisure

Granted, we can find echoes of each of these three tendencies associated with spirituality in traditional texts. The Israeli talmudic scholar and poet Admiel Kosman illustrates this in his analysis of the talmudic story of Mar Ookva [in “A Talmudic Detective Story,” Ha’aretz, August 1, 1997]. Although Ookva spends each morning in the beit midrash [place of study] engaged in study and in addition donates money each day to a poor man, taking extraordinary care lest the poor man be able to identify his benefactor, in accordance with the letter of the law, God judges him less worthy than his wife, who is not a learned person, who spends her day at home and who gives charity to the poor from her own kitchen so that the poor are aware of their benefactor. As Mr. Kosman points out, God is judging the intention of the actor rather than adherence to the letter of the law.

I would argue that within a system of order and ritual, the anarchy that is introduced by ethicism and egalitarianism provides an important balance. Israeli Orthodoxy, for example, is in desperate need of such balance.But in the absence of a system of order and ritual, these three aspects of spirituality — individually, but especially when they are combined — undermine central pillars of the Jewish religion, most especially the notion of an awesome and authoritative God whom Jews are obliged to obey. They substitute a Judaism focused upon the legitimation of self and the kinds of lives American Jews have chosen to lead. In this respect, they are a recipe for disaster. It is holiness, not spirituality, that I would urge upon synagogues, though I suspect this is not what most American Jews are seeking.

Charles S. Liebman (1934-2003) was a professor of political science at Bar—Ilan University in Israel. This article, first published in the Forward on June 11, 1999, is adapted from an address he gave at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The full address, along with those of 11 other conference participants, is included in a publication, “Secularism, Spirituality, and the Future of American Jewry.”

This story "When Prayer Becomes Leisure" was written by Charles S. Liebman.

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