Jewish Theologies and Spiritual Direction

From Jewish Spiritual Direction: An Innovative Guide from Traditional and Contemporary Sources, edited by Howard A. Addison and Barbara Eve Breitman (Jewish Lights, 2006)

Is the practice of Spiritual Direction authentically Jewish?  The question arises because the field of Jewish Spiritual Direction has developed over the last fifteen years by North American Jews who have borrowed the practice from Christians and who have sought to integrate it into their Jewish lives.

The answer to this question depends on one’s understanding of what makes something “authentically Jewish.”  There are some who assert that, by definition, anything that is borrowed from another religious tradition (especially from Christianity) is not authentically Jewish.  There are others who believe that any authentic practice must have precedents in the history of Jewish practice, and there certainly are many documented instances throughout Jewish history in which Jews have sought regular spiritual counseling and mentoring from rabbis and sages.[i] 

My premise in writing this piece, coming as I do from a Reconstructionist perspective, is that the evolution of Jewish beliefs and practices throughout Jewish history always involves cultural borrowing—borrowing and adaptation into a Jewish idiom that makes a practice Jewish.  Jews have always lived in dynamic historical contexts, and we have developed our ways of life in response to the cultural trends that have surrounded us.  I assume that most innovations made by Jews through the ages have not survived because they have not been adopted by significant numbers of Jews; we do not even have records of most of them.  Those innovations that do survive, however, are then accepted as authentically Jewish and are generally assumed to have been Jewish from the time of Sinai.

Thus, I believe that the “Jewishness” of Jewish Spiritual Direction will depend on whether significant numbers of people who lead serious Jewish lives continue to find this practice to be a meaningful, enriching, deepening aspect of their Jewish lives.  Towards that end, I will offer here a) a definition of Spiritual Direction, b) Jewish theological tropes that express some of the teachings of Spiritual Direction in Jewish terms, and c) reflections on some of the challenges that may be encountered in Spiritual Direction by Jews who may not believe in a God who literally intervenes supernaturally in our lives, literally hears and responds to our prayers, and literally “calls” us, individually and personally, into service.  My goal is not to demonstrate that Spiritual Direction, in anything resembling its current form, has precedents in the Jewish past, but rather to explore how it might have a place in the lives of Jews, now and in the future.

Defining the Practice

The practice of Spiritual Direction (SD) occurs when two people sit prayerfully and reverentially in the presence of the Holy.  Since a central principle of SD is that the terms of their conversation are defined by the directee or the seeker, it may be in the presence of God—however the seeker images God—or in the presence of the Holy, or of the Mystery, or of the Infinite, or of the Ultimate, or of the Process, etc.[ii] 

The director tries to get himself or herself “out of the way”—to listen openly and non-judgmentally to the seeker, noticing if and when her or his own beliefs, biases, emotions, etc. obstruct open listening.[iii]  The director is there in the presence of Holy and in the service of the seeker’s relationship to the Holy.  She or he is not there to solve the seeker’s problems; when necessary, the director will refer the seeker to appropriate helping professionals.  Rather, the director is there to witness the way that the Mystery unfolds in the life of the seeker and to help the seeker to discern the Presence in his or her life.

Towards that end, the director accompanies the seeker on the journey and notices where the supernal light shines through in the seeker’s narrative, helping the seeker to discern it.  The director may offer texts for the seeker to contemplate or suggest spiritual practices that the seeker may find helpful. The director also may share what he or she observes about the seeker’s unspoken yearnings or about obstructions the seeker may harbor to an awareness of various aspects of the Presence in his or her life.  The seeker comes to the director with an initial, often unarticulated yearning to open or deepen a connection with the Blessed Holy One.  The director provides a welcoming, safe place in which the seeker can journey, in the ways and at the pace in which the Mystery works in and though the seeker. 

Ultimately, the goal of this practice is that the seeker will develop the habit of discernment in all aspects of his or her life, noticing the sacred footprints[iv] of the Holy in even the most mundane activities, looking and listening for opportunities to do the will of God, developing a comfort with asking for assistance and guidance.

