“Spiritual but not religious.” The mantra by which many young Jews describe themselves
Joe was a man in his early twenties who was once a regular shul-goer, but had stopped coming about a year ago. I met him one day and mentioned that he was missed.
He replied, “I decided I prefer spirituality to religion, so instead of going to shul, I like to go out into the woods and commune with nature and with G-d.”
“That sounds great, but when was the last time you did that?” I asked.
He hesitated, but was very honest. “Rabbi, I confess, it has been a very long time,” he said sheepishly. “ Many months, in fact.”
“Spiritual but not religious.” This is the mantra by which many young Jews in US and elsewhere describe themselves. Not for them the performance of mitzvos and the do’s and don’ts of religious Jewish life. Nevertheless, they often find themselves yearning for something spiritual in their lives. They are estranged from classical Judaism, but within them a still, small voice keeps longing for more meaning and substance in their lives. And so they label this yearning as “spirituality.”
For them, spirituality is attractive because it is unregimented and seems more individualized than religion, which entails form and structure. In spirituality, one can choose one’s own personalized path without common beliefs and common practices. This is a perfect fit for young people who do not like to be told what to do.
What these wannabe spiritual people overlook is that in Judaism there is no shortcut to spirituality. They have closed their minds to the fact that the mitzvos, the very do’s and don’ts that discomfit them, are the rungs of the ladder that cannot be skipped. The rungs may be based on earth but they lead up to heaven. Being directed what to eat (Pesach) and what not to eat (kashrus), when to rest from one’s ordinary pursuits (Shabbos), when to celebrate ( Yom Tov), when to fast and when to feast, regulations about charity giving or prohibitions about slander, all have as their ultimate purpose a connection to the Divine. “Thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” lead to discipline, which leads to spirituality.
In a sense, calling oneself spiritual is a cop-out, an avoidance of responsibility. One calls himself spiritual and then goes along his merry way without any obligations, or self-discipline, or restrictions. It is an attractive life: Nothing is off limits. There are no “thou shalt not’s” — only “why not’s.”
A fine American Jewish lady — non-observant — once told me that she respects Torah very much but doesn’t need all that, and prefers to live spiritually and to abide by the Ten Commandments. I reminded her that keeping the Shabbos day holy is the Fourth Commandment. She looked at me in great surprise: “Rabbi, are you sure?”
The problem is that the spiritualists have no idea what spiritual means, or what religion means. To them, spiritual is strictly a never-never-land, a dreamlike state with no obligations. It means worrying vaguely about the environment, being concerned with justice for everyone, being woke, concerned with “tikkun ha’olam,” thinking now and then about G-d, taking long walks in the park, enjoying an awesome sunrise or a striking sunset. Some of these do stem from certain inner spiritual yearnings. But it is interesting: None of these requires any personal discipline, or personal sacrifice, of convenience, comfort, money, time, or resources or effort of any kind.
This is what is called subjective religion: worship of the self, not worship of a Supreme Being. Whatever pleases me and makes me feel good, I will do. If it doesn’t make me feel good, that is not for me.
What they misunderstand is that the purpose of Torah is to take the material and the physical and to elevate it to a higher level. One can eat a hearty meal and feel good. Or one can eat a hearty meal and feel good, and elevate that meal into something spiritual by means of a brachah that recognizes G-d and acknowledges Him as the Provider of this food; and by thanking Him after the meal for having provided it. By so doing, the bread takes on a different quality. The very physical becomes an instrument of the spiritual, and the individual himself becomes sensitized and spiritualized. The irony is that these searchers definitely have an inner yearning for something more in their daily lives, but cannot quite identify it.
The moral of all this: Next time you go for a spiritual walk in the woods or gaze at a breathtaking sunset, don’t forget to daven Minchah.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 862)
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