For The Spiritual But Not Religious...and The Religious But Not Spiritual©

For The Spiritual But Not Religious...and The Religious But Not Spiritual© 
 Kol Nidre, 5775/2014
Rabbi David Baum

Tonight, we cancelled out all Nedarim, all vows, that we will take this year, but I want to tell you the story of a Neder, a vow, that I took 18 years ago.

At the time, I was a college student at the University of Florida.  I was very active in Jewish life in high school, some might say, I was a Super Jew, but I thought that I wanted to take a break from it for a year, and take a break I did!  My Beit Knesset, place of gathering, became house parties, night clubs, and the football stadium.  One Friday night, I was approached by a friend of mine in the dorms asking me if I wanted to go to Hillel with her.  I looked at her, in a condescending way and said, “No thank you, I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” 

So where did I go instead of Hillel that Friday night for my spiritual journey.  An Ashram?  Lake Alice to meditate?  The Hare Krishna house? 

No, I went to a night club, I mean, it was Friday night after all. 

I will remember that night for the rest of my life, not because I had a good time, but because I came to a realization that evening. 

I held my plastic cup with a carbonated beverage, surrounded by young men and women seemingly having a great time, and I took a last gulp. 

And I looked down into my empty cup, and I felt that was something missing.

The cup was empty, and so was I, more empty than I had ever been before.  I was surrounded by people, and yet, I was utterly alone. 

Sure, I had been looking for moments of spirituality for months, but they never quite came to me. 

The neder I took that year led me on the path to become a Rabbi.   

I meet a lot of different people around town – and often times, the conversation changes when they find out that I’m a Rabbi. 

I get a couple of different reactions –like, the apology – I’m sorry I haven’t been to shul, I promise I’ll go to one soon! 

But sometimes, I’ll get the person who looks at me the same way that I looked at my friend – “Oh, you’re a rabbi…well, I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

The spiritual is the soul – the neshamah, and the religion is the body, the guf.  This is what I want to talk about tonight, and it’s the perfect night to discuss this. 

If I were to have met college aged self, I would offer him words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:  a body without a soul is a corpse, but a soul without a body is a ghost. 

Here is what I’ve learned about this phrase – Judaism doesn’t really separate the two – if you want to spiritual, you have to be religious, if you want to be religious, you have to be spiritual. 

There is a teaching from Pirkei Avot (2:4), the Ethics of our Fathers, that many of you might be familiar with:  Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur – You are not allowed to separate yourself from the community.  When I took that neder, I was going against this teaching.  But my question is, if you’ve never been part of a spiritual community, then how can you separate yourself from it? 

This is the reality for most Jews out there in the world. 

People often ask me, what motivates you to give sermons over the high holidays?  My answer:  Franz Rozensweig.  Not necessarily his teachings, but one day of his life. 

In October of 1913, Rozensweig was a 27 year old, child of wealthy and very assimilated German parents. 

Ten days before Yom Kippur, Rozensweig attended Rosh Hashanah services with his parents in his hometown of Kassel. A few days later, he went to speak with his mother, who was aware of the struggle he had been going through and already knew what he wanted to tell her. "You want to be baptized." Rosenzweig nodded his head and pointed to the Christian Bible he held in his hand. "Mother, here is everything. Here is the truth. There is only one way: Christianity." His mother asked him, "Weren't you in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah?" He answered, "Yes, and I will also go on Yom Kippur. Until I convert, I am still a Jew."

Why did Rozensweig feel this way?  Up until this point in his life, he knew very little about Judaism.  His parents wanted him to be Jewish, but they didn’t do any of the things that Jews do.  For example, he didn’t know what Shabbat was until he went to University.  He was a man of reason, and Judaism was an antiquated way of being for him.  His parents were Jewish in name only, and that wasn’t enough of a reason for him to continue their path. 

101 years ago to this day, Rozensweig went by himself to Kol Nidre services in a small synagogue near Berlin.  It was during that service that something happened to him that he never fully explained to anyone else. He wrote a friend: "After prolonged, and I believe, thorough self-examination, I have reversed my decision ... I will remain a Jew." For the rest of his life, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish study and teaching, and became one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.