Translating into “Jewish”

My initial introduction to SD occurred in 1998 when, as Academic Vice President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I found myself directing a program, funded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation, to offer Jewish Spiritual Direction to rabbinical students.[v]  Initially, I convened and chaired a study group to study relevant Jewish sources and to read and discuss the literature of SD, written by contemporary Christians.[vi]  Most of us in the group found it very difficult to understand, on the most basic level, the vocabulary and images in the literature, until we began to meet ourselves with spiritual directors.  Experiencing the practice, we were able to formulate it in our own terms.  In the next section of this essay, I offer brief formulations of basic SD vocabulary, in the hope that some may find it helpful.


As Jews, we may not be accustomed to looking for God in all areas of our experience.  We sanctify our lives and the world by performing mitzvot, thereby invoking God’s presence by following the commandments.  It is more indirect than finding God in things.  We wear kippot on our heads to foster an awareness of God above.  We look at tzitzit, the fringes on our prayer shawls, to remind us of the commandments, and indirectly about God.  But we may find it odd to ask, “Where is God in this conversation?  In this experience?  In this feeling?”  We are the descendents of Jacob, who woke up at Bethel and said, “The Lord was present in this place, and I did not know it!”[vii]

The idiom may seem alien, but the concept is not.  “Bekhol derakheha da’ehu,” we read in the Book of Proverbs, “Know/acknowledge God in all your ways, and God will direct your paths.”[viii]   There is perhaps no more fundamental principle of Jewish living.  Our relationship with the Blessed Holy One is based on an awareness that we ideally maintain at every waking moment.  In the Amidah (silent, standing prayer) of every Jewish prayer service, we say, “Modim anahnu…al kol nifla’otekha vetovotekha she-bekhol et erev va-voker ve-tzaharayim—We acknowledge and are thankful for all of your wonders and good works, [which occur] at every moment, morning, noon, and night.”  The Jewish practice of reciting at least 100 berakhot (blessings) each day is one traditional way that Jews have sought to maintain this awareness.  By acknowledging every bite of food we eat, every sunrise or clap of thunder, every bodily function, we seek to avoid a functional atheism in which we forget where everything comes from and lapse into self-reliance, whether out of pride or despair.

The mitzvah of continuous awareness of God applies whether we have a belief in a more transcendent or a more immanent God.  If you pray to a God who creates and sustains us perpetually from afar, you recite the motzi blessing over bread by way of appreciating the (transcendent) Creator’s uninterrupted sustenance of creation.  If you lean more towards a paradoxical identification of the (immanent) Creator with creation, the motzi is an opportunity to see the Blessed Holy One in the bread—indeed, in everything.  In the words of the early Hasidic masters, “The fullness (melo) of the entire universe (kol ha’aretz) is God’s glory (kevodo).[ix]  Most Jews, however, fall somewhere between those two poles.  My maternal grandmother, z”l, who was raised in Czarist Russia, serves as my “text” here.  My Bubbe spent her days in the Bronx engaged in perpetual conversation with the Ribbono shel Olam (Master of the Universe), thanking Him, appealing to Him, squabbling with Him, reproaching Him.  He was a constant companion, present everywhere, who also was the majestic Creator.

My main point here is that the discernment practice of SD is completely consonant with the Jewish view of God’s omnipresence.  Living in Western secular society, we tend to forget that Jews have never before divided sacred and secular time and space.  Their awareness of God was not limited to time spent in the synagogue or engaging in rituals.  The practice of SD is thus one important tool for reclaiming the “cosmic” or “unitive” consciousness of our ancestors, welcoming an awareness of the divine back into our lives between our visits to the synagogue.


“God in goodness provides the whole world with food in grace (hen), love (hesed), and compassion (rahamim).”  So begins the Birkat Hamazon, traditionally recited after every meal.  “Our Father, our Sovereign, respond to us (aneinu) with grace (honeinu), for we have no [meritorious, deserving] deeds,” we sing in the Avinu Malkenu of the High Holy Days.  The word hen (grace—unearned blessing) occurs frequently in our prayers, but for so many of us, it is unintelligible.  The very notion that we may be the recipient of blessings that we have not earned can be disturbing.

