My Jewish identity, like that of many others, is rooted in a set of assumptions about our human purpose on earth: to work towards becoming the best versions of ourselves over our lifetimes; to preserve and enhance our planet’s natural environment; and to foster a human society that is progressively more just, equitable and peaceful.
I understand these assumptions as parallel to and inextricably tied to three core teachings in the Torah: that each human being is created in the image of the Divine; that human beings must “serve and guard” the earth; and that together, we must pursue justice and peace. Moreover, I understand all of these assumptions as facets of a single process—growing in awareness of and promoting the ongoing unfolding of Creation.
Intellectually, I have long rejected the concept of a supernatural God who intervenes in human affairs, rewarding and punishing individuals. Reconstructionism has provided me with a modern and yet traditionally rooted Jewish theology supporting and reinforcing my core spiritual assumptions, conceptualizing God as a Power, a flow of energy manifesting the unfolding life of the universe—or, in Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan’s famous phrase, “the Power that makes for salvation.”
For me, Judaism encompasses a collection of spiritual practices intended to cultivate awareness of this process at work in ourselves and our world, and to inspire us to actions promoting its realization. My involvement with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality over the past 20 years—first as a participant and then as a staff member—has provided me with the additional lens of mindfulness through which I view these practices. Mindfulness deepens and clarifies my understanding of these practices through several additional assumptions paralleled in traditional Jewish sources.
First, mindfulness practice assumes that when we are able to be fully awake and present in the moment—to bring our attention to the truth of what is happening—we can access wisdom in a way we simply cannot when we are distracted or clouded by judgments or preconceptions. Similarly, I understand the Hebrew word hineini, “I am present,” a term recurring at key points in the Hebrew Bible, as signifying the practice of cultivating full presence, receptivity and readiness to act in the moment. Jewish mindfulness is practicing hineini, moment by moment, over the course of our day.
Second, mindfulness practice understands that being present requires suspending judgment, even for a moment, and that this pause enables us not only to see reality more clearly, but also to witness the fullest range of options available to us. The psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl is reputed to have observed that “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The Exodus narrative describing the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt identifies the process of realizing human freedom as a manifestation of the Divine, enabling human beings to serve their highest and most noble purposes. And shortly thereafter in the book of Exodus, when God pardons the Israelites’ idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf and reveals to Moses the 13 attributes of mercy, the Torah identifies the Divine as an ever-present, infinite source of compassion tempering judgment. The capacity to suspend judgment and apply compassion, then, is a sacred Jewish practice as well.
Finally, mindfulness practice assumes there is a source of wisdom implanted in every human being which, when our minds and hearts are settled and clear, rises to the surface of our consciousness. Likewise, Jewish tradition holds that as beings imbued with the Divine Image, we each possess within us a full range of spiritual and ethical traits or qualities we might describe as “godly.” We are hard-wired to be able to discern and to choose a wise, wholesome or godly course of action.
These are understood as middot—literally “measures” of these attributes of the Divine current that runs through the universe and through us. When we are able to cultivate a consciousness of this presence within us—when we are more able to “get ourselves out of the way”—these qualities arise and manifest more naturally in our words and actions. In short, we become channels through which these aspects of Divine energy can flow through us into the world.
Jewish spiritual practices help us develop the capacity to serve as such a vessel more frequently, as well as to grow in awareness of the obstacles within and around us that obstruct the Divine flow. For Kaplan, “salvation” is
redemption from those evils within and outside [humans] which hinder [humans] from becoming fully human, or which obstruct [their] urge to self-metamorphosis. Salvation is unhampered freedom in living and helping others to live a courageous, intelligent, righteous and purposeful life.
In a pithier aphorism, Kaplan put it this way: “God is that aspect of reality which elicits from us the best that is in us and enables us to bear the worst that can befall us.” Jewish spiritual practices aim to promote awareness of and access to that which helps us more nearly and more often be our “best selves” or, in Lincoln’s immortal words, engage the “better angels of our nature.”
The three core aspects of Jewish spiritual practice—Torah (study) avodah (prayers/devotion), and acts of hesed and tzedek (kindness and justice)—reflect and are informed by middot, and present opportunities for nurturing these godly qualities within us. These practices help us develop our capacity to cultivate awareness, release judgment, envision a fuller range of possibilities and respond more freely from our inner wisdom instead of reacting from entrenched fear-based habit.
For the past seven years, I have directed the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Tikkun Middot Project, in which Jewish communities seek to infuse all aspects of their practice and culture with attention to a core set of middot such as anavah (humility), savlanut (forbearance or patience), kavod (honor or respect), bitakhon (trust), emunah (trustworthiness) and sh’mirat halashon (mindful speech). Leaders of these communities have engaged in an intense period of practicing these middot and strategically integrating them into all facets of communal life in order to foster a shared moral and spiritual vocabulary.
In the process, many individuals, regardless of their religious belief, have reported finding themselves personally transformed by Jewish practice in a way they have never before experienced. And many communities have come to understand a core aspect of their mission to be helping their members, individually and collectively, more nearly actualize their best selves. Integrating the lens of middot into communal culture and practice directly supports the collective aspiration to function as a true kehillah kedoshah, a community that manifests the Divine.
One of the central principles of Jewish tradition is the belief that all human beings are made in the Divine Image; our mission as human beings is to actualize the divinity latent within us. Reconstructionism understands Judaism as a practical path for living a life in which we realize our highest moral potential. Reconstructionist communities long have been marked by intellectual integrity and courage, creativity and experimentation, and harnessing their members’ energies in service of tikkun olam, making this world a better place for those who follow.
It has often been noted that one cannot change the world without changing oneself; the personal, communal and universal are interconnected. In our current era of moral and environmental crisis, it is all the more urgent to nurture communities promoting our capacity to maximize our moral potential, so that as we change ourselves and each other, we create a better possibility of changing our world.
Study and practice of middot is not the only path to moral growth. But growing in awareness of oneself and others, developing a shared Jewish moral vocabulary and equipping ourselves with a set of practical tools by which we can pursue Kaplan’s vision of Jewish life can been enormously impactful for those who actively engage in the practice. Indeed, it can positively influence even those more indirectly involved in the process.
For Reconstructionists, involvement in community not only meets the essential human need for belonging to something greater than ourselves, but also for reaching towards becoming better versions of ourselves. “[T]here can hardly be any more important function for religion,” wrote Kaplan, “than to keep alive this yearning for self-renewal and to press it into the service of human progress.” Jewish study, prayer and action infused with mindfulness and attention to middot can help each of us remain fully alive and engaged, growing in wisdom, seeking meaning and purpose each day of our lives. There can be no holier purpose than this.
May we be blessed to more nearly realize our vision of growing in holiness as individuals and as a whole, and so that the source of blessing may flow through us to repair our broken selves and our broken world.