An overview of Evolve’s pieces on spiritual practice—from personal, liturgical and practice-based standpoints.
What are the implicit and explicit beliefs and assumptions on which our spiritual practices rest? For those of us who do not believe in a God who literally hears the words and contents of our prayers, intervenes to cause things to happen in our lives based on what we deserve or perhaps is even a recognizable person with a consciousness that resembles human mind, this question is both fascinating and complex. Why be “spiritual” at all if you don’t believe in the traditional images and conceptions of God?
First, a definition. We use the term “spiritual” to denote experience that relates to the interconnectedness of all things in the universe and/or to levels of being deep inside of us or elevated in another unseen realm. You don’t have to believe in God to be “spiritual,” according to this definition. Nor does a “spiritual” person have to pray or observe rituals.
In fact, there are many different spiritual types or paths—different ways to experience interconnectedness or the unseen depths of the psyche. A single person can feel at home exclusively in one of them or through a combination of them. And one person’s “type(s)” often changes throughout their lifetime. Four major types described in studies of spirituality are:
Cognitive/intellectual. Some people are transported beyond themselves when they study Talmud (alone or in hevruta) or read about astrophysics or history.
Devotional/emotional. Some people find themselves in an altered state when they pray, sing, chant or sit in contemplative practice.
Activistic. Some people connect to the sense of a greater purpose when they help other people or organize to fight injustice and/or serve of committees that build community.
Iconoclastic. Some people see through the inadequacy of all human endeavors that seek to represent and embody the Divine or True Reality. They open to the ineffability (beyond words and understanding) of the Divine by exposing these inadequacies.
Perhaps because of our conviction that spiritual practice is valuable independent of whether and how you believe in God, we sometimes fail to articulate what we do believe and how our practices relate to our beliefs. We have invited our writers to explore this question and also invite readers to respond to these essays in writing or in our web conversations.
Rabbi Shefa Gold (“Cleaving to God: A Jewish Way of Prayer”) describes how the practice of devekut (cleaving) involves a constant awareness of the Divine presence that enables us to transcend our mundane thoughts and preoccupations and to place our trust/take refuge in God. It even leads us to move beyond old beliefs about God and to live in the experience of loving presence.
Rabbi Marc Margolius (“Tikkun Middot, Integrating Mindfulness and Ethical/Spiritual Traits”) affirms 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. These assumptions are facets of a single process: growing in awareness of and promoting the ongoing unfolding of Creation. Cultivating middot (behaviors) like humility, gratitude and respect transform the world by transforming ourselves.
Rabbi Vivie Mayer (“Talmud Torah as Spiritual Practice”) presents the enterprise of Talmud Torah (study of Torah) as tuning our ear to listen for the Divine voice. It is a lifelong project that connects us to the shared consciousness of the Jewish people as we/they have sought God throughout time. Through that shared Jewish consciousness, we glimpse ways of being and ways of seeing that are no longer accessible in our time-bound, space-bound world.
Rabbi Sid Schwarz (“Jews With a Mission”) shares the story of Congregation Adat Shalom’s regular service mission in Haiti. By engaging in the practice of literally loving their neighbors as themselves, the participants feel deeply connected to the Haitians with whom they work, with all of humanity and with the mystery of being.
Rabbi Jacob J. Staub (“Jewish Spiritual Direction: What Are We Discerning?”) reflects upon how our view of reality can be transformed when we ask, moment by moment: “Where is God/the Holy/the Mystery in this?” and “What is the invitation/opportunity at this moment?” Gradually, we can build a relationship with That-Which-Is-Beyond-Our-Ability-to-Conceive.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg (“Mindfulness: Telling the Truth, Redeeming Through Love”) believes that it is possible to train the mind, to learn to love, to reduce suffering. She explains how the awareness and love that are cultivated in mindfulness practice lead to tikkun hanefesh (healing of the soul) and tikkun olam (healing of the world).
Rabbi Benjamin Weiner (“Davenning: Finding Meaning in Jewish Prayer”) explores the ways that traditional Hebrew prayers can provide meaningful spiritual experiences for those who neither understand Hebrew nor believe in a God who hears and responds to our prayers.