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The stream of spirituality, or lost at sea
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36
by Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Temple Emanuel of South Hills
Mar 25, 2010 | 1945 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This spring marks my 30th anniversary at Temple Emanuel, 25 years as senior rabbi. Shortly after I arrived in 1980, the president of Temple Emanuel told me of a conversation she’d had with my predecessor, who was also my classmate and friend in rabbinic school. She asked him to describe me in one word. A Harvard grad, he balked at a terse summation for any person, but the president pressed him. So at last he said, “spiritual.” When the president told me this story, I was flattered. Today, I appreciate that my friend intended “spiritual” as a compliment, yet as I look back upon it, I wonder about the meaning of this word.

Consider. There is no word in Torah, Bible or rabbinic literature for “spiritual.” The absence of “spiritual” suggests that there was no need to define something as “spiritual” because spirituality permeated every word in the traditional library of our sacred literature. Today “spirituali” has seeped into spoken Hebrew as an English loan word that Israelis use more frequently than “ruchani,” a modern derivative of the Hebrew word for spirit, “ruach.”

Yet many Jews today define themselves as “spiritual.” This definition is different than “observant” and very different than “Shomer Shabbes,” yet surely it cannot be confused with “secular.” Merely by numbers, “spiritual” Jews might qualify as a new stream of Judaism, along with Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox. As someone who was once described as being “spiritual,” here is what I surmise the term means.

Spiritual means seeking moments of transcendence, and feeling the presence of God. Feeling seems more central than knowing. Feeling is also more central than doing, specifically more central than keeping mitzvot, although spiritual also seems to imply morality grounded in God. At face value, nothing is wrong with all this. But it is easy to lose one’s moral bearings in the quest for good feelings. Moreover spiritual just isn’t identifiable as Judaism per se. Any person can be spiritual. Perhaps shunning the burdens the world has foisted upon Jews is another purpose of describing oneself as spiritual. Concurrently, spiritual seems so private and personal. No one else is needed to float upon this stream of the spiritual. No need for Shabbat services, no need for community, no need for rabbis and teachers, no need for synagogues.

“Belonging Without Believing” is how one demographer characterizes our American Jewish community. In fact, with the rate of un-affiliation in synagogues at 60 percent, the more accurate characterization is “Believing Without Belonging.” This new spiritual stream is a major tributary to these demographic rapids, pouring into an ocean of oblivion for the Jewish people and for Judaism. American Jews who flow with this stream soon find themselves adrift and lost in a sea of their own spirituality, solipsists at best, at worst makers of their own Golden Calves.

To them, the Torah casts Tzav as a lifeline. This second portion of the Book of Leviticus is almost a repetition of the first portion, Vayikra. Both describe the five major sacrifices offered by our biblical ancestors. Vayikra describes the sacrifices from the “outside-in,” that is, what the people would bring to the priests in worship of God. Tzav now describes the sacrifices from the “inside out,” that is, how the priests would actually offer the sacrifices. The two portions work hand in hand. One without the other is the sound of one hand clapping: silence, oblivion, abyss.

Moments of personal piety and transcendence have always been part of Judaism, but at its essence, Judaism is a public, communal, cooperative religion. The people and the priests working together exemplify the Torah’s synergy of the Jewish people celebrating and observing Judaism. The Jewish people and Judaism: only two hands clapping can make a joyful noise unto God.

If you are reading this D’var Torah, you are likely an identified, affiliated, caring and committed Jew. So take this lifeline from Torah, Tzav, and toss it to the many people you no doubt know who are adrift and lost on this sea they call spirituality. Spirituality expresses their yearning. Their yearning is a reflection of their innate Yiddishe Neshamah. Only Judaism can truly fulfill them. Bring them to your congregation this Shabbat. Study Tzav together. Share your Shabbat dinner table. Have them over for Havdalah. Take hold of their hands and make this joyful noise unto God called Judaism.

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