Jewish spirituality between East and West

We live in times where for many young adults, spirituality, experience, feeling and imagination take the place of doing, and they look to the East for guidance. What does this mean for Judaism?

Rochel Sylvetsky, | updated: 10:00

OpEds Be, Become, Bless
Be, Become, Bless
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

The new cycle of weekly Torah readings has just begun, making this a good time to look for new books on the weekly portion, either for enriching one's own knowledge or for discussion at the Sabbath table. Rabbi Dr, Yakov Nagen's book Be Become Bless, Jewish Spirituality between East and West, recently translated into English, is a unique example of that genre.  First published in Hebrew six years ago and titled  Lehitorer Le’Yom Hadash (Awakening to a New Day), its insights, engaging stories and thoughtful analyses, accompanied by wide-ranging, enriching use of literature, philosophy, music and films, are faithfully preserved in the English version.

In his first sentence, Rabbi Nagen introduces the underlying theme of this unusual and original collection of Divrei Torah on the parasha, writing: "The growing search for spirituality is a sign of the time we live in. As materiality becomes more attainable, so is the desire to find meaning in life."

In fact, Rabbi Nagen's own life exemplifies the first sentence in that statement. He is a Talmud and Kabbalah teacher at the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva in the Hevron Hills, has a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University and is active in interfaith dialogue between Judaism and (Sufi) Islam and in encounters between Judaism and Eastern religions. He has, naturally, been to India and many of his writings have been translated into Chinese. He was profiled in Tablet magazine as one of the ten “Israeli Rabbis You Should Know."

As can be inferred from the above, Rabbi Nagen's outlook on spirituality is broad and not limited to Judaism.  "I see spirituality as a vital and fundamental impulse at the heart of Judaism and indeed of religion in general" he has said, while the book contains many examples of his belief that "the use of the broader term of spirituality facilitates encompassing a broader range of ideas and sources, especially those outside of Judaism." These statements may raise eyebrows in the yeshiva world, but it seems to me that he is laying the groundwork for inclusion not only of the broad expanse of spiritual experience, but of the many Jewish young adults who are under its influence.

The book posits another, deeper reason for the growing interest in spiritually, based on the thought of Israel's first Chief Rabbi Avraham Kook, iconic leader of Religious Zionism and quoted often in the book. Rabbi Nagen claims that the return to spirituality is much more pronounced in Israel than in the United States He explains:  "I see this in the context of exile and redemption," alluding to a basic idea in Rabbi Kook's outlook on a Jewish state. The revered Torah Sage saw in the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel the renewal of a concept he called the "Torah of Eretz Yisrael," - an opportunity for a religious life of totality, the reawakening of a spiritual dimension to Torah. This is in strong contrast to the Diaspora, where the Talmud (Brachot 8) tells us that in exile, “all God has in the world is the four amot of halakha” to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.


In Israel, a long contemplative trip to India after army or national service is almost a necessary rite of passage for young people...
The desire for spirituality in the Jewish state crosses the dividing line between today's Jewish secular and religious Zionist young adults. In Israel, a long contemplative trip to India after army or national service is almost a necessary rite of passage for young people before they decide on the direction they wish their lives to take. In fact, over 30,000 Israelis travel to India each year.

The trip, or just the quest itself, can take the seeker in less sanguine, directions. For the religiously observant, the downside of this search for experience and meaning is the possibility that it places performing the Torah's commandments on the back burner. A spiritual quest with its meditation and emphasis on self seems so much more important than a life of adherence to fine points of halakha. "What I do" can be seen as irrelevant in comparison to lofty heights of searching for "who I am."

This generation of young adult Religious Zionists is an especially restless one. While some may abandon the Torah world, the majority stay within observant circles on some level, sometimes one of their own creation. Many of those who do (and the hundreds of baalei teshuva) look to attain meaningful religious connection to Judaism through spiritual avenues - an inspiring leader, mentor, neo-Hassidism, kabbalistic studies– this describes both men and the many women who define feminism as a desire to deepen their knowledge of Torah -  and many have a different attitude to prayer than that of previous generations.

They are characterized by individualism and self-absorption (but also by volunteerism, self-sacrifice and chessed – an oxymoron?), rather than the traditional Jewish critical introspection. An observer may well wonder if this is a necessary and sufficient defining quality of a spiritual quest, or perhaps defines the generation itself.

