So What Is Spirituality?


    A reader wonders what her friend means when she says she's looking for "spiritual" services.

    Dear Miriam,

    I really enjoy going to services in lots of different synagogues. I have a friend who has gone with me a few times but keeps saying that none of the services are spiritual and that's what she wants. When I try to find out what she means by spiritual, she really doesn't have an answer. What do you think she means by "spiritual"?  I actually hear that from a lot of people, but none of them seem able to articulate what they mean by that term.

    So What Is Spirituality?

    Dear Spirituality,

    It is a universally frustrating experience to value something that those close to you don't understand or can't appreciate. It sounds like both you and your friend are having that experience in talking with each other about Judaism. I think it's time to reframe the conversation, which may lead both of you to a deeper appreciation of each other and your ideas about religion.

    To help answer your question, I turned to Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. While the depth of her knowledge goes impossibly far beyond what I can discuss in the space of this post, she referred me to the Institute's website, in particular, the "Common Questions," section, which includes, "What do you mean by Jewish spirituality?" The answer begins as follows: " 'Spirituality' is notoriously hard to define. Because it is ultimately the experience of an individual, spirituality will be experienced differently by people depending on their theology, their attitudes, their perspectives about the world."

    Based on this description from the leaders in the field, it makes sense that you find your friend's convictions elusive. She may not be able to tell you what she means because she may not exactly know. Or, she may know what it feels like to find the right spiritual community, but she may not be able to put it into words.

    My friend Lettie, a Jew by choice, had this to say on the subject: "I think what makes a Jewish spiritual experience for me is when I'm singing a niggun (song without words) or other prayer and just feel like I'm connected to something bigger than myself: the community, tradition, the larger world and whatever the heck 'god' is. What's beautiful about it for me as a convert is that I don't have to have anything 'figured out…' Rather, I can just feel warmth and peace and let it be… Sometimes I'm actually glad I don't actually speak Hebrew because I feel like prayers and chants can be whatever I'm feeling I need to say."

    What I love about Lettie's response is that it leaves room for a spiritual experience to change from day to day and moment to moment. Perhaps you can share this post with your friend and ask her if Lettie's description resonates with her. Ask her to tell you about the meaningful experiences she's had that made her feel connected to something bigger than herself. Listen respectfully and try to be as open to hearing her thoughts as you want her to be open to the services that you've brought her to.

    Maybe what is meaningful for her in a religious context has no bearing on how you practice your Judaism, but it's possible that both of you may be able to learn a lot from each other. Ultimately, it may be that you can do your best communing with your friend outside of a synagogue setting. It's wonderful that you've found something that works for you, but Judaism isn't one-size-fits-all. If your friend wants to browse articles about spirituality online while you read the traditional prayers, neither of you is more right than the other. Perhaps coming together and listening with an open mind to different perspectives can be the ultimate spiritual experience for both of you.

    Be well,