Judaism also asks that we find the unique path God has created for us

Leviticus 25:1-27:34
Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Lately, when asked what I do, I often say that I listen to people talk about God. I recently had the good fortune of sitting with a group of people, the first national meeting of Jewish spiritual directors, all of whom do the same. All of these people serve as companions to Jews who seek a regular, formal relationship dedicated to talking about the presence of the divine in the midst of ordinary life. Needless to say, it was a profoundly holy gathering.

Strikingly, many of us, working in different contexts, different movements and in different regions of the country, had had a similar experience: Other Jews had challenged us on whether talking about one’s personal connection to the divine is authentically Jewish. As the argument goes, Jewish life is not about personal faith; it is about observance of mitzvot, study of Torah, acts of kindness and work for the betterment of the world. As for prayer, well, that is a part of Judaism, but primarily on the collective level — speaking as part of the Jewish people’s collective conversation with God. As for pouring out my heart to God about my own life — that just doesn’t seem like something that Jews do.

In response, one of the rabbis present invited us to consider a stunning verse from the book of Psalms. “… I come with a scroll, a book written on my very being. To do what pleases You, my God, is my desire; Your teaching is in my innermost parts.” (Psalms 40:8-9)

The psalmist says that divine guidance is written in a book lodged in the center of his being. Not the Torah in the ark, the Torah of our people, but the Torah written on the individual’s heart. I found this to be a powerful challenge to the conventional wisdom that, for Jews, all of religious life is collective.

The Sefat Emet offers a similarly stunning teaching, based on the first words of Parashat Behukotai (the second half of this week’s double portion). He ponders the key word hukota (my laws) in the verse “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my mitzvot.” (Leviticus 26:3) “It is within a person’s power to see the ways and patterns that God has inscribed into the human soul. The Midrash says that laws are called hukkim [literally: “inscriptions, engravings”] because they are carved within us. …”

This brilliant piece of midrashic etymology relates the word hukkim (laws) to a Hebrew root that means to inscribe or engrave. The ways of the divine, the keys to living a holy life, he asserts, are carved deep within us. If we desire it, we can look deep inside and find the God-given wisdom that can direct us, day by day and moment by moment, to choose the good, the kind, the wise way to live, rather than succumbing to the power of small-minded concerns or temptations.

This suggests that Torah is not a distant body of collective wisdom given to our people long ago, studied in our sacred books. This same Torah is engraved in each of our souls, so that we each have within exactly what we need to live a godly life, if we but will it.

This is already a radical reading, imagining the Torah as written inside us. But so far, what is being described is the Torah, the universal Torah, written identically on your soul and on mine.

But the rebbe elaborates that the Torah engraved on each soul is unique to each person. “Each Jew has certain particular paths to walk. One who serves God, longing always to find those paths that are unique to him, will be led by God in a true way. …” (“The Language of Truth,” ed. Arthur Green, p. 211)

Let me be clear. The rebbe is by no means diminishing the commanding sanctity of the Torah of the People of Israel, suggesting that we attend only to the unique Torah that is inscribed with each of us. But he resoundingly exhorts us to work with all of our strength to find the particular life path that the Infinite has created for us.

Are you shocked? Perhaps the “conventional wisdom” that matters of personal faith are to be left to another religion is not completely true. Judaism gifts us with extraordinarily rich teaching about living a life grounded in community. But our tradition teaches, too, that each of us has our own connection to the One, written deep within us, waiting to be sought and discovered.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.