There are many factors that have contributed to this state of affairs.  Following political emancipation in Western societies in the nineteenth century, Jews were faced with the challenge of distinguishing Judaism from Christianity in order to justify our existence, and we embraced Paul’s (inaccurate) characterization of Judaism as based on works (deeds) rather than faith.[x] Jews, we have proclaimed proudly, do not believe, as Christians do, that we are inherently sinful and thus depend on God’s grace.  Rather, we believe in the possibility of teshuvah (return or repentance), in our own capacity to make amends and thus be deserving of God’s love.[xi]

Similarly, following the elevation of autonomy (self-reliance, independence) over heteronomy (obedience, subservience) by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, liberal Jews sought to emphasize the human half of the rabbis’ divine-human partnership.  Indeed, Judaism’s suitability as a religion for modern, free people has often depended on a redefinition of the mitzvot (commandments) as opportunities for humans to act justly and piously in order to merit our good fortune.[xii] 

The underlying issue here is about control.  After millennia of powerlessness, subject to the whims of hostile rulers and natural forces for which we had no remedy, praying for divine intervention to bring the Messiah, Jews in the modern world have embraced autonomy and self-reliance.  On a political plane, Zionism emerged out of our need to take our destiny into our own hands.[xiii]  On a personal level, modernity has led to an assertion of self-reliance: if I work hard, I will succeed in my career; if I eat right and stay fit, I can expect to remain healthy. 

We run into difficulties, however, when the formula fails us and we lose control—or realize that we really never had control.  If we claim that we merit our blessings, we must also merit our misfortunes.  In fact, Jewish teachings have always emphasized our dependence on a gracious God whose blessings overflow perpetually and sustain the universe, whether we deserve them or not.  “Surely goodness and love shall pursue me all the days of my life.”[xiv]  Commenting on this verse, the Hasidic Rebbe Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sudilkow affirms that we are each indeed pursued by blessings at every turn—blessings from which we flee because we think we are undeserving or that we simply do not discern.[xv]

If we were able to recall some of the fortuitous coincidences that have led us to our current life situations—if we had been able to discern and appreciate them when they occurred—then we might begin to approach a sense of what we mean when we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “Nishmat kol hai tevarekh et Shimkha.” Every breath we take testifies to the divine blessedness of our lives.  The practice of discernment in SD inevitably involves noticing and appreciating how much of what we take for granted is unearned blessing—hen.


A teaching attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe cites a midrash that understands Adam in the Garden[xvi] to be telling God that, not only did he eat the fruit, but that he would be likely to continue to eat the fruit in the future—that he was powerless to overcome his yetzer hara (evil inclination).  Rather than understand Adam as hopelessly sinful, the Kotzker praises Adam for possessing the great spiritual attribute of self-awareness.[xvii]  The message is that human nature is flawed and that we should seek not to be pure, but rather to be mindful of our sinful propensities.

But doesn’t Jewish teaching insist that we do teshuvah and make amends before we ask for forgiveness?  It’s Christians who believe in “original sin” and that they are forgiven through their faith, isn’t it?  Yes and no.  Yes, we are obligated to engage perpetually in teshuvah; even the most righteous tzaddikim (whom we might have presumed had little about which to do teshuvah) are said to be so engaged.[xviii]  But a look at the High Holy Day liturgy, for example, shows that sin is presumed to be a constant of human life.  We appeal to God to save us despite the fact that none of us is meritorious.  In our appeals, over and over again, we pray that we should not get what we deserve.  And the promise is that, year after year, God moves from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy, always giving us another, unmerited chance.

It’s not God who has difficulty moving from judgment to mercy.  It is we who have the difficulty forgiving ourselves (and consequently, others).  Five months into my work with my spiritual director, I noticed that I was only discussing sparkling, luminous experiences, even though those moments constituted only a small fraction of my days.  When my director suggested that I close my eyes, sit in God’s presence, and recall darker moments, I was startled to discover that I couldn’t.  I could recall my struggles, and I could sit in God’s presence, but I could not do both simultaneously.  As I had been raised to dress up to enter the synagogue, so I needed to be the “good” Jacob, putting on my best face, in order to sit in God’s presence.  It was a profound realization—that I could only let God into the parts of me for which I needed God least.

