Davar Torah: Parashat V’etchanan:
There are a lot of people today who talk the talk about seeking spirituality. Actually quite a few Jews will be the first ones to tell us that they left Judaism because they couldn’t find it, especially in Reform and Conservative synagogues. Many of them went into other faith traditions. You can meet, for example, a lot of former Jews in Buddhism, and many others involved new age religions which explore spirituality or in psychotherapy groups which contain a dimension of religious fervor. These folks level criticism that the Judaism of mainstream congregational life is stale, conventional and resembles a hybrid model of Jewish community center-country club rather than what they think should be a spiritual center.
Is it that simple? Is American Judaism that inadequate spiritually? While there is always room for growth and this era is all about spiritual growth there is something else here that deserves further exploration. I think about how Jewish people feel about God and the criterion they define as spirituality. I have come to question whether we, mainstream Judaism, have fair expectations regarding what services, clergy and teachers should deliver to the congregants. Second my sense is that Judaism is caught between the ecstatic power of Christian charismatic religious practices in music and entertainment. The attraction of eastern religions is a growing phenomenon which gets its market share of religious seekers. Ultimately the biggest draw that distances Jews from encountering the sacred, in my opinion, is not other faith traditions. To the contrary, it is the appeal of American secular culture. All of these factors take us farther away from experiencing the Divine in a Jewish context.
In this week’s parashah, Vetchanan, the Torah says, “If you shall seek the Eternal your God, you shall find the Eternal. If you seek the Eternal with all your heart and with all your soul”(4:29). The rabbi of Kotzk replied, “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find the Eternal, means “You shall find the Eternal.” The rabbi concluded, ‘And that should be enough.”
When I read this interpretation years ago, it freed me. In other words, his insight lifted a burden off my shoulders that as a rabbi I was expected to teach how clear it was that God, existed, God was just and that God viewed us, the Jewish people, as the chosen ones. It released me from that mindset altogether. Instead I have devoted much of my teaching and preaching to the search and to the journey and in that sense I was able to find a more spiritual life in Judaism. It wasn’t because that I necessarily found the answers to the above mentioned big questions but because by seeking out the answers and by contemplating and trying understand the conflicts in theology and practical life I was engaged. That was the key, engagement. My contention is that the problem for American Jewry is that too many of us have not heeded the words of the Rabbi of Kotzk. It is the seeking that counts and in that way there is a kind of finding as well.
Tomorrow morning we will have another Bat Mitzvah in this congregation. Our congregant Paula Rudman who is a stand out individual because she embarked upon this spiritual journey. She didn’t have to become Orthodox to discover the authentic Judaism she sought for so many years. She is a searcher and to that degree she has found something precious about her faith and its traditions.I believe that there are a lot more individuals of her generation who are perfectly capable of embarking upon that journey like her. My experience is that too many of us relate to and define themselves solely in a secular and ethnic sense. When that happens do we not risk closing ourselves off from the seeking out of what this life is all about?
For this reason I have decided that I will offer a Bar-Bat Mitzvah class for seniors beginning in the spring of 2016. We have had several individuals take on this challenge over the last six years. My hope is that the idea of seeking is a spark that is waiting for others like Paula and those who have gone through this rite of passage in the past. Overcoming the fears of learning hebrew and studying sacred texts are the biggest challenges. Yet, prior experience teaches that adults can be successful. It is not about only the reading of Torah or the prayers or the speech, rather, it is about the learning and reading of Jewish studies including history, theology, liturgy and on and on that changes a life. Judaism connects into the spiritual, and the intellectual sides of what it means to be human and a Jew and it is up to each of us to seek out the blend of them both in a way that fits best for us.
I first began to understand that seeking meant finding when I stood in a rabbi’s study at the time when I was contemplating whether I would apply to rabbinical school. I told the rabbi of my home congregation in Baltimore that I had questions, doubts and that I wasn’t sure I had the faith let alone the knowledge to be a suitable applicant for rabbinical school. The Rabbi said to me, “Do you see all the books in my study? They represent my struggle to understand and to encounter God.” That statement gave me the faith and the courage to complete my application and the rest is history.
One doesn’t have to be a rabbi to embark upon the journey to seek out the spiritual truths that the rabbis say are waiting for us. It is available to all of us but we have to put in the effort and it is a lifetime discipline at its best. There is a blessing we recite every day that reminds us of the seeking. Blessed are You Eternal Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us through the commandments and challenged us to Laasok B’divrei Torah- to engage in the study of Torah. The word Laasok to engage in the study of Torah is the key verb. That is the pathway of seeking that the Rabbi of Kotzk was teaching his disciples about in trying to set up appropriate expectations for finding the so-called spiritual life. It is not the finding that unites us but it is the seeking of knowledge and wisdom from the wellsprings of our faith that brings us together and makes learning a sacred act.