Without that experience, we would not have his famous work, the Star of Redemption, and others. 

I work my hardest on this day because when I look out in the crowd at the young and unfamiliar faces, I see that 27-year-old young man staring back at me.  I see my college self-staring at me. 

I see a soul without a body giving us another chance. 

The 27 year old Rozensweig’s of today is the spiritual, but not religious. 

They aren’t joining a church, or a cult; in fact, they aren’t joining anything. 

The Pew Research Center has revealed that the fasting growing movement in Judaism is not any denomination, rather, it’s the nones – Jews of no religion, and the highest concentration of them are Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. 

But this is not the full picture.  These same Jews perform some Jewish practices; they just do them alone.  They are proud to be Jewish, but do not surround themselves with other Jews. 

Religion has gotten a bad wrap over the years, and rightfully so.  Some Pastors, priests, Imams, and Rabbis have done things they shouldn’t have, embezzling money and abusing children.  Many have lost faith in organized religion. 

But this is not religion. 

Combining spirituality and religion is not easy, but here’s my definition of the ideal state of being a Jew – being spiritual, together. 

Here’s my advice to those who are spiritual, but not religious.  I will not quote the line from Pirkei Avot, Do not separate yourselves from the community, but I will quote an older line – Kedoshim Tihu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Elohechem – I translate this phrase as a command - You all MUST be holy, for I am the Lord your God am holy.

The grammar here is interesting – it tells us that each one of must be holy, but we must also be holy together, all of us. 

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say – we may think we are searching for God, but as much as we search for God, God is searching for us. 

Can you pray alone?  Of course you can, but when you only pray alone, you lose something. 

There were moments of pure religion and spirituality this summer, when we collectively searched for God.  In response to the kidnapping of three boys by Hamas terrorists, their was a mass prayer vigil at the Kotel.  The parents of the boys asked the entire Jewish people to pray for the safe return of their children. 

During one of these prayer vigils, at the Kotel, some young girls approached one of the mothers of the kidnapped teens, Racheli Fraenkel, and asked, we are praying for the safe return of your son, but what if he doesn’t come back alive, do our prayers matter?  She answered them in the following way:  God doesn’t work for us.[1] 

She later explained what she meant, “Just because I’m praying with all my heart. It might help. I believe it could help, especially when thousands and millions are praying. They are. But nobody owes me anything. And if tomorrow, God forbid, I hear the worst news, I don’t want you to feel:  where did all my prayers go?  Prayer is very powerful but it’s not a guarantee for anything.” 

Prayer did not bring her son back, but it did unite a people.

She’s right, prayer is very powerful, and I think it’s heightened when we pray together.  God was searching for us, and we found each other.

Not only do religious practices help us connect to each other here, but they help us connect to our ancestors in the past, and our descendents in the future.  My brother came to me with a question – friends of his, two Jews, were getting married, but they were going to have a justice of the peace perform the wedding.  His friend asked for one thing though, a ketubah.  They didn’t know what the ketubah was for, just that it is a part of Jewish weddings.  I contacted them and told them about our rituals of marriage, how it connects us to the first couple Adam and Hava, and how they can bring God and community into our lives.  They agreed – and after the wedding, the couple thanked me with tears in their eyes.  They had no idea how beautiful our religious practices could be and how spiritual it could make them feel. 

Do you know what one of the most spiritual moments of the service can be – the prayer for healing.  I get calls all the time from the spiritual but not religious asking me to pray for their sick loved ones, as if my prayers will make a bigger difference.  The only reason they make a difference is because I pray with others who are also praying for the healing of their loved ones. 

You can’t get that feeling if you are only spiritual – being religious and spiritual means that you come together for one purpose, at a certain time, on a certain day.

It means that even though my day off from work is Monday, I share the Sabbath with you and the entire Jewish people on Saturday. 