And so there followed months of serious daily practice, in which I brought all of me—the parts of which I was proud and the parts of which I was ashamed—into my prayer. It was a contemplative practice in which I began to imagine God as more than a stern Judge before Whom I was absolutely accountable.  I reached deeply into my personal storehouse of memories, imagining gentle, forgiving mentors, intimate friends and lovers, my mother holding and hugging me—all as images of God, as embodiments of aspects of God that I had never noticed and allowed to embrace me because of my shame and guilt.[xix]  And gradually, I was able to sit prayerfully in God’s comforting arms, as it were, caressed and fully known by a gentle God of compassion and forgiveness.

Prior to this process, I had related to the words of Psalm 139 with the greatest discomfort:

            O Lord, You have examined me and know me.

            When I sit down or stand up, You know it;

            You discern my thoughts from afar.

            You observe my walking and my reclining,

            and are familiar with all my ways.

            There is not a word on my tongue

            but that You, O Lord, know it well.

            You hedge me before and behind;

            You lay Your hand upon me.[xx]

I had read this psalm as a banner example of the traditional, Musar theology in which I had been raised and educated and from which I had fled—God portrayed as an all-knowing supervisor, perpetually looking over my shoulder, aware of my every wayward thought, judging me, determining my reward and punishment.  But then one day,  during a walking meditation that alternated between hitbodedut (the Hasidic practice of talking to God out loud) and singing a niggun (wordless melody), I realized that God’s stern judgment was my addition to the psalm’s words.  It struck me that it could be understood instead as an affirmation that God knows all of me, every thought and feeling I have, knows me better than I know myself, and that nevertheless, God hedges all around me.

I detail my own story at such length not because I think it is unique but because it is a story I encounter regularly in my work in SD with Jewish people.  Much of the spiritual work in which they engage is about overcoming their sense of God’s distance.  Frequently, that sense of distance arises out of their feeling that they are unworthy, that they are either not sufficiently observant ritually, or feel guilty or wounded about the way they’ve treated family or friends, or in some way harbor a sense of not being sufficiently righteous.  They are synagogue-attending Jews who have somehow missed the Yom Kippur message that God says, “Salahti kidvarekha, I have forgiven you as you have asked.”[xxi]

The practice of discernment inevitably entails, I believe, work on forgiveness.  “Elohai, neshamah shenatatah bi tehorah hi,” we recite each morning.  “God, the soul that you have given me is pure.”  Unless the seeker can come to believe that his or her soul is pure and unstained by the thoughts, feelings, and deeds that she or he regrets—unless the seeker can experience self-forgiveness—it is difficult to accept divine forgiveness and to discern the Presence in us and all around us.


God’s love hesed (love) may be another, related problematic concept.  God loves me?  Isn’t that Christian and not really Jewish?  This is another example of Jews accepting proudly the Christian contrast between the two traditions, a contrast in which Judaism is not presented in an accurate, positive light.  In this case, however, the difference may be substantial.

Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu,” we recite before the morning Shema, “You have loved us with an abundant love.”  In the evenings, we refer to God’s ahavat olam, eternal or unending love.  “Barukh ata…ohev amo yisrael,” “Blessed are You…Who loves Your people Israel.”  It’s not that Jews don’t refer to God’s love, but that we tend to think of God’s love as directed to the Jewish people as a whole, and particularly, in the past, in the formative narratives of our people.  Or that God’s abundant love is manifested in God’s revelation of the Torah, so that the manifestation of God’s love is (exclusively?) in the gift of the commandments, and does not apply to our unique, individual experiences.

“God loves me,” by contrast, may be a phrase that sticks in the throats of many of us, perhaps because it sounds too much like, “Jesus loves me.”  We may be more comfortable with “gomel hasadim tovim,” as we say in the first blessing of the Amidah, “God causes loving and good effects.”  God lovingly sustains the universe.   Or returning to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…[and, as the result of God’s shepherding,] surely goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life.”[xxii]  As long as it’s not personal.

