One of the primary goals of the synagogue or minyan (prayer quorum), is to create a spiritual community. Pardon the comparison, but in thinking about how to define the term spiritual, I remember the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said of pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced [by it] but I know it when I see it.” Words like spiritual and spirituality are vague words as well, but while challenging to define, you know them when you feel them.
However, I think that we have to hold ourselves accountable to some precision in defining these words. Otherwise, spirituality risks becoming a trite term – the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. So here is my attempt to simplify a complex subject. Spirituality has two components. The first one is separation and the second is elevation. Or to understand the term as a mathematical equation: spirituality = awareness (or separating out one moment from another) + positive action (or elevating our choices).
Although not all choices are equally consequential, every moment of our lives presents us with choices. Living life spiritually means having a constant awareness of the mundane and the extraordinary; that is, we separate ourselves from animals, which act by instinct, because of the awareness we bring to our choices and then intentionally choosing the more elevated path for each choice before us. We use this ability to discipline our baser instincts so that the phrase, “I’m only human,” isn’t an excuse for mediocre behavior but a stimulus for us to strive to do that which is good, beautiful, wise, compassionate, just and caring.
Living spiritually is not something that comes naturally to most people, and needs cultivation and practice from the time of childhood. And, living a spiritual life requires the reinforcement of a community of people who share similar aspirations. In the ideal world, over time, rabbis should become experts at cultivating a community of spiritual individuals. That takes a tremendous amount of personal practice and periodic time away from the congregation. It requires the ability to discern what is ultimately important and to keep in perspective what feels critical at the moment. It also takes a congregation which values the rabbi’s ability to cultivate spirituality.
In this post, all I want to do is try to simply define what I mean by spirituality. In the next post, I’ll comment on some of the challenges in developing a spiritual community. But please comment on this definition and help bring clarity to a vague but essential issue for rabbis and congregations.
Rabbi Hayim Herring