The Journey Home: Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Traditionby Lawrence A. Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman
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Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is widely recognized as a leader in bringing spiritual innovation into modern Jewish life and worship. Now, drawing on a lifetime of study, he explores the Jewish way of being in the world -- the Jewish relationship to God and to questions of human purpose that lie just below the surface of biblical and rabbinic literature. This is Jewish spiritual wisdom -- the wisdom that unites thousands of years of texts and ritual. In learned but accessible language Hoffman discusses: the importance of blessings, that quintessentially Jewish form of prayer, and what they reveal about the Jewish worldview. the meaning of study in Jewish life, and what it tells us is sacred. the spirituality of being a "landed" religion, and what Israel stands for in the Jewish imagination. the significance of Jewish metaphors for shaping our lives. how Judaism speaks spiritually even to the suffering. The Journey Home is a book for spiritual seekers everywhere: Jews looking for the spiritual component of Judaism, Jews estranged from their roots, and non-Jews who wonder what Judaism has to say about life's great questions.
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The Journey Home
Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition
By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
Copyright © 2002 Lawrence A. Hoffman.
All rights reserved.
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.
My first brush with spirituality came with an unexpected question, back in 1975. Literally and metaphorically, I was far away from home, giving a guest lecture to the theology department of the University of Notre Dame on the rituals of Passover. "What is the spirituality of the seder?" a woman wanted to know. "You have talked for a week, covering every conceivable aspect of the Passover experience, but not once have you addressed anything spiritual. Isn't there such a thing as Jewish spirituality?" Unbelievable as it may seem a quarter of a century later, I was at the time completely stumped: I had no idea what to say.
The next day marked my return in more ways than one. I was newly committed to discovering the spiritual foundations of Judaism, and my journey home to Jewish spirituality is still in process.
More than twenty-five years have passed since then, but the curiosity over Jewish spirituality has only grown. Now, not only Catholics at Notre Dame want to know what it is. Everyone is asking the question. And they are mostly getting the wrong answers.
The search for spirituality is endemic to North American society. Its sociological roots lie in the demise of extended families, neighborhoods, and ethnic communities. Demographically, it is an outgrowth of baby boomers reaching middle age; their parents living longer in retirement years; and the generation in their twenties and thirties postponing marriage and looking for some abiding principles of life as they change careers and try out new identities. It comes from the information explosion that instantly connects us with far-off traditions we once would have considered alien. It arises from the panoply of worldwide religious traditions migrating from countries we never heard of to our own neighborhood and workplace. It is a consequence of feminism, which has successfully critiqued the solo voice of corporate men in church and synagogue seminaries and boardrooms. It is the result of a national distrust of institutional wisdom and a concurrent failure of denominations to speak as compellingly as they once did. Psychologically, it grows from the "me-generation" claim that each of us has a self; that the self is sacrosanct; and that the self needs nurturing within, not just without.
It is especially important to see just how pervasive the spiritual search has become. It is not just a leisure-time project of intellectuals; spirituality has become big business, fueled by rampant marketing in a popular vein. Booksellers stock every conceivable tract on the life of faith. I have yet to encounter The Underground Guide to the Babylonian Talmud or Thomas Aquinas for Fools, but I know they are coming. They will sit alongside an undifferentiated mélange of offerings on such topics as returning from the dead, health foods from the Bible, channeling, and Rolfing.
Spirituality was mainstreamed in the 1990s. A 1994 Newsweek cover trumpeted "The Search for the Sacred: America's Quest for Spiritual Meaning," and two years later, the magazine diagnosed America as "hooked on the paranormal." By 1998, even the Wall Street Journal ran a lead story about executives who hunt down spiritual directors to monitor the state of their soul for "internal movements of God"; and as late as July 2001, Fortune magazine carried a cover story entitled, "God and Business: The Surprising Quest for Spiritual Renewal in the American Workplace."
