What We Talk About When We Talk About Spirituality

Jewish musicians perform rock songs for the Reform youth group biennial, Minneapolis, 2003. (Steve Lubetkin Photo/Used by Permission)
Jewish musicians perform rock songs for the Reform youth group biennial, Minneapolis, 2003. (Steve Lubetkin Photo/Used by Permission)

Let’s do some analytic philosophy. Let’s figure out what people mean when they use the words spiritual or spirituality.

Notice that, from a philosophical perspective, words don’t mean, people mean. So, the question, again, is: What are we to understand when people say, for example, that a religious service lacks spirituality, or that someone’s spiritual health is poor, or that one person is more spiritual than another? To illustrate, once I told someone that I feel different during the month of Ellul and he told me that I must be a very spiritual person.

The way we assess the meaning of a word is to consider the many situations in which the word is uttered and see if they have some common reference. In the 1970s, for example, persons who complained about the lack of spirituality in Reform worship services apparently meant that they lacked a certain Woodstock-ish conviviality. Gradually, in response, these services added large helpings of summer-camp-style music, leavened with the Allen Ginsburg version of Buddhism made popular in the 60s: meditation, chanting, even dancing. (In her memoir, Barbara Ehrenreich calls this “lazy, eclectic mysticism.”)

In this context, spirituality seems to be an intense mood, a mixture of transcendental feelings, strong camaraderie, and some breaking of the bonds of time and space. This set of experiences has become the criterion for measuring the quality of the worship service and, interestingly, this model is reminiscent of Chassidism. (The practices, not the theology.) That is, the feelings generated in this way, are interpreted as a kind of deveykut, or cleaving to God.

But if that is what people mean by spirituality, it also must be observed that this mood, this cluster of feelings, can be had anywhere: at the opera, a ballgame, reading a good book on the porch. Why, then, would anyone choose to attend a Friday night service when they can get the same spiritual buzz from a good movie? Or from drugs, running marathons or restoring old cars?

If spiritualty, in this use, resembles being high or stoned, what do people mean when they talk about spiritual health or spiritual well-being? The misheberach prayer, in English, asks for a renewal of body (guf) and spirit (nefesh). But it appears that what is called spirit is really breath, strength, endurance—vitality. Why, in contemporary speech, do we so often hear of emotional AND spiritual health. What’s the difference?  If one is emotionally fit, if one’s feelings and moods are appropriate and contribute to one’s well-being, what is left for spirituality? How is spiritual counseling different from plain old counseling?  How is spiritual malaise different from depression or anxiety? Can one be both emotionally healthy and spiritually ill?

And what did my colleague mean when, after I said I feel different in Ellul, that I was a spiritual person? Suppose I had said I feel different in late summer, or at the beginning of the school year? Would that have been evidence of heightened spirituality? Here the meaning is clearer: Ellul is a special month in Judaism, the time of soul-searching (heshbon hanefesh). Did he mean that my feeling was somehow connected to the mitzvot, or even to God?

One of the foundational ideas of Chassidism is that one should perform mitzvot not just with a sense of obligation but with joy! Once, when a person I did not recognize showed up at a minyan I was leading, I asked if she had a “kaddish obligation” to fulfill?  My use of the word “obligation” offended her. Apparently, she too felt that performing mitzvot should be full of spiritual emotion.

But even the connection of heightened emotion and religion doesn’t solve the problem of defining the word. There are people, I’m told, who are “atheists but spiritual”; there is “spiritual healing,” which I think is the use of religious objects to produce a placebo effect.

Lately, I’ve taken to asking people what they mean by the word and they nearly always are unable to answer in a way that makes sense. I must conclude (as Orwell did in his essay on the English language) that spiritual and spirituality are little more than vogue words or buzz words and that the more often they are used the less clear their meaning becomes, and that they are increasingly less useful in speaking and writing.

Moreover, this emphasis on spirituality, whatever it means, has also had the effect of undervaluing the intellectual, rational and philosophical aspects of Judaism. And this undervaluing may help to explain why so many well-educated Jewish adults find little of value in Jewish studies or services. Even with drumming and dancing.

Some day a Jewish generation will arise that knew not Woodstock. What will we do then?

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