Have we moved beyond Jewish spirituality?

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp January 29, 2018


teenager girl looks outside into the window in the small hostel room with bunk bed

I sat on my bed, looking out the window at the willow tree in my front yard. I was 17. My room was wallpapered with posters of my music icons: Bob Marley over here, Grateful Dead over there.

I made a bold statement aloud but to no one. “I’m not going to believe in G-d anymore.” That’s it. It was over.

But then, I remember hearing a voice that said, “You can’t be sure.”

I was one of the lucky ones. The question for me was at least something to think about, thanks to my parents and my Jewish upbringing in Hebrew school and synagogue.

Fast-forward to a moment when I felt G-d existence wasn’t just true, He was tangible. I sat on a well-worn staircase in the Old City of Jerusalem and knew. I felt it. And like so many others throughout our history, I knew I couldn’t just go back to life as I knew it. Something, many things, had to change. I had to ‘bottle’ this feeling and take it with me.

In my many dealings with people in my work, I find Jews run the gamut from staunchly ‘atheist’ (which means that spirituality doesn’t play a role in their life and they haven’t been shown any compelling rational reasons for G-d’s existence), to deeply spiritual but drawing nothing from Jewish spirituality, practice, or philosophy.

There are the Jew-Bu(s), Jews who flock to the Hindu religion because they found their own tradition lacking spirituality. I have a friend who became Christian because he never felt G-d’s love in his Jewish practice. Others flock to the new age thought leaders like Gabby Bernstein (many of whom are Jewish of course) who talk about many principles of Jewish spirituality while completely removing mention of G-d, Torah and Mitzvot.

As people we all need something to believe in. And we all, no matter how skeptical, do believe. In love, in country (depends on which country and whose president), in our icons, sports teams, you name it. Is there a value to Jewish spirituality? Is that something our tradition offers in addition to lox and Bar Mitzvah lessons?

Let’s address the second answer first.

Jacob, our patriarch, makes a stunning remark after he is awoken from his famous dream where he perceives a ladder extending from Heaven to Earth. He says, “This is none other than the gates of heaven!” He’s not talking about there—somewhere up in the clouds – it’s HERE. G-d is HERE. Clearly Jacob has broken through to what is possible in Jewish spiritual practice; the world of the esoteric, the soul and the spiritual had become completely and totally real for him in his life.

So it is possible to feel your life is full of spirituality and that you are deeply loved and connected to the Infinite G-d – knowing life has purpose, that you have purpose and that G-d believes in YOU and with you in all that you do. And that feels amazing.

But does that have to be Jewish? Rabbi Steven Weil made an amazing point on my podcast. Traditionally observant Jews take something for granted that the mass majority of Jews don’t, but should. It is the depth and breadth of what we do.

Depth in the sense that we didn’t just come up with this stuff because its popular. The Torah existed before Instagram. It existed before Dr. Laura, Buddah, Tony Robbins and Socrates. Our spirituality has stood the test of time. And if one studies history well, we are no more sophisticated now that we were then. Our needs are still the same. And if the Torah worldview was never refuted or disproven or shown to be irrelevant, it behooves us to check it before we move on. As my wife told me back in my ‘rebellious’ days, until I understand Judaism I shouldn’t try to reform, conserve, reconstruct, or leave it. First learn what it says for yourself!

Secondly, Judaism has breadth. The Torah speaks about how we are all connected. Why pay thousands of dollars to go to a sporting event when you can watch it in your living room? There is a human need for connection and unity. Judaism gives it to us on a silver platter. We aren’t just disjointed people bouncing randomly through eternity. We are responsible for each other, we are connected to each other, and the more we focus on what unites us than divides us, the more we can clue into what’s true and meaningful, instead of defining ourselves by what we aren’t.

So to answer the question, unique Jewish spirituality matters. It mattered to my ancestors, it will matter to my progeny, and if I put in the work, it will matter to me. That’s my grown up answer to my 17-year-old self. But then again, hearing “you can’t be sure G-d doesn’t exist,” also made a lot of sense as well. Α


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