Jewish Spiritual Direction: Fundamental Assumptions

Our view of reality can be transformed when we ask, “Where is God/the Holy in this?” and “What is the invitation/opportunity at this moment?” Gradually, we can build a relationship with what is beyond our ability to conceive.

My interest in Jewish spiritual direction stems from memories of my Bubbe, my mother’s mother, who arrived in America from the Ukraine when she was 17 years old. The Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, was Bubbe’s constant companion. She spoke to him often and davened the traditional prayer services three times a day. But even when she wasn’t praying or conversing, God was right beside her in her awareness. My image of God is not like my Bubbe’s, but I have always yearned for a way to maintain perpetual awareness of the Blessed Holy One, of the sacred mystery underlying all of existence. Jewish spiritual direction has been my entry into that state of awareness.

In the practice of Jewish spiritual direction, a person meets with their spiritual director, usually for one hour, usually monthly. The objective is to cultivate your ability to discern the holiness/the mystery/the Divine in all aspects and in every moment of your life, or, in traditional Jewish terms, to “know God in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6). The “method,” if we want to call it that, is that the spiritual director is a companion and a witness who walks with you on your journey, offering loving, supportive, non-judgmental, undivided attention to your narrative as you sit together in the presence of the sacred. In the safety and loving regard thus provided, new experiences, feelings and insights—heretofore overlooked in the bustle of life or buried for a variety of reasons—emerge.

The spiritual director does not direct. That is, the spiritual director does not impose their beliefs or values on you; it is up to you to decide what or who it is you are seeking on your spiritual journey, and your spiritual director employs your language and beliefs. The practice does not require a belief in any particular image of God, or a belief in God at all.

The spiritual director also does not fix anything, nor do they encourage you to resolve problems you are facing. The operative questions are (depending on your beliefs and language): “Where is God in this?” “What is the invitation/opportunity presented by this circumstance/experience?” “Where in your body does this feeling reside, and can you touch that spot compassionately?” “What do you think this looks like in the eyes of God/the Universe/Eternity?” If your marriage is disintegrating, a spiritual director will ask “What are you being called to do?” They will not assume that it’s best for the marriage to be repaired. If you have lost your job or experienced the death of a loved one, a spiritual director will sit with you in your pain and explore where you might find support, and which sources of comfort might help you to experience the pain and respond with resilience in your own time.

The practice of spiritual direction was adapted from ancient Christian monastics by liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics in the post-World War II decades. We at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College first heard of it in 1998, and we were intrigued because its premises allowed for a diversity of beliefs and a nondirective approach[fn]For a more detailed account, see my article “I Keep God before Me Perpetually: The Development of a Jewish Spiritual Direction Program,” Presence (Winter 2006): 10-16.[/fn] to companionship. Over two decades, we have found that this practice is extremely well-suited to meeting the spiritual needs of people with different spiritual orientations and with widely varying beliefs about God.[fn]For an example of how Christian and supernaturalist idioms can be transformed when spoken in a Jewish naturalistic idiom, see my essay “Jewish Theologies and Spiritual Direction,” in Jewish Spiritual Direction: An Innovative Guide from Traditional and Contemporary Sources, edited by Howard A. Addison and Barbara Eve Breitman (Jewish Lights, 2006), pp. 3-20. For a look at Jewish versions of spiritual mentoring through the ages, see Howard Avruhm Addison, “Reciprocal Grace: The Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Direction,” pp. 53-61, in the same volume.[/fn] While Jewish spiritual directors do not assume or require that the people they sit with believe any particular thing, they do share assumptions and beliefs about human nature and experience. Those beliefs include the following:

1. The sum total of your perceptions is a small fraction of what there is to perceive. For the sake of efficiency, we move through our days focused on our particular objectives at any given time, screening out everything that is not relevant or useful. Moreover, what we notice is determined by our prior beliefs and sense of what is real and possible.