There are traditional images of love between the individual and God, but they tend to be about an individual’s love for God, rather than God’s love for an individual: the psalmist’s “My soul thirsts for You,” or the rabbinic interpretations of “I am faint with love” in the Song of Songs as describing our love for God.[xxiii]  God certainly is said to act lovingly towards us as individuals—God is proud of us, God asks us for favors, God weeps for us, God protects and rescues us, God knows us and forgives us—but the actual L word is difficult to come by. The traditional Jewish distance between divinity and humanity shows up even in kabbalistic writings, where the sefirot, aspects of the divine, play an intermediary role.  The Jewish seeker in SD may thus need to venture beyond inherited words to describe the divine love that she or he discerns.  All I can say is that when a serious Jew, who prays Jewish prayers, studies Jewish texts, and lives in Jewish time, discerns the presence of a caring, loving God, the Jewish authenticity of the experience is apparent.

One issue here can be Jewish seekers’ resistance to an image of God that is so very personal.  I will address this issue in the next section.  As a director, I focus rather on whether the seeker feels worthy of being loved.  When the obstruction of unworthiness surfaces and is discerned, and the seeker is able to discern the blessings of grace and forgiveness, it matters little whether she or he believes that God “loves” him or her.  I believe that this is a place where Jewish SD differs from its Christian counterpart.

Asking for Help

“Asking for help” is not exactly a theological term.  The corresponding term would be Divine Providence (hashgahah peratit). The “translation” here issue is not whether God governs and watches over creation; traditional Jews believe that as much as traditional Christians.  The issue here is the seeker’s comfort in asking for assistance and opening up to the unknown.

My spiritual director is a minister in the United Methodist Church who is a model of the director who witnesses and accompanies the seeker’s journey, using the seeker’s terminology, without introducing her own beliefs or vocabulary.  In over seven years, there has been only one occasion when she spoke to me in a foreign language.  It was a moment in which I was in great distress, facing terrifying personal challenges with no easy solutions.  She said, “Jacob, just give it to God.”  I let the comment pass—understanding each word in the sentence and therefore not registering that I didn’t understand her meaning—until she repeated it a few more times.  When I told her I didn’t understand, she apologized and explained that she meant, “Offer it up and ask for God’s help.”

This may have been the most challenging moment I’ve experienced in SD.  My difficulty arose in part because the God in whom I believe does not watch over and is not aware of the moment-by-moment details of my life, so that asking for help in a specific situation did not make sense to me.  But I know from subsequent experiences with seekers with whom I work that this is not simply a question of naturalism vs. supernaturalism.  No matter what their personal theologies, many Jewish seekers have no experience asking God for help.  Some know how to ask God for something specific; the Jewish liturgy is replete with petitionary prayers (bakashot).  But when you ask for something specific, you already have some clarity about what it is you seek. Turning to God in confusion is another matter. “Taking it into prayer,” is another way that contemplative Christians talk about this. 

Engaging in this practice requires a lot of trust (emunah).  You are acknowledging that you need help, that you don’t know how to proceed and that you can’t do it alone.  That’s an admission of great vulnerability.  Further, you are positing that if you let go—if you release your grip on ways of thinking and feeling to which you are attached and which are keeping you stuck in your current predicament—you may receive insight, comfort, and guidance to which you do not currently have access.  That can be comforting, but at least initially, it is also frightening.  Admitting your helplessness, you are also opening yourself up to the unknown.  You don’t know what will arise.  There may be truths that you are reluctant to face.

The effects of doing so are powerful.  Reality changes when you say, “I can’t do this alone.”  Your isolation diminishes.  You are reminded that, while you may habitually operate on the premise that everything depends on your efforts alone, that is never the case.  A prayer for help is immediately answered—not by solutions that fix your problems quickly, but by support.  “Somekh Adonai lekhol hanoflim—God supports all those who fall,” we read in Psalms.[xxiv]  Sometimes, we have to let go and fall in order to get divine support.

Cultivating the practice of asking for support is especially helpful in discerning where God is in those aspects of ourselves of which we are not proud—our anger, our jealousy, our pride.  Often, as discussed above, we are ashamed and feel as if we need to be worthy in order to turn to God.  But when we discern that God is always there, we can also discern in our flaws an opportunity or an invitation to turn to God for support—not despite our flaws, but because of them.

