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Op-Ed: Why Judaism is not Confined to Spirituality

by Rabbi Pinchas Allouche

…And What Matters Most In Judaism

Peace, Love, and Friends

What comes to mind, when you hear the word “peace”? How about the words “love”, “friendship” or “spirituality”?

Unfortunately, many words in our modern-day vocabulary have been butchered pitilessly by influential groups, corporate circles and individuals. The word “peace”, for instance, does not convey the basic meaning it once had. Just a few decades ago, “peace”, meant, at least, the complete absence of war. Today, the United Nations and many figures behind the so-called “peace initiatives” worldwide, have introduced a new meaning to this noble word. The state of “peace”, in their view, can include occasional disruptions such as bombs or ‘Kassam rockets’ (as the Israeli “peace process” has demonstrated). The word “love” is another disturbing example. The simplistic, beautiful and pure sentence of “I love you,” lacks the connotations it once echoed. Ask the average person and you’ll see that “love” is now a sophisticated word and an enigmatic mystery. And how about the word “friend”? Until recently, a friend was a trusted confidant with whom you shared a deep emotional bond, transcending even family ties. Alas today, a friend is no better than a stranger in the streets. According to Facebook, Myspace and the like, this word relates merely to a ‘contact’ that one may have never spoken to or seen!

Re-defining an Essential Notion

Above all, there exists a word that has had a profound impact on our civilization. Some are even willing to sacrifice their lives for it. Innumerable people are ready to travel to distant places or engage in tedious activities to experience it, even if they do not have a full grasp of its meaning. The word? “Spirituality.” But can a person truly be “spiritual”? Can one truly escape the organized structures of this world, and flee to metaphysical spheres void of regulations and obligations?

The average person, especially if they are part of the so-called “happy-go-lucky” groups, will tell you that “spirituality” is synonymous to a state of holiness. However, upon further analysis, spirituality has absolutely no connection to holiness. According to the esteemed Oxford dictionary, spirituality “relates to or affects the human spirit as opposed to material or physical things.” Hence, what we think and what we feel, is all part of the spiritual realm. All immaterial, non-tangible feelings, such as hatred and love, greed and selflessness, are categorically “spiritual”.

If spirituality was just about a feeling, then spirituality does not have any value for it can be good or bad, happy or sad, meaningful or shallow. And although there have been many attempts to equate spirituality with goodness, it is evidently untrue. There can be institutions, such as the Nazi Regime or the Stalin Administration, that are spiritual and evil, as much as there could be institutions that are spiritual and good. “It is a pity that as children, we acquire confused notions about matter and spirit,” my dear mentor once wrote. “[And] we will remain confused as adults – unless we define these words by their simple, proper meanings.”1

The essential meaning of spirituality must primarily be understood in the context of Judaism as it is perceived by many, as a word that is interchangeable with misguiding implications.

What Is Judaism?

At its very core, Judaism has never been “spiritual” per se. In fact, the overwhelming commandments of the Torah are entirely non-spiritual. Good deeds and practical actions, such as charity, women lighting Shabbat candles and men wearing philacterals (“tefillin”), were always the focus of Jewish attention. “What matters most is the deed,”2 Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, the head of the Jewish tribunal court (“Sanhedrin”) in the 1st Century, taught.

Furthermore, even the spiritual obligations in Judaism, are dressed with a very physical appearance. The goal of learning, a-priori a spiritual act, is strongly connected to physical action. The Talmud recounts an empowering anecdote on this idea: “Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were dining in the city of Lod, when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva said: Study is greater. Everyone then said: Study is greater because it leads to action.”3 Even the ritual of prayer, which is seemingly wholly spiritual, is described as a physical ritual in the foremost book of Kaballah, the Zohar4: “the time of prayer, is the time of battle.” Prayer, in Judaism, is a battle that must eventually lead a person to change and to an actual triumph over the evil inclinations.

It is also interesting to note that there exists an elucidating distinction between Judaism and other religions in the field of praiseworthy titles. Whilst other religions, such as Buddhism, have embraced the term of “spiritual leader” with much reverence, Judaism has somewhat dismissed it. Instead, Judaism’s finest were often adorned with the title of “Anshei Maasei ,” Men of Action5. For in Judaism, it is not the existential question of “where you are” that counts, but rather, “who you are and what do you do.”

“How Can I Feel G-d?”

On Monday, November 5, 2007, I had the privilege of attending a lecture delivered by world-renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in San Francisco. At the conclusion of the lecture, a lady asked the Rabbi: “Rabbi, how can I feel G-d? How can I come close to G-d?” With his typical wit, the Rabbi responded: “My dear, you have asked two separate questions. Feeling G-d, as some have demonstrated in strong contrast to my opinion, can be achieved with a few milligrams of LSD… But if you wish to come close to G-d, there are six hundred and thirteen ways to do so (i.e.- the biblical commandments)!”

The message is clear: spirituality is for spiritual beings, such as our souls. And even their spirituality is contingent on our actions in this world. We must therefore learn to channel our thoughts and efforts toward action. One may, and sometimes – should, indulge in hours of meditation and self-reflection. But at the end of the day, it is a person’s actions that mold his life. As Rabbi Steinsaltz wisely implied, life is not about our feelings alone. It is about the concrete path of actions we choose. A smile, a helping hand, a generous act will reverberate in the world infinitely more than a spiritual thought or word.

Victor Hugo, the 19th Century French poet, once wrote: “Our acts make or mar us – we are the children of our own deeds.”

So whose child will you choose be?

4 Comments

  • 1. Inspired wrote:

    Thank you Pinchas Allouche once again for the inspiring article. To-the-point and revealing! It’s a good answer to those who say: “I’m not religious but spiritual”!

  • 2. Shazaam M wrote:

    I’m speechless.

    ACTION:
    Recommend this to anyone & everyone!
    and so much more..

    Gotta go,

    -Be well

  • 3. Insightful wrote:

    We should see more like this one

    It also serves as a response to the Op-Ed ‘A Letter From Somebody’

    Puts things into perspective

  • 4. Friend wrote:

    Wow! Yasher Koach, Rabbi Allouch, for another masterpiece… Keep up all the great work you do! – Your friends and fans in Alanta

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