Spiritual directors invite us into an experience of contemplative listening, paying the kind of attention that responds to more than your words. Each meeting begins in prayerful silence, sitting in the sacred presence, a silence that allows directees to notice what is arising in them. When directees break the silence and speak, they speak from a different perspective. Directors listen with open hearts, intuitively noticing what arises in themselves in response to their directees, often asking directees to reflect upon a word or a moment in their narrative to see if there is more to notice there. Often, there is more to dwell on, and the directee discerns more than they had before. Each monthly hour invites the directee into richer, deeper feeling and noticing, into a greater awareness of what is unseen and beyond definition—an awareness that they practice increasingly in their daily lives. “Blessed is the One who makes the blind to see,” we say in the morning blessings.

2. Deeper awareness is of great value. A sense of the cosmos, of the existence of a universe in which all things, large and small, are interrelated, can provide gifts of buoyancy, awe and humility, counteracting isolation and a compulsion to understand conclusively why things are the way they are. The broader our awareness, the greater our sense of the ineffable—that which cannot be expressed in words.

Similarly, an increased awareness of the subtle movements of our psyche/soul provides an appreciation of the gorgeous complexity of every human being. It guides us away from hasty judgment—of others and hasty self-judgment—and it provides us with the space to reconsider before we speak or act hastily.

What/who is it that we discern? Whether you believe in a personal God or a non-personal process, as your awareness grows more subtle, you find yourself increasingly in the presence of a great, awesome reality (Psalms 92:5).

3. There are as many ways to experience the mystery as there are individual people. Each of us has a unique path, and the sacred meanings shining through our experiences are conditioned by who we are. That is why spiritual directors are nondirective and do not assume that they grasp the meaning and significance embedded in their directees’ narratives. Instead, they ask open-ended eliciting questions. They don’t ask, “Were you inspired by the sunset?” Rather, they probe: “I invite you to go back to that moment. What was your experience?” Not everybody finds sunsets inspiring.

In fact, there are many spiritual “types” or paths. Some people connect to a greater reality intellectually, by reasoning, by studying texts. Some connect emotionally, through prayer, song and ritual. Some connect when they perform deeds of lovingkindness and/or engage in social-justice work. Some connect relationally—through connections to family or friends—or creatively, through art or craft. And some people enact their sense of the unfathomable depths of true reality through iconoclasm, by smashing what they perceive as all idolatrous beliefs that claim falsely to represent the truth that is beyond us.[fn]For two discussions of spiritual types, see Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Friend (Paulist Press, 1979), and Corinne Ware, Spiritual Types (Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).[/fn]

None of us is a pure spiritual type, and all of us are dynamic souls whose spiritual orientations change over time. Thus, spiritual directors are unable to predict when one’s heart might open and whether it will open through communal song or through working at a soup kitchen. Blessed is the One who surprises us (hamafli la’asot), we say when we acknowledge the wondrous fragility of our bodies.

4. Wonderful transformation can occur when a seeker is provided a nonjudgmental, loving, safe place to see things anew. Initially, the experience of the director’s complete attention is a new or rare experience for most people. Eventually, directees notice that they are not being judged, evaluated or analyzed. When they eventually come to trust that their director is truly at their service, as a reliable companion who midwifes the birth in them of a new way of seeing, the pool of their consciousness settles, and they see intuitions and insights long hidden beneath the turbulence.[fn]Margaret Guenther explores the ways that a spiritual director serves as midwife in Holy Listening (Cowley Publications, 1992).[/fn]

It is in this nonjudgmental, loving attention that Jewish spiritual direction is perhaps most distinctive as a spiritual practice. In general, we all expect to be judged—you agree or disagree with what I say, you believe or don’t believe as I believe, you approve or disapprove of what I say or do, you identify empathically with my experience and make suggestions about how you think I should act, you tell me how what I am saying or doing affects you. There are so many passages in biblical texts that refer to God’s love of us no matter what we do, but we rarely, if ever, experience that kind of hesed in the course of our lives. You can indeed “take refuge” in the figurative embrace of your spiritual director, and the fruit of that relationship is both heart- and mind-opening. The directee is loved into speech. “You love us with a great love,” we say in the morning prayers.