Relating Personally to a Non-Personal God

For some of us (and I include myself here), the greatest stumbling block in SD may seem to be that we don’t believe in a personal God who literally watches over each of us and is aware of the details of our journeys.  How then can one experience a relationship with a God who forgives, acts graciously, comforts, supports, and loves?  In this section, I will try to explain how SD has nevertheless served as a powerful, transformative practice for me.  I do not seek here to influence either those who believe in a personal God or those who understand the Ultimate as non-personal and have no need to develop a personal relationship with it.  I offer this as my own path, in the hope that it may speak to others who identify with it. 


I begin with the philosophy of R. Moses ben Maimon, the Rambam, Maimonides, as he articulates it in The Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim)[xxv].  A twelfth-century Aristotelian philosopher, he is known as a rationalist, but I read him as a post-rationalist, as close as a traditional Jewish philosopher comes to post-modernism.  The Rambam argues forcefully that anything positive that we say about God is, by definition, idolatrous, because we must use language in our descriptions that refers to creation.  Thus, for example, if I say that “God is good,” the term “good” is a concept that refers to an aspect of creatures, who are multifaceted while God is one, ever changing while God is immutable, finite while God is infinite, etc.  I may think that I am praising God by attributing goodness to God, but the Rambam argues that if I intend the attribute literally, I am associating God with what is not God (the goodness of creatures)—the definition of idolatry.

How then can we speak of God?  The Rambam offers two alternatives.  The first is that we speak of God in terms of attributes of action that do not describe God at all but rather describe the effects of God’s causation.  I can say “God is good” if what I mean is that the effects of God’s causation are such that were a human being were to act and cause such effects, I would call that person good.  The second is that we speak of God in terms of negations of privation.  I can say “God is good” if what I mean is that God is not evil.  Neither of these leads me, however inadvertently, to think of God in Godself as literally resembling a finite creature. The critical point for our purposes here is that God is, by definition, beyond human conception.  Everything we think and say derives from our experience of this created world.[xxvi]

According to the Rambam, how then does divine-human communication occur?  God continuously and immutably sustains the universe through an overflow of forms that are embodied in matter.  As humans develop their knowledge of the universe and thus of the divine overflow, we come to know God more and more.  The overflow remains constant and unchanging.  Our individual reception of it, however, varies according to the receiver; the message varies with the individuality of the person.  Those with the most highly developed understanding of the divine overflow are prophets, who also possess perfect imaginations and can apply the generalities of divine laws to specific situations.[xxvii]

To summarize: According to the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, and arguably, in Jewish history, a) we cannot know anything about God, who, by definition, is beyond our conception; b) what we can know about God comes indirectly, through our understanding of the effects of God’s causation; and c) all experiences and accounts of divine-human communication—including the revelation of the Torah to Moses!—are  filtered through the specific intellect and imagination of the human reporter, and reflect more about the human reporter than about the unchanging divine overflow.

Maimonides and Spiritual Direction

Following the Rambam, I believe that God underlies, permeates, and sustains all aspects of existence but that we cannot know God in Godself.  To say with certainty that God is a person or that God is impersonal is to claim to know more than a human being can know.  We can only know what we discern of God, and our discernment takes place through our own individual lenses.  God’s overflow is filtered through me and colored by me.  Whatever I say about God is idolatrous if I mean it as the literal truth.

I believe, therefore, that discernment is a never-ending process by which I open up to noticing where God is and to becoming more receptive to taking it in.  God’s aspects are infinite and are reflected in part in the array of human characteristics.  The universe, created and sustained by God, is harsh and gentle, for example, just and merciful, judgmental and forgiving, loving and antagonistic, supportive and removed.  It is all of these things simultaneously and constantly.  What I discern varies with what I am able to receive.

To return to my personal story above, at the point at which I could not bring my problems to God, I was limited to discerning God’s judgmental aspect but not God’s comforting and supportive aspects.  My reception was limited by an image of God as an impersonal, removed, immutable Force.  For months, I worked at a practice that expanded that image.  I imagined God as Ru’ah Ha’olam—the Spirit of the Universe, but also the Wind of the Universe.  I sat imagining God as the air that envelops me like a womb, as the inhalation and exhalation of my breath, as the breeze that caresses my cheeks.  I sat with a black and white photograph of my mother, in her skunk coat and feather hat, holding me at age six months, pressing her cheek gleefully against mine, while I grimaced, and I imagined God in a skunk coat and feather hat, holding me, overflowing with loving pride and annoying me by squeezing my cheek.

