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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - June 2014
From the Rabbi - June 2014 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:
    Unless some extraordinary circumstances intervene, this will be the last Newsletter column I shall write.  Next month’s issue will be headlined by the words of Rabbi Emanuel.
I’ve thought long and hard about what theme I should address with you in these closing remarks, and I have decided that I ought to focus my comments on the topic of SPIRITUALITY.
    The term was hardly ever used in Jewish circles until the 1960s.  Then, it became the buzz-word of the decade.  In a caricature portrait, the spiritual Jew was wrapped in an oversized tallit, adorned by kippah and even tefilliin, rapt in meditative davening and prayer, chanting a niggun (a syllabic melody without words) and swooning to the warm and fuzzy insights of the human potential movement while he or she desperately sought to recapture a lost personal identity.  The extreme manifestation of this style was the “JewBu,” who combined Jewish intellectualism and Buddhist meditation in a creative synthesis.  People who could not adopt the new-age forms of Jewish spirituality were told they were not “spiritual,” which was always meant as a detraction and put-down.
    Pendulums have a striking tendency to swing.  The movement of Jewish spirituality was a swing away from the ultra-rationalism of earlier days.  For Reform Jews whose religious style emerged from the 1920s and 1930s, religion was exclusively from the neck up.  Even during the Aleinu which counsels us to bow the head and bend the knee, the prayer books of the previous ages either made this into a universal and non-physical affirmation or suggested that we simply “bow our heads.”  One did not sway or otherwise use bodily movement in worship.  There was no ritual garb; I have even heard ushers tell men to remove their hats.  And the congregation did not dare sing along with the professional choir who, after all, possessed exceptional voices.  If one even thought to join in with the singing, other congregants would turn and glare until the offender slinked down in silent compliance in the pew.  But this era has ended and, in the 1960s the pendulum swung vigorously in the other direction.
    These were days of experimentation and individual styles of worship.  Small havurot and minyanim sprang up across the country in which small groups of like-minded Jews gathered to express the full and free range of their unique passion.  Intellect was deemed passe; what now counted was the full-bodied emotionalism with which they approached their religious involvements.  Yet this pendulum swing also contained its own self-correction, and that’s where we are today.
    I think we have now come to three healthy realizations.  The first is that intellect and emotion need to find a balance in our religious expression.  No Jew would ever seriously counsel abandoning our traditional quest for a highly-developed life of the mind.  We have made our mark in the world – and always will – based on our creativity and inventiveness, on our ability to compete in arenas of human endeavor that depend on mental acuity.  And yet to neglect the ninety-plus percent of ourselves that lies from the neck down now strikes us as unfairly dismissive of gifts that God has given us.  We need to find new ways to take full advantage of both body and mind if we are express our Jewish selves in the most complete manner.  The second insight our new situation demands of us it that each individual will need to craft his or her own balance.  We have swung beyond that point where one synthesis fits all; each of us is entitled to figure out a Jewish style that fits personally.  And finally, we ought to recognize that spirituality is not linked alone to worship.  To be sure, there can be exalted moments of heightened spirituality in the sanctuary, whether the sanctuary of the synagogue or the sanctuary of nature.  But some people may find an equally valid and compelling spirituality in tikkun olam as they reach out to help repair the brokenness of our society.  Some may find it in concentrated study.  And some of us may approach the ideal of a spiritual life rooted in the ultimate Jewish ideal, as expressed in Pirke Avot 1:2:  
    Simon the Righteous…[said]: The world stands on three things: study of the Torah, worship and doing loving acts of kindness.
    May you be favored with a spiritual life that embodies all of these virtues and may God bless each and every one of you.
Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi



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