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This is a part of the Music that Inspires Series. You can read the introduction here: https://nertamid.net/sermons/music-that-inspires/

Defining Spirituality: A Journey

Part 1

Though the story certainly starts earlier, let’s begin about 18 years ago in a yeshiva in Southern Israel, named Kerem B’Yavneh. I spent a year and a half studying in this Yeshiva, and like many teenagers, my years in Israel was a time of transformation and growth. Endless hours of Talmud study, in-depth immersion into Jewish philosophy, searing introspection, in the holiest of lands, something was bound to give.

One of, if not the most important factor in making those years so special was one particular teacher. A brilliant Talmudic scholar, a deep thinker, and a real character. As a young idealistic teenager, I drank in his words thirstily and uncritically.

While we spent most of our day immersed in the study of the Talmud, this teacher would from time to time give us moral instructions, what we call, mussar. One of the themes that he would come back to time and time again was his disparagement of those who spent their days or evenings sitting around and singing. “It feels good,” he would say, “but that’s all it is, just a warm and fuzzy feeling!”

I remember once letting him know that I spent a Shabbos in Tzfat. Tzfat is a city in Northern Israel known for its spiritual seekers. And he lovingly said to me, “Motzen, I don’t want to hear about it. Let me know when you spend a Shabbos in the Chevron Yeshiva,” – one of the most prestigious Yeshivas in Israel, “then I’ll be happy.”  

It was the same point – singing, the arts, it is just fluff! It may make you feel good, but it has nothing to do with living a good Jewish life in line with the Torah.

In retrospect, I most certainly misinterpreted the message this teacher was trying to convey, but at the time, under his influence, I developed a first draft definition of spirituality. It’s a little dry but it’s also rooted deeply in Jewish sources and that is this: Spirituality comes from the word spirit. It is the opposite of anything physical. The most spiritual thing of all is G-d. How do you come close to G-d? Mitzvos. And so, the performance of any Mitzvah brings one closer to G-d and is therefore spiritual.

This idea is found in countless Jewish mystical sources. How do we come close to G-d, the ultimate spirit? And they all answer that Mitzvos, on some deep indiscernible level, brings us close to G-d. I may not know why or how, I may not feel any different, but it works. By way of analogy, I compose an email, I put in a certain recipients’ email address, press send, and I know that it gets to its destination whether or not I understand how it gets there. Similarly, G-d gave us Mitzvos through which we connect to Him, whether we see it, or feel it. And so, performing Mitzvos is synonymous with being spiritual.   

What this idea does not address is, what is that feeling we experience when we watch a beautiful sunset, take in a beautiful painting, get swept up in a powerful symphony, or read some stimulating poetry? Just a feeling?! It’s hard to imagine but I forged on.

This is more than an academic exercise in defining a term, the ramifications of this definition are far-reaching. Our feelings and emotions are the greatest window into our soul. If we ignore them or dismiss them, we do not really know ourselves. Worse, if we have strong emotions and we push them away, we’re left feeling disoriented.

And for years this is exactly what I did. Instead of asking why I felt so interested in praying, studying, and doing Mitzvos one day and struggled mightily to find that feeling on the next, I just ignored it and pushed through.

In light of this definition of spirituality, for years, I didn’t really listen to music. You may find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I had a good friend who would spend some time each evening listening to music, and frankly, I saw it as childish. All it does is give you some hard-to-define fuzzy feeling and that is fluff.

If you know me, you know that I am an emotional person, and so you could only imagine what this mindset did to me. I still don’t even know what it did to me, but it definitely closed off a certain part of my personality.

Fast-forward a few years and I became exposed to the writings of what to me is one of the most unique Jewish thinkers, one which, ironically, that same teacher would talk about often – Rav Tzadok HaKohein. Rav Tzadok was a somewhat obscure Polish Chassidic rabbi whose writings, in the past few years, have experienced a little bit of a renaissance. One thing I noticed in his writings is how seriously he would take emotions. Rav Nachman of Breslov, a far more well-known 19th century Chassidic rabbi also spoke in emotional terms, but he would seem to be describing something more akin to depression. Rav Tzadok, on the other hand, would be describing highs and lows; feelings of closeness and distance. Far more subtle than Bresov writing, and to me, much more relatable.

And I was confused. It’s just emotions. What does it even mean to say that you feel close or distant from G-d? Or that you feel more spiritual or less so? Spiritually isn’t a feeling.

Or is it?

And so, I was faced with a conundrum of sorts, trying to understand how those feelings can be taken seriously and at the same time, not giving up on my old definition of spirituality which has nothing to do with emotions. I was confused.

 

I am going to pause my little story and continue next week. In the meantime, I’d like to share some questions that I’ve been thinking about: Have you ever tried to define spirituality? Is spirituality an emotion/ state of being/ a way of life? In line with your definition, what are things that feel most spiritual to you? Have you felt more spiritual or less spiritual these past few months? Take a few moments and try to figure out why that is the case?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.