Do I believe that God is the air or that God looks like my mother did in 1951?  No more and no less than I believe that God is a king or a rock or fiery volcano.  Every one of our images is potentially heart-opening and potentially idolatrous if we think it is literally true and defining.  In Maimonides’ terms, every image can be held idolatrously as an essential attribute or non-idolatrously as an attribute of action. 

One of the insights that I internalized in those months of practice is that thinking of God as an immutable, impersonal force, like gravity or electricity, is no more or less naturalistic, scientific, or sophisticated than thinking of God as a mother who whimsically hugs her child too hard.  Both gravity and maternal love are natural.

Another lesson that I learned is that the notion that being helpful or loving, for example, is more virtuous and godly than accepting help or taking love in is a culturally conditioned notion and not a timeless principle.  I discovered that part of what blocked me from asking for help or accepting comfort was an inherited value system that severely limits the masculine virtues.  I discovered this by lowering my guard and taking my vulnerability into prayer.  Asking for comfort and forgiveness, I discovered that comfort and forgiveness had always been there for the asking.  And so I found myself building a personal relationship with a non-personal God whose presence can be experienced in personal ways.

The Faith Required

But do I believe that God actually does anything?  When I felt caressed or comforted, was I being caressed and comforted by God?  I do not believe literally that God was aware of me, heard my prayers, and decided to caress and comfort me.  I do believe that at all times, God’s Presence can be felt as caressing and comforting, and that I experience it at particular moments because I become open to receiving it at those moments.

In what sense is such a belief in a non-personal God worthy of the term “faith?”  It is faith because unlike Sigmund Freud or Ludwig Feuerbach, I do not believe that I am projecting my yearnings and needs up onto an illusory God.[xxviii] By contrast, I believe that it was God Whom Moses encountered at Sinai and that each of us discerns and encounters in peak experiences and in quiet moments of intuition.  The rabbinic image of the Voice that calls to us every day from Sinai, saying, “Return, return, you wandering children” gets it right.  At every moment, we are beckoned, invited to see and hear what we have not discerned before.  What we discern, however, is the encounter filtered through our own eyes and soul.

After one presentation on SD at a synagogue several years ago, I was confronted by a serious but disturbed congregant, who is an accomplished scientist. “But how do you know?” he asked.  “How do you know if what you think you discern is really divine?”

First, I explained the practice of SD as a way of admitting possibilities that go unnoticed because we do not admit that they are possible.  Then, I spoke about the intersubjective aspects of SD and how one shares what one discerns.  I went though four or five different ways of addressing his question, only to have him raise it again: “How do you know?”  Finally, I said, “Bill, you don’t know.  That’s why it’s called faith!”

The practice of discernment takes place in the realm of mystery and paradox.  We do not want for other kinds of explanations that function in the realm of what we can know—explanations in the field of biology, endocrinology, neurology, psychology, sociology, anthropology.  One who seeks to discern that which cannot be known with certainty, however, seeks intuitions that are not subject to verification, messages that can’t be recorded or preserved.  Discernment is a definitely subject to the pitfalls of self-delusion.  To insist, as I do, that all human reports of divine intuitions and encounters reveal more about the reporter than about God is to acknowledge the pitfalls.

On the other hand, the denial of any experience that cannot be verified scientifically—the denial of the possibility that God exists and can be discerned—is no less a position of faith than the affirmation of those possibilities.  When you invest the time and effort to develop a relationship with God that is required for the development of any relationship, you are engaged in the same type of activity—psychological and cultural conditioning—in which you engage when you view the world “scientifically.”  In the end, self-delusion is avoided not by a faith-based adherence to verification, but rather by a Maimonidean discipline of humility, in which you remind yourself that all images and experiences of God are colored by our own human, limited souls.


