Friday, December 29, 1995

Why Spirituality is In, Religion Out (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, December 29, 1995

Is there a difference between “spirituality” and “religion?”
This is not a mere exercise in rhetorical hair-splitting; I've been coming across this question quite often lately. The theologian Arthur Green wrote recently of his dismay over a personals ad found in this newspaper, written by a woman who described herself as a "DJF, 34. Spiritual, not religious." For those in my line of work, the distinctions drawn by that woman are illuminating -- and troubling.

Check out any bookstore and you'll see aisles devoted to what people have come to know as "spirituality," with subjects ranging from "New Age," to Eastern traditions to Native American lore to psycho-spiritual healing. The section marked "religion" is usually hidden in a remote corner and is always minuscule in comparison.

The best seller lists are filled with books on spirituality, soulfulness, seeking, questing, prophesying, myth-making and near-death, post-death, and other out-of-body experiences -- things that religion used to be all about. Books like "The Celestine Prophecy," "The Road Less Traveled," and "Healing and the Mind" have turned the publishing world upside down. There's even a book out called "The Soul of Dogs." Films are into spirituality big-time, especially Disney, which has in consecutive years brought us African animism in the "Lion King" and Native American environmental spirituality in "Pocahontas."

So what is the difference between all this and what people perceive as "religion?" Why does that DJF feel so alienated form her synagogue? In a nutshell: Pocahontas talking to an enchanted tree and living peacefully among the birds and forest animals: that's spirituality. Pocahontas receiving a dues statement from her local synagogue: that's religion. The Lion King feeling whole, purposeful and connected to the entire scheme of things, the "Circle of Life," is spirituality. And the Lion King forgetting how to lay tefillin and therefore never coming to minyan because he feels real uncomfortable: that's religion.

I serve on the clergy team of our local hospice organization. Recently, the staff tried to come up with a clearer understanding of the distinction between "pastoral" and "spiritual" care. In this seminar and in accompanying articles, spirituality was defined as "the gas, the organizing center of one's life which emanates and radiates from within," and religion as "the vehicle, an expression of culture; a set of predetermined standards and practices."

Religion is seen as a lifeless shell, spirituality, which can exist independent from religious structures, is the true source of vitality. The explosive proliferation of 12-step groups, some of which have a pro-spirituality, anti-religion bias, tells us even more about the perception that our institutional religious vehicles have run out of gas.

We in the religion biz have got a bad image problem. But while we continue to bicker and back-bite, everyone else is capitalizing on the seemingly unquenchable thirst for meaning out there. Even a computer company got into the act recently, classifying the ease of setting up its latest hardware as an "out of box experience." With people clamoring for transcendence as never before in our lifetime, with the normal fin de siècle and end-of-millennium religious frenzies building, and with hucksters everywhere cashing in on this massive selling of soul, we can't even get Pocahontas to come to shul.

And why should she? There's passion in nature. There's life. There's God -- in that tree and beyond it. And what does she get in shul? If she's lucky, an ark opening on the High Holidays.

It's easy to put down all these trends as neo-pagan fads, which, like so many over the centuries, will have their day and depart. Long after the names Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers have passed from memory, people will still be chanting the Sh'ma and studying Rambam. But to rely on that is to ignore the tides of Jewish history. For we have had our religious revivals too, those moments when spirituality (i.e. God) and organized religion were seen as incompatible, when the hot passion of the one overtook the frigidity of the other and eventually transformed Judaism. Check out the book ofJob, the 7th century BCE reforms of King Josiah or the early Pharisees' critiques of the Temple-based traditions of their era.

The last great Jewish revival was the rise of Hasidism two centuries ago. The next one is going on now, but more likely at your video store than at your synagogue. A quick shave, some hair dye and a few weeks on the treadmill, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the Baal Shem Tov and Pocahontas.

At Sinai, our ancestors said, "Na'aseh V'Nishma," "We shall do and then we shall understand." It is the passion of the doing that will help bring understanding. "Doing" doesn't just mean the performance of rote ritual, but the act of cleaving to God as an expression of one's whole being. The early Hasidim dubbed it "Hitlahavut," from the Hebrew root "lahav," "to set ablaze."

We've got to restore the "gas" to our sanctuaries, classrooms and boardrooms. Mainline Protestantism, discouraged by declining church membership, has recently tried to rediscover passion in its practices. American Judaism, which for too long desired to become Protestantized and succeeded all too well, now must follow suit with its own critique of pure reason.

The rabbi can no longer be seen as the Jewish Answer Man, the embodiment of rationality, diplomacy and calm. If we are to reunite religion and spirituality, it is the heart of the spiritual leader that must be exposed for all to see, not the head. The music of Jewish spirituality must rush forth from the rabbi's soul, as well as every congregant's. Otherwise the rabbi risks becoming part of the shell and the synagogue an empty, hollow echo of a shell that once was filled with God, but no more.

All the talk about Jewish continuity seems like pointless chatter when the answer is so close at hand. Let's stop the talking, put down that grant application, go outside, listen to the spirit of God residing in the trees, and silently hum a b'racha. While we continue to commission surveys and blow hot air, the answer is just outside our windows, blowing in the wind. The equation is simple: Spirituality, God, is the pure oxygen that can ignite our souls. Religion, Judaism, is exactly the same.