This popularized spirituality was a far cry from what anyone could have predicted back at Notre Dame in 1975. My serious questioner at that lecture would have been astounded by the quiet giant of a man I met years later who identified spirituality as the inherent quality of crystals to reverberate sympathetically with the body's hidden reservoir of wholeness; or by another air traveler who thought she was spiritual because she could identify colored auras around the heads of would-be passengers and, from them, determine whether they would arrive safely at their destinations.
Maybe some people do benefit from crystals; maybe the magnetic fields that indeed surround our brains are visible to some. I don't know. I remain open on these things. But I am suspicious of pop interpretations that claim falsely to be scientific and miss the really serious side of the spiritual. Jewish insights that go back two thousand years to the Rabbis and, before that, to the Bible itself may not be scientific; but they are not unscientific either. They avoid the intellectual pabulum that passes for truth these days, offering genuine wisdom instead.
What I find especially troublesome is the way the suspiciously spiritual spirals down into the occultthe realm of Tarot cards, teacup leaves, and the entrails of animals. I am no hardened Philistine, mired so deeply in modernism that I cannot get beyond religion reduced to radical reason. I count myself among the many who suspect they are being had, however, by the more extreme rhetoric of spiritual access to special powers, but who do not on that account want to give up the belief in a kind of spirituality that is very real, consistent with science, supremely important, and (in my case) Jewish to its core. Ever since my Notre Dame lecture, I have been coming home to these authentic roots of Jewish spirituality that had somehow eluded me for so long but that now sustain me. I am discovering that on this, my journey home, I have lots of company.
Jewish spirituality begins with the Bible's claim that there is a region of experience called the Holy. It surfaces in times of awe, or in daring notions of harmony, hope, and goodnessin the prophet Isaiah's vision of the heavens, for instance, and in his older contemporary Micah's demand that we live profoundly here on earth. This biblical spirituality was adopted and then transformed by the Rabbis of late antiquity, who made it part and parcel of the historic quest for meaning that we now call Judaism.
By the nineteenth century, the claim to holiness was being echoed more loudly than ever, but it had been divorced from its spiritual moorings. My own branch of Judaism, the movement we now call Reform, championed the sacred but denounced the mystical. It restricted Judaism to the bounds of modern liberal ethics and the syllogistic sterility of logical rationalism. That was why I was so taken aback by my questioner in the Notre Dame lecture hall. Spirituality? In five years of rabbinic school and four more years of graduate study, no one had ever so much as mentioned the word to me. No wonder I didn't even comprehend the question.
The 1990s spiritual revival is epitomized in Mollie, a Jew by birth and training, who seeks spirituality but not religion, from which she is alienated. She has launched her own private search for a spiritual home. She wants to recapture her Jewish soul, thinks of herself as a Jew, but is investigating other faiths as well to find some generic sense of God, and wisdom enough to unify her world within and the world without. Mollie's spiritual testimony sounds mushy, soft, and soppy, but that is just because she never learned "proper" theological language to describe it. It is the Mollies of the world who become Jewish BuddhistsJew-Bus (pronounced "Jew-Boos"), as they are knownwhen they find a ready Buddhist rhetoric for the objects of their inchoate quest; the Mollies, too, who love the idea that Judaism might also somewhere harbor meaningful mystagogy (as Catholics call it) that is, mysteries to satisfy the soul. Too bad synagogue Sunday schools had all been clones of the no-nonsense schools of rationality described by Charles Dickens in Hard Times: all their principals named Mr. Gradgrind; their teachers, Mr. McChoakumchild; all duly appointed "commissioners of fact" (as Dickens puts it), Jewish fact, we should say, "who will force the [Jewish] people to be people of fact, and nothing but fact." From People of the Book to People of the Fact, and for most Jews who grew up the way I did, spirituality failed the "fact test": It was unlike Jewish history, say, or Hebrew grammar. When my wife and I went to enroll my eldest son in a Jewish day school and asked the principal what the school's philosophy was, he replied, "Like the Talmud says, 'When they're young, stuff 'em like oxen.'" Mr. Jewish McChoakumchild: alive and well.