And yet, one certainty emerges for me, over and over again, in my own journey and in the journeys of others that I witness: the certainty that we are not in control, that no matter how much we think we have the territory mapped, there are always surprises.  We are buffeted.  There are forces at work within us and around us that move us in unpredictable ways, and once we open our hearts and let them in, things happen that we did not think possible, things of which we did not think ourselves capable.  Moments of grace and surprise, moments of uncontrolled exuberance, moments of unimagined compassion, moments in which wounds are healed and minds open.  Moments that Jews have traditionally understood as caused by a God who is aware of each of us and governs our lives providentially, but that are also experienced powerfully and lucidly by those of us who believe instead in God as a non-personal Mystery, the Ground of Being.  The blessings are there for all—there to be discerned by all who open their eyes.


[i] Howard Avruhm Addison, “Reciprocal Grace: The Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Direction,” Presence:  An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 10/1 (March 2004), has documented some of these instances (2004), as does Eben Leader in this volume.  Also see Zalman Meshullam Schachter-Shalomi, Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996).

[ii] I am restricting this definition to one-on-one direction with a spiritual director.  The practice takes other forms—namely, Group Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Hevruta, in which the interactions are reciprocal.  The principles, however, remain largely the same.

[iii] Indeed, often enough, the director may perceive his or her own reactions to the seeker as divine promptings, calling the director to his or her own work. The director’s focus, however, remains at the service of the seeker.

[iv]  For one instance of the use of this term, see Hovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart) by Bahya ibn Pakuda, chapter 2, “Sha’ar Habehinah.” translated by Menahem Mansoor (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 150-175.

[v] For a full account of the development of that program, see my article, `I Keep God before Me Perpetually’: The Development of the Jewish Spiritual Direction Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College,” Presence, (Winter 2006).

[vi] At that time, Jewish Spiritual Guidance by Kerry Olitzky and Carol Ochs (Jossey-Bass, 1997) had just been published.  The only other Jewish writing on the topic of which we were aware was Zari Weiss’s article, “Contexts and Cultures in Jewish Spiritual Direction,” Presence 5/2 (1999) and Schachter-Shalomi’s account of Hasidic practice (see above, n. 1).

[vii] Gen 28:16.

[viii] Prov. 3:6.

[ix] Likutim Yekarim #161, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 63b. The text, traditionally ascribed to the Maggid of Mezerich, is believed to be a compilation of unattributed teachings of the first generations of Hasidic rebbes.

[x] See Romans, especially chs. 1-5.

[xi] For just one articulation of this dichotomy, see Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1958).

[xii] One clear example of this revised view of human nature can be found in the rich corpus of psychologist Erich Fromm, who goes so far as to define religions that promote autonomy as “healthy,” in contrast to “unhealthy” religions that infantilize adherents by demanding obedience and surrender to a Higher Power.  See, for example, Escape from Freedom (1941) or Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950).

[xiii] Leo Pinsker’s seminal essay that launched the movement in 1881 was titled, “Auto-Emancipation”!

[xiv] Ps. 23:6.

[xv] Degel Mahaneh Efrayim (Jerusalem: Mir, 1995), p.233.

[xvi] Gen. 3:12.

[xvii] A. Y. Greenberg, ed., Itturei Torah 1:37 (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1972).

[xviii] The Rambam, R. Moses Maimonides, affirms the rabbinic teaching that one acknowledges and overcomes temptation is greater than one who does not acknowledge yearnings.   See Shemoneh Perakim (Eight Chapters), ch. 6, Arthur David translation in A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky (New York: Behrman House, 1972), pp. 376-379.

[xix] See my accounts of this process in “God as Comforter,” in Reconstructionism Today 7/1 (Fall 1999), pp. 1, 4-6, 15; and in “Bless Us, Our Father: Parenting and Our Images of God,” The Reconstructionist (Spring 2000).

[xx] Ps. 139:1-5, translation taken from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (Philadelphia, 1985).

[xxi] The phrase, from Num. 14:20, that follows Kol Nidrei and that precedes each of the selihot (confessional) services of Yom Kippur.

[xxii] Ps. 23:1, 6.

[xxiii] Ps. 42:3, 63:2.  Song 2:5, 5:8, see Shir HaShirim Rabbah.

[xxiv] Ps. 145:14.

[xxv] See Shlomo Pines, translator, The Guide of the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press, 1974), OR Isadore Twersky, editor, A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1972.

[xxvi] Guide 1:51-60.

[xxvii] Guide 2:32-45.

[xxviii] See Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Feuerbach’s The Essence of Religion.

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