American Jews don’t understand dangers of spirituality

The emergence of a personalized and spiritualized brand of Judaism among diaspora Jewish denominations is a fascinating phenomenon. It is also a dangerous development, which poses a real threat to Jewish continuity.

The search for spirituality among American Jews is all the rage, with Jewish Renewal and kabbalistic healing retreats as stock items on the community calendar.

Entire synagogue movements have taken to producing experimental and “progressive” Jewish “discovery ceremonies,” which seek to combine touchy-feely celebrations of the sunrise with stories of Elisha the mystical prophet and some fuzzy sense of meaning for Jews in almost-everything-goes America.

What’s wrong with this quest?

Professor Charles Liebman of Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University is a leading political sociologist of American Jewry. He is also a Conservative Jew. Liebman argues that a privatized, spiritualist Judaism is a serious problem because it releases Jews from religious obligations and consequently weakens their commitment to collectives, such as the Jewish people.

The fluctuations inherent in spiritualized Judaism, he says, do not make for a stable, coherent framework for Jewish group identity and continuity.

Liebman has tracked the shift in America away from what he calls “ethnic Judaism” toward “privatized religion.” Ethnic Judaism emphasizes themes such as peoplehood, community and solidarity. Its exceptional moments are fund-raising Super Sundays and collective mobilizations for Israel.

Privatized religion, in contrast, speaks in softer terms of individual meaning, journeys of discovery and personal fulfillment. Its emphases are interpersonal rather than collective. It is focused on self-realization through episodic, emotional experience and thus is intuitive and nonbinding. Liebman says this reduces Jewishness to an acquired taste, a take-it-or-leave-it affair.

Indeed, Liebman charges, spirituality is not the answer to the Jewish problem in America. It is the problem. Spirituality substitutes anarchy for the Jewish concept of obligation to, and responsibility before, an awesome and authoritative God.

The spirituality kick, warns Liebman, proffers a Judaism focused upon the legitimation of self and the kinds of lives American Jews already have chosen to lead. It allows American Jews to relate to Judaism as an informal, leisure-time activity, something to tinker with until you feel good or high.

Spirituality taken as the ultimate Jewish goal also blurs the distinctions between Jew and non-Jew. Experience-based religiosity has no intrinsic justification for exclusion or boundaries; it necessarily includes all who are partner to the inspirational moment.

Consider, for example, the “Living Waters Weekend” offered at Temple Adath Or in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

This Jewish Renewal retreat includes the following: “Optional sunrise walk and meditation. Musical workshop service at the ocean. Guided conscious eating at breakfast. Water exercises for body toning. Yoga with Kabbalah. Outdoor games, time for massage. Sacred gathering for men and women. Poetry readings and music. Havdallah ritual on the beach. Sunrise co-ed mikvah ritual in the ocean. Breakfast celebration with new affirmation. Kabbalistic meditation. Sacred sharing ceremony.”

This is Judaism? Does anybody believe that such licentious gobbledygook will ensure Jewish continuity?

Liebman reminds us that we are commanded to be a holy, not a spiritual, people. This means the emphasis in traditional Judaism is on living a virtuous life, a holy life.

Holiness evokes an outside source whom we obey and a code of behavior to which we submit. It is achieved in a minyan, as part of a public, standardized observance. Holiness is not achieved through trendy transcendence, super-personalized other-worldliness, or ever-adjustable healing rituals at the poolside.

Sure, echoes of spirituality can be found in traditional sources and movements, and these saintly strokes provide an important balance to the system of order and rigorous ritual mandated by Jewish law. Israeli Orthodoxy, for example, is in desperate need of such balance.

But in the absence of order and obedience to tradition, spirituality becomes a disastrous free-for-all, a recipe for Jewish discontinuity.

Why is this happening? Because Judaism in America, Liebman says, has become excessively market-oriented. Synagogues seek to attract as many new members as possible by “satisfying” them. This means that congregations tend to accept and accommodate prevailing American cultural norms rather than rejecting or seeking to restructure those norms.

Marketplace religion, however, threatens the integrity of the faith.

Not everything that contributes to synagogue growth and makes congregants feel comfortable about being Jewish in liberal America is necessarily in accord with Jewish theology. Rabbis who do not aggressively declare “Here I stand,” but ask instead “Where would you like me to stand?” lose the ability and authority to transmit any essence of Judaism.

According to demographer Sergio Della Pergola of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, more than half of the 8 million Jews in the diaspora are likely to disappear over the next century. Alas, phony, flimsy spirituality will not save them.