It means that although I’m sure bacon might be delicious, full disclosure, I’ve never had it, I don’t eat it, because I’m both religious and spiritual – I believe that God wants me to eat in a certain way.  God also wants me to bless the food before and after, heightening my awareness to the food we eat.  In spiritual speak, it’s called mindful eating – pausing before one eats, savoring the food, thinking of who was a part of making the food we are ingesting.  God also wants me to share my food with those less fortunate, the most vulnerable in society.  That’s why when I go gleaning in the fields with my congregation, I am engaging in a deeply spiritual and religious act.  I’m providing vegetables for those who cannot afford them. 

So to those who are spiritual but not religious, I ask of you one thing of you– open your hearts to us, to our tradition and to our people, past, present and future, bring us into your lives, and we will bring you into our lives – take the vulnerability of today and bring it with you for the rest of the year.  In this coming year, do something different – journey on a path to holiness with us in this coming year.

Of course, there is another side – those who are religious, but not spiritual.  For some, the spirituality word is scary.  But it shouldn’t be.  Who doesn’t want to connect to the dimensions of our existence beyond the material?  Who doesn’t want to see that the universe is more than matter in motion?  This is part of what it means to be spiritual. 

For many, the High Holidays are coming home.  We want the familiar tunes from our youth because it brings us back, but the problem is, we do not grow.

If I could add an Al Chet to the list, it would be this – Al Chet SheChatanu Lefanecha…we all have sinned against you by not making the old new, and the new holy. 

This is a powerful statement by Rabbi Avraham Kook, one of the few ultra Orthodox Rabbis who embraced modern Zionism in the early 1900’s.  Rabbi Kook went against his community by serving the secular kibbutzim in Tel Aviv, reaching out to those who rejected Jewish religion.  I think he did this not just to teach them about religion, but because he knew that the religious community can learn from others, and we can all renew ourselves.

I hope you will forgive me if I make another confession:  The Slichot service of the past has never really done it for me.  Sitting in shuls across the world, in New York, Jerusalem, and South Florida, listening to the Hazanim chant the beautiful, but at the same time, too familiar tunes without offering any of my own prayers, acting as a bystander, no longer moved me.  I saw this too in our attendance.  Over the years, less and less people came.  We tried showing movies, adding Jewish learning, bringing in speakers, but none of this connected us to the idea of Slichot – pouring our hearts out to God and beginning the process of tesuvah.

I thought about Rabbi Heschel’s plea to the Rabbinical Assembly from 1953 – He warned them, “The dead do not praise God.  Those who are spiritually dull cannot praise the Lord.  That we sensed that this was a problem, namely, of how to increase synagogue attendance.  A variety of suggestions were made, to bring the prayer book up to date making the prayers shorter, inviting distinguished speakers, panels and symposiums; to celebrate annual projects such as “Jewish Cultural Sabbath, the Jewish War Veterans Sabbath, Boy Scouts Sabbath, Interfaith Sabbath – then he adds a vital question – “Why not a Sabbath Sabbath!”  Well intentioned as these suggestions may be, they do not deal with the core of the issue. 

Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative techniques.[2] 

I took his words to heart. 

Making the old new, and the new holy is vital to our future.  It is why our congregation is embarking on a new initiative partially funded by the South Palm Beach Jewish Federation called Shal’Ohm’ – Synergizing Judaism and spirituality. 

Say it with me – Shal “OHHHM”

For Slichot this year, we went to the beach, when it was still dark.  Amy Pessah, Cantor Hadash and myself planned a service that brought in Yoga, chanting, music, and of course, the traditional texts with explanations.  Honestly, I did not know who would show up, but I when I came to the beach, I saw 20 faces staring at me, most of them who had never been to a slichot service before.  All of us experienced something we hadn’t before, we were moved – it felt like the Ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, entered us and filled us up as we started this season.  There is nothing like seeing the sun rise as you thank God for being the creator of light and thanking God for renewing creation for us daily and recognizing this great miracle with our own eyes. 

I would not have gotten to this state alone, I had to be surrounded by our community, I needed the words that our ancestors gave us, and it all needed to happen at the right time, but I would not have gotten to this spiritual place without making the old new, and the new holy. 

For those who are religious, but scared of being spiritual, I say be a little vulnerable.  Open up your hearts to Torah, God and community.  Come to our Jewish meditation course on Monday evenings, come to our healing services which will be offered during the year, come to us. 