The problem was that my five years of seminary training and four years of doctoral work had been given over entirely to "getting stuffed like an ox" on datain my case, the history of Jewish prayer and related literature. I could date familiar prayers to their time of origin, trace the history of Jewish prayer books, explain liturgical revision, discuss medieval prayer-book art, and even think through the way prayer worked once upon a time when the absence of cheap paper made a written prayer book inaccessible to all but the elite. But I had never considered Jewish spiritualitythe very idea of which sounded strange to me that day at Notre Dame.
It was as if someone had asked me to discuss "national migraines." Now, I know what the words national and migraine mean separately, but I do not automatically think of combining them. Only after thinking about it for a while does it occur to me that there might be a category of things aptly described by them together: road construction coast to coast, perhaps, or a garbage strike in every city across the nation. Similarly, I recognized both Jewish and spirituality as perfectly good English words, but it did not occur to me that they went together. The adjective Jewish (I thought) described myself and what I and others Jews teach about my tradition; spirituality (I imagined) was a particular something-or-other (I wasn't sure exactly what) that Christians talk about. Only relatively recently have we begun to see that spirituality is not just Christian. It is not like Christmas carols, the Eucharist, or the Gospel of Lukethings really Christian in their essence. Spirituality is more like ethics and theology, the sort of things you find in many religions but clothed in particularistic religious garb that make them Muslim or Christian rather than, say, Hindu or Native American.
Once upon a time, Jews would have responded equally quizzically to the idea that there could be Jewish ethics and Jewish theologynot because Judaism dismisses morality and belief, but because English is so dominated by two thousand years of Christian thought that Christianity has cornered the linguistic market describing such issues. So, too, the classical Western literature on spirituality is monopolized by Christian authors, but there is no reason to think that spirituality cannot be Jewish. It is just that Jews have not generally thought through what their own kind of spirituality is. No one ever asked. But that day at Notre Dame someone did, and, as a result, I can now see what was not clear to me back then. I know now that Jewish and spirituality do go together to describe something real.
What the Notre Dame questioner wanted to know (although I am not sure she knew that she wanted to know it) was how learned and spiritual Jews would talk among themselves, if they were to have a readily accessible vocabulary of Jewish spirituality, and how I could describe Jewish spirituality to others in a way that remained true to Jewish experience but understandable to outsiders. She was not the only person who wanted to know that, however; I did, too! There had to be some form of Jewish spirituality, but I needed proper words for it: something other than the Christian lexicon defining Christian experience in the light of Christian theological concepts but tangential to what Jews know as familiar experiential landmarks of their lives.
What most Western thought takes as spiritual rhetoric is largely foreign to traditional Jewish discourse, which, unlike its Christian parallel, did not emerge from the schools of the Roman empire where Greek philosophical thinking was modified for theological debate. The closest Jews come to that Hellenistic ideal is Philo, a first-century Alexandrian philosopher whose topics are marginal to rabbinic Jewish consciousness. By contrast, his Christian counterparts, such as Clement and Origen, were central to early Christian rhetoric. Over the centuries, Christians specialized in talk about the things the philosophers debated: essences, truths, and absolutes. Jews did not. I could not readily answer my questioner at Notre Dame because the language of spirituality (like the language of theology) is a foreign implant for Jews. It is not that Jews have no ideas that correspond to such Christian theological topics as revelation and salvation, but it takes a sort of translation process to arrive at what our parallels are, since we do not normally think in those terms. By now, a hundred years of Jews doing theology has modified the foreign sound of theology; not sonot yet, anywayspirituality. We have learned to make Jewish sentences about "salvation through works, not just faith," for instance. Parallel sentences about spirituality still sound strange to Jewