A minor controversy has erupted in the Anglo-Jewish press in recent weeks over women in two New York Jewish day schools expressing a desire to wear tfillin at the school’s morning prayers. Truth is, most Jews don’t put on tfillin at all, ever. Some have therefore said that we ought to applaud these young women’s “search for spirituality.”
And yet, there is an angle to this story that has not been addressed in any opinion pieces or blogs that I’ve seen. It’s really one of the big questions of modern Jewish life, and in a nutshell it is: is spiritual seeking on my terms or on God’s terms?
I learned long ago that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice. I recall reading the words of a Jewish journalist writing about his stay in a resort hotel in the South Pacific. He explained to the manager that he would be observing a special day of rest (a Shabbat, of sorts) that Friday night and Saturday, so the thoughtful hotel hostess brought him a sumptuous meal of a steaming bowl of rice covered with shrimp. The writer was very moved by her hachnassat orchim (welcoming guests)! Feeling a sense of kavod haberiyot (honour for humankind), how could he refuse her hospitality? He ate the whole thing. Not only can we do whatever we like, the cleverer among us can even fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a mitzvah.
The question remains: on whose terms is the spiritual pursuit undertaken? The modern view is: whatever makes you feel good and doesn’t hurt others. If I find comfort and meaning in eastern spirituality, Hindu texts, Sufi meditation, why not? It’s all good. That salad bar of spiritual tidbits is the meagre meal of the contemporary spiritual seeker.
But if I seek a relation on God’s terms, then it must be not merely what makes me happy (although Jews are supposed to be happy). It should be what God wants. How do I know what God wants? The Jewish understanding of this over the past 3,000 years is called Torah.
Even though I believe that I’d feel more “spiritual” on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, Torah tells me, “What’s wrong with a minyan right here in Toronto?” If I feel that tfillin should be green, made of 100 per cent post-consumer product, inscribed with Wordsworth’s poetry, and wrapped around my leg, Torah tells me: sorry – black, leather, Shema, and the arm and head.
I’m fond of using the example: if you want to call or email me, I can give you my phone number or my email address. If you call a number that is “more meaningful” to you, even if it’s off by one digit, you won’t reach me. You may reach someone else and have a wonderful conversation, but if your hope was to contact me, only one cellphone number will get you through. And if you forget the dot in my email address, the message won’t go anywhere. Only if you write the address or dial the phone number exactly as I tell you, will you be able to connect. So it is with Torah and mitzvot.
If the quest for “spirituality” is about connecting with something beyond ourselves, larger than ourselves, it’s only effective when we reach out to the Divine on Divine terms, not human terms. That’s the issue missing from most of contemporary discussion about modern Jewish practice and how we relate to God.