What Matters Most to You?: Growing into Spiritual Conversation

Judging by my conversations with many of you, this has been the movie-going season.  Have you seen a movie in the last few weeks?  The Wolf of Wall Street?  Saving Mr. Banks?  Is The Wolf of Wall Street offending people because it glorifies a criminal or because it’s just too soon after Madoff?  Can we love Mary Poppins even as we acknowledge the anti-Semitism, racism and sexism of Walt Disney?As many of us consider the intersection of ethics and entertainment, we can engage in great conversations, because we have the language.  We see the reviews, we know how to talk about a powerful performance, and how to respond to someone else’s experience of a transformative story.  This is a conversation that interests us, a conversation that involves what matters to us and a conversation we know how to have.

Two years ago, in a study that pre-dates the Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, people were asked about their involvement in a different kind of conversation.  In a survey of Jewish spirituality, Jews were asked about their interest in, and resources for, conversations about spirituality, God, death, and matters of inner-life.  As a whole, Jews responded low on interest in, and comfort with, spiritual matters.

On all questions, when it came to interest in Jewish spirituality, Jews of younger age scored higher than their elders. When responses were subdivided, scholars learned that intermarried families in the Jewish community scored higher on the Jewish spirituality scale, than families with two Jewish parents.  The next generation, and the intermarried couples who enter Jewish life–the very demographics that so worry the readers of the Pew Study–these younger and intermarried in our midst bring us the gift of Jewish spiritual language and yearning.  Perhaps it will be our young adults and our intermarried families, who, along with many others, help to grow a spirituality conversation that interests us, that involves what matters to us, a conversation we know how to have.

And this moment calls for growth. For in the study, even with those high-scoring among us, most of our community did score low on interest in, and comfort with, spirituality.  Why does it matter?  What is Jewish spirituality?  And why do we need current, relevant, deep experiences of spirituality in Jewish life?

Recent sociological studies about the next generation’s yearning for meaning can serve as a motivation.  And recent stories about Sunday Assembly secular congregations who seek meaning but have given up on religion’s ability to remain relevant, can serve as a cautionary tale.

But external motivation and cautionary tales aside; we need spirituality in Jewish life because we need to make our community deeply relevant.  Synagogue has to be a place where we bring all that we are, where we reflect together on the meaning of our experiences.  A place where we discover and express compassion, purpose, holiness, gratitude, connection.  That is Jewish spirituality.  And that is the conversation that, more and more, we need to learn how to have.

Is this endeavor, Torah is our greatest teacher.  The Song of the Sea, the part of this week’s Torah portion Beshalach, seems to tell the story of our great metaphor for liberation:  the Israelites’ redemption at the Sea of Reeds as they escape the Egyptians and step onto the dry land of their freedom.  Yet, the words of the Song of the Sea do not tell the plot of  the story–they follow the story. With these words the Israelites cry out their  response to the experience.  The Song of the Sea is the Israelites’ expression– it’s their spiritual conversation.

Within this passage, in v. 2, are the words: Ozi v’zimrat yah, vayehi li, lishuah.  Ozi v’zimrat: The verse is consistently translated: God is my strength and my might, this will be my salvation. Ozi means strength, but zimrah doesn’t really mean might; it means song.  God is my strength and my SONG; this will be my salvation.  God is my song–God is something I express, I share, I cry out.  In my expression about God, there, I find salvation.  In sharing my experience of God–or of meaning, or of life’s largest questions, or of being a part of something greater than myself–whatever you want to call it– in sharing my experiences of what deeply matters, I come come closer to redemption, closer to wholeness.

Song at the Sea is not the telling of the story.  It’s the response to an experience. The shared reflection of an encounter with fear, vulnerability, gratitude, heartbreak, survival, change, release.

When we bring our song–our responses to our world– into our conversations, that is Jewish spirituality.  Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who spoke here some years ago, teaches that in order to shape a spiritual community, we need to have something spiritual to say.  100 years ago philosopher Franz Rosenswieg introduced the notion of “New thinking”– a relational approach to thinking out loud with someone else in the conversation.  Rabbi Hoffman teaches “new thinking” or what he likes to call “new talking” as he understands that relevant spiritual conversation demands the willingness to try out new sentences by talking differently.

 A first step?  Reflect on what matters to you today. Perhaps you are determining how to become a one-car family, or you are feeling release about having made a heartbreaking end-of-life decision, or you are noticing that your i-phone is glued to your palm even when you are talking to a friend who is standing right in front of you, or you are wondering how your children will learn to entertain themselves when they are so programmed, or you are weighing your elderly parent’s options for long-term care.   Reflect on how you want to grow, to be more present, to show more compassion, and then try out a new sentence. Think out loud with another person–share it with someone on your way into, or out of, the sanctuary.  That is Rosensweig’s “new-thinking.”  That is a spiritual conversation.

God is my song–spiritual journey is something I express.  In sharing my experience of what deeply matters, I come come closer to redemption, closer to wholeness.  Ozi v’zimrat yah, vayehi li, lishuah.  God is my strength and my song; this will be my salvation.

Source: Jewish spirituality survey by Lawrence Hoffman and Steven Cohen, and perspective on Rosensweig’s “New Thinking” both rooted in “Beyond Romanticism: Having Something Spiritual to Say,” Lawrence Hoffman, in The CCAR Reform Jewish Quarterly.