Jewish Spirituality & Tradition

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A Reconstructionist Approach That’s Open, Inclusive, Relevant and Creative

Here are some of the excellent questions asked by participants at our annual Kallah/Retreat a few months ago:

  1. In creating Reconstructionism, was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan trying to express a form of Judaism to both accommodate American individualism and Jewish continuity and community?
  2. I’m spiritual, but not religious, so how are spirituality and religion related
  3. How much time do I need to carve out of my (busy) schedule in order to pursue a daily spiritual practice?
  4. Does religion help someone become a mentsch or does it get in the way? Why are so many so-called religious people unethical?
  5. Are people ultimately and primarily accountable to their various communities – civic, religious and professional – or to themselves?

The theme was “Jewish Spirituality And Tradition: A Reconstructionist Approach That’s Open, Inclusive, Relevant And Creative” and the readings focused on community, observance and spirituality (paralleling the “belonging, behaving and believing” of Reconstructionism).

I spoke and members of the congregation led discussion groups – which really were full of active and insightful discussion. The participants chose the theme months in advance, as they do each year, and were truly interested in exploring the topic. Parallel sessions for children addressed the same themes in age appropriate ways and we all came together for services, meals and a talent show (featuring University Synagogue’s newest anthem “This Shul Is Your Shul” – sung to “This Land Is Your Land” – “from Yorba Linda to the Anaheim Hills, from the Irvine highway to the Newport waters, this shul belongs to you and me.”)

What did we learn? Spirituality: There are many ways to be spiritual – through values, politics, nature, study, culture and deeds of kindness. There’s quiet inward spirituality and more active searching – all focused on truth and goodness. One can even be a spiritual agnostic/atheist or an aspiritual religionist, for we all know people for whom religion is just rote belief and behavior.

We spoke about Ruach (the spirit within) and Neshama (a modern view of “soul”) and the need to develop mind, heart, vision and imagination throughout one’s life. Like physical exercise, we need to work at keeping in shape spiritually – at home, at work, socially and at synagogue. Self-discipline is required and a commitment to intention, consciousness and awareness.

Community: True community requires a mutual and reciprocal commitment to and from others, what we, in Judaism, call Brit/Covenant. Jews used to put “Jewish community” first, but today, we live in a more secular society that values individuality and that offers competing covenants, so our responsibilities are, in fact, greater. People who are active in synagogues and other organizations know that life lived with and for others is incredibly rewarding. We know that our lives are worthy because we see it in the eyes of those we serve and we welcome being shaped by others as we shape them. Some people are more private and that needs to be respected, but, over time, even those who once hesitated to see themselves as group-oriented can learn the benefits of giving love and care to wider circles of humanity.

One of our obligations is to create opportunities for Jewish education and literacy for children and adults to enjoy now and for the future. Not everyone has the time or inclination to learn more Jewish prayer skills, Hebrew, observances, history and about Israel and world Jewry, but we all have a role in sustaining synagogues, schools, summer camps and more so that others can learn.

Jews are a peculiar people – we are a full part of the world, but we also insist on a certain degree of distinction and separateness. No Jewish institution or organization is as equipped as a synagogue to create that balance as well as a lifelong relationship with children and adults that will ensure the Jewish future.

Observance: We studied Pesach, in depth, as an example of how observances can humanize us. Each of the pilgrimage festivals has a meta-message: Pesach – liberation, Shavuot – inspiration and Sukkot – searching for fulfillment. Pesach is the paradigmatic Jewish experience and we are “Exodus people.” We became a people in Biblical times by transforming our marginality into self-confidence and power. Now we have a responsibility to others. Thirty-six times in the Torah – more than any other idea in those five books – we are reminded that we know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers/slaves in a strange land/in the land of Egypt.

Our sacred narratives have formed us and continue to do so. The history of a Torah story is less important than how it has shaped us ethically, psychologically and spiritually. The Pesach of the past (Pesach Mitzrayim) needs to transform us now (Pesach Dorot) as we shape the liberations of the future (Pesach L’Atid).

That’s why we rewrite Haggadot in every generation – to tell the story in a new, more relevant way and to understand that the Seder is a “back to the future” experience. We tell an old story to create a new reality and, in the process, we renew ourselves and recreate Judaism. Celebrating sacred time reminds us to make sacred space wherever we live and to heal the world, what we call Tikkun Olam.

The Kallah is always an experience for the mind and heart as well as for new friendships and personal insight. The tentative date of the 2015 Kallah is May 1 – May 3. Circle it now on your personal calendars. Bring your children and grandchildren. Don’t miss it.


 Rabbi Arnold Rachlis

January 1st 2014 |