In sharp contrast, the Litvish haredi world, where Israel's establishment is not seen as a sign of redemption, increasingly puts its emphasis and interest on stringent observance of the four amot of halakha, expending much effort to ensure remaining with its narrowest boundaries. It is sometimes hard to relate to that stringency and the inordinate amount of time spent on how to achieve it, but putting the thorny army issue and views on Zionism aside, there is no question that both the Litvish and the Hassidim realize that there is more to life than self-fulfillment. They realize that the Torah is a blueprint for a moral and just society to be achieved by keeping the mitzvot that ensure that society's continuity – do so and fulfillment will follow. (Religious Zionist involvement in every facet of Israeli society and its temptations may also serve to explain why that sector seems to be less successful in educating its youth to the value of detailed mitzvah observance.)

The raison d'etre for Rabbi Nagen's book, in addition to the interesting insights, is the fact that he addresses this burning issue in the Religious Zionist world. He asserts emphatically that a Torah life includes both mitzvah observance and spirituality – what he calls Western "doing" as well as Eastern "being," that both are encompassed in Torah and there is no contradiction between them. This idea is vitally important to young students trying to bridge the gap between India and a Jewish lifestyle, because Nagen negates the need to do so – he feels that one can live in peace and fulfillment melding both, making the point that halakha observance is an integral part of the whole person. To Nagen, the turn to the East where spirituality is simpler and all-encompassing should lead us back to the depths of our own tradition, Kabbalah, Hassidism, and a spiritual reading of Rabbinic texts.

However, this review us being written soon after the week of Simchat Torah in which Am Yisrael enjoyed hours of dancing with the holy scrolls, and I cannot help but wonder why, despite the fascinating connections brought in the book, we should look to the East for spirituality. Our rabbis tell us that dancing itself is a form of spiritual quest, that lifting one's foot from the floor in dance symbolizes an attempt to rise above the earthly and mundane, get closer to Hashem. In my view, watching Torah giants dance while holding the Torah close to their hearts is a deeper spiritual lesson than that of any guru.  Rabbi Nagen is realistic, however, and instead of fighting today's trend to look out of Judaism for spirituality, recognizes its worth, identifies with it, learns from it, and works within it, while showing that there is a wealth of spirituality in the Torah itself.

Rabbi Nagen uses the essays on the weekly parasha, (which has the same root as the Hebrew word for commentary, perush) as a vehicle for the idea that commentary is the dynamic part of the Torah, and that Torah is an amalgam of text and explanation, reminding readers that the Sages said that the Torah has 70 facets – and that  one of them – exemplified by the Zohar on the Torah- is spirituality.

That said, the first three Torah readings in the yearly cycle are then seen as symbolizing spiritual development: Breishit is the beginning of existence, Noach, reaching a state of tranquility (the meaning of the Hebrew word), and only then comes Lech Lecha, which can be understood as "go to your inner self" – an invitation to spirituality culminating in Vayera – enlightenment.  Rabbi Kook wrote that the prophet Ezekiel, who says "I am in exile" alludes to alienation from his real self.

One of the recurrent, crucial and powerful messages in the book for those seeking spiritual understanding is the need for setting boundaries in attempting to rise to spiritual heights. The laws of the Nazarite, the story of Aaron's two sons who died offering an alien fire in the Tabernacle and a discussion of the times when spirituality led to corruption serve as proofs of the need for remaining within those boundaries.

The parasha is also used as a starting off point for life lessons, such as discussing the need for listening to those we love in Shmini, learning from Moses how to rebuke someone in Devarim, changes in reality versus a change in our perception of reality in Shlach.

I found the spiritual interpretations in the book fascinating and reading it an enjoyable and thought provoking learning experience. Still, I am left wondering why young people don't realize that the Eastern society which fascinates them, concentrating only on "being" rather than "doing," is one where people are starving (a friend with business interests in India told me that he would give money to whatever beggars were outside the hotel in the morning and recognize some as the starved, dead bodies on the sidewalk when he came back at night), idol worship is routine, widows were burned with their husbands' bodies until recent times, and corruption is rampant. 

A Torah-true society could never include those aberrations. Able to soar to spiritual heights, but with a practical value system encompassing every aspect of life, the individual in a Torah milieu can contemplate "being" without lacking "doing."  And as Rabbi Nagen writes in the forward, this book is less a parasha book with insights about life than a book about life that follows the course of the parshiyot.




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