I’d like to end with a story.[3]  There was once a young man born to Jewish parents who felt empty inside, so he went from city to city, from priest to imam to guru, asking the same question, “Where can I find God?”  They all gave him different answers:  “Pray my son, and you’ll find God.  Meditate my son, and you’ll find God.  Study my son, and will you find God.” 

None of these answers satisfied him, he did not know how to pray, or what he was praying to, or how to meditate, and the studies seemed dry to him – how could he experience God only through pages in a book?  So he went to see a rabbi.  The rabbi said, “Forget your quest my child.  God is within you.”  This was perhaps the worst answer he had heard! 

The years passed by, but he decided to give it one more shot, and renewed his quest, traveling to different parts of the world.  One day, he went to a small village in the middle of the forest.  He met a woman tending to chickens, and she welcomed him to their small village of mostly Jews, and she asked, what are you doing here in our village?  Who are looking for?  He told her, I’m looking for God.  “Oh, you’re looking for God?  I’ll take you to him.”  So she took him to a house, and knocked on the door, and there he was, the rabbi who told him to forget his quest!  He thought, here we go again, I know, God is within me, but the rabbi told him something different – my child, God is in this village.  Why don’t you stay for a couple of days?  You might meet God?”  The man thought, what’s another couple of days to prove the rabbi that he’s wrong.  So he stayed.  The man searched every corner of the village, asking the villagers if they knew where God was that day.  They would only smile and invite him in for a meal.  Every evening, the rabbi would find the man and ask, “Have you met God yet my son?”  Not yet rabbi!  But he really enjoyed living in this little village, so he stayed for a month.  After a while, he became part of the village life, sharing in activities.  He actually went to shul on Friday night and prayed with the rest of the community, something he had never done in his life!  He would join families he didn’t know for Shabbat dinners, and they talked about God.  But he still had not found God in the village, even though everyone else had found God.  But after a while, he started feeling something he had never felt before – he started seeing glimpses of God in the village.  He realized that there was something about his tradition that wasn’t like the others, because it was his tradition.  One day, the rabbi came to the man, “I see something different in you…you’ve met God haven’t you.” 

The man replied, “Thank you Rabbi, I think I have, but I’m not sure why I met God or how or when.  And why is God only in this village?” 

The rabbi replied – God is not a person, my son, or a thing.  You cannot meet God in that way.  You were so caught up in the question that you have not hear the answers.  Now that you can find God, you can return to your city, if you wish.”  So the man went back to his town, and God went with him.  And the man prayed, meditated, studied, and shared it with others, and he knew that God was within him, and within other people.  One day, a young man approached him, “Where can I find God?”  And the man told him, “You have come to the right spot, God is within you, God is within me, God is in this place.”  And they journeyed, together. 

18 years ago, after I stared at that cup in that night club, and I realized how empty I was, I sulked for a week.  And then, as Friday evening approached, my friend again knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to go to Hillel with her, and this time, I went.  When I entered those doors for the first time, I met a rabbi who embraced me and taught me Torah.  I saw familiar faces who prayed, sang, ate, and danced with me.  I experienced different types of prayer services that I had never experienced in my home town.  And after a couple of weeks, I found God, and God was within me, and within them, and in that place the entire time. 

To the spiritual but not religious I say – Kedoshim Tihu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Elocheichem –  This year, You all MUST be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

To the religious but not spiritual I say – this year, You all must make the old new, the new holy.

And to all of us, on this day when we empty ourselves of the worldly pleasures, of food and drink, of oils and perfumes, of sexual relations, and of comfortable shoes I say what the prophet Ezekiel told us thousands of years ago – “Make for yourself a new heart, and a new spirit.”

Open your heart to God, and take some chances and open your heart to your tradition, and take some chances.  Open yourselves up to new experiences, but do them together with others. 

God is here, God is waiting, God is in this place; all you have to do is open your heart. 

Shannah Tovah, may we all journey together from here on a path to holiness. 

[2] Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer”
[3] Story adapted from From Generation to Generation by Debra Orenstein and Israel Mowshowitz


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