A very rocky road to spirituality

As young Jews seek inner fulfilment, they are turning away from the community


By Naftali Brawer, April 30, 2009
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A study conducted by researchers at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati Ohio has concluded that young American Jews are increasingly replacing ethnic identification with identification through spirituality. That is to say that, in the past, young Jews identified with Judaism on an ethnic level through such aspects as food, language, ritual practice and a sense of shared kinship with other Jews. Today, however, it seems this is being replaced by a quest for a sense of purpose and meaning, manifested in the growing interest in Kabbalah and such phenomena as Jewish healing.

These findings have significant implications for the nature of Jewish identity in the modern world. Jewish leaders have to decide whether this shift from ethnicity to spirituality is a positive or negative development.

On the surface, it appears positive. Few would argue with the sentiment that the Jewish community would benefit from young Jews being driven by a sense of purpose and personal meaning. Yet, despite the obvious benefits of having a generation of spiritually motivated young Jews, the quest for spirituality comes with a price tag --- a detachment from traditional rituals and the abandonment of Jewish peoplehood.

If spiritually questing young Jews are unable to discover a sense of personal meaning in their own traditions, they will have no qualms about seeking it elsewhere. This has implications not just for their relationship with synagogal movements and Jewish charities but also for their relationship with the state of Israel. Young spiritual questers cannot be counted on automatically to support any of these causes unless they can be convinced that there is some transcendent purpose in what they are doing.

“Simply asking Jews about raising money for Israel or Jewish causes, and expecting they’ll do it just because they’re Jewish, is yesterday’s thinking,” argues HUC professor Lawrence Hoffman, a co-author of the study.

I believe this is the result of a growing dichotomy between spirituality and tradition. Many young Jews are uncomfortable under the weight of tradition, rules and authority, believing that these hamper the type of free expression of spirituality they so desperately seek.

In this, they are mistaken. Unfettered expressions of spirituality are nothing more than self-gratification. For a Jewish spiritual experience to have any veracity, it must be on God’s terms, not on one’s own. While free expressions of spirituality can often result in powerful emotional experiences, these are in essence driven by sentimentality, which should not be confused with genuine spirituality.

The problem with the young Jews in the HUC study is that they unfortunately do confuse sentimentality with genuine spirituality. It is not entirely their fault. The study also refers to a lack of spiritual vocabulary in contemporary American Jewry. In contrast with, say, evangelical Christians, most Jews do not have the language to talk about or even to contemplate Godliness and spirituality. Jewish institutions, such as synagogues and schools, are more comfortable discussing Jewish ethics, values and practice than they are talking about God.

It is no wonder that, when looking for God, so many young people look outside their own traditions. America is not unique in this regard; many Anglo-Jews suffer from a similar form of spiritual illiteracy.

The solution to this problem is for Jewish leaders to start bringing God and genuine spirituality back into Jewish institutions, particularly the synagogue. I do not mean happy clappy, New Age, token spiritualism. I mean a profound spirituality grounded in our ancient traditions. We have more than an ample vocabulary to discuss God. We have an entire language that is rich and complex, the esoteric language of Midrash, Kabbalah, Musar and Chasidut. It is the sister of the exoteric language of Jewish Law expressed through the Mishnah, Talmud and Halachic Codes. A basic knowledge of both languages is necessary to living a meaningful Jewish life. For too long we have promoted one at the expense of the other. It is time we redress the balance.

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the minister of Borehamwood Synagogue and regular contributor to the JC’s ‘Rabbi, I have a problem’ column

    Last updated: 11:06am, April 30 2009