5. A relational connection with God or with a greater reality can be cultivated through practice. All relationships require attention and cultivation. You do not need to “believe in God” to begin your spiritual journey or at any point along that journey. What is required is an interest in and willingness to turn, to experiment with a different perspective: bathing in the light (“In Your light we see light” [Psalms 36:9]) for some, or taking in the gift of resilience embedded in the universe (healing those who are broken-hearted, [Psalms 147:3]). Sometimes, a person who does not “believe” in God will warm to chanting a line from the end of the worship service, “I place my spirit in God’s hand … God is with me, I will not be afraid,” and this regular chanting practice moves them to an experience of equanimity, without reference to whether they believe that God is literally watching over them.

In a secular context, I am alone, or perhaps alone with others with whom I am connected, but I/we do not feel connected to the universe as a whole or to an unseen reality. My daughter-in-law affectionately calls God, “Grandpa’s imaginary friend,” and she is correct that faith of any kind is a product of one’s imagination. You cannot demonstrate the existence of God, no matter how you define God, or of an ethereal light or even of love. Everything can be explained in terms of biology or physics. But one may choose to turn and to notice what is not scientifically measurable, and to practice that discernment until we live in a world that is transformed by how we see things (“How awesome is this place” [Genesis 28:17]).

6. Being “connected” is rewarding. Not everyone has spiritual aspirations—that is, not everyone seeks to be connected to a reality greater than themselves or deeper than they are currently aware. But for those who are sufficiently interested to seek a spiritual director, the cultivation of an awareness of the mystery and sanctity of existence can enrich our lives, render us more lovingly attuned to ourselves and others, more inclined to self-examination and the cultivation of ethical behavior, and more alert and sensitive to injustice and the suffering of others.

7. Relinquishing our aspirations to control our destiny and the destiny of others is a desirable outcome. We are taught to take responsibility, and we are indeed responsible for the choices we make. We cannot, however, control what happens to us or to those we love.

This is difficult. We have been conditioned to think that self-reliance is the ultimate virtue, and so we tend to regard self-compassion as a weakness, as self-indulgence. Even when we “know” intellectually that we can’t control everything, we indulge in hubris: If only I had done x, y would not have happened—as if we were puppeteers who have the ability to pull all of the right strings.

“I need help; I can’t do this alone,” is difficult to say if you don’t believe in a God who is aware of you and ready to come to your aid. But becoming aware that you are human—and therefore fallible and not all-powerful—often frees us to be self-compassionate and self-forgiving, and to be more compassionate and forgiving to others. Those who believe in a supernatural God know that God forgives. They take refuge in God’s presence (Psalms 34:8). Those who don’t believe in a forgiving God must learn that forgiveness and compassion are Divine, and they can learn that from the love and compassion they receive from their spiritual directors. (“God’s love and compassion are never-ending” [Lamentations 3:22]).

8. Being in a prayerful state is much more than asking for God’s help. Often, when people say they don’t know how to pray, they mean that they can’t bring themselves to ask God for something when they don’t believe in a God who responds to petitions. By contrast, when Jewish spiritual directors talk about being “in prayer,” they are talking about maintaining an awareness of the sacred aspect of reality, or experiencing the Divine presence in all moments, or feeling a connection to the greater reality of being. It is a state of heart/mind. The traditional analogue to being “in prayer” is the practice of reciting 100 blessings each day, thus constantly reminding yourself that God is the source of everything. Being “in prayer” is about walking through your life in a state of gratitude, awe and loving compassion. The practice of davening the words of the traditional worship service transports some people into this state. The challenge is to maintain this mode of awareness when one is not davening.

9. What some call “God” is beyond accurate description or definition. Therefore, what matters is how we experience and relate to the indescribable One, not the particular words that any one individual uses to describe it. This conviction is the foundation of Jewish spiritual direction, leading to a radical openness to different ways of being spiritual. Directors are nonjudgmental, birthing ever-new connections to the sacred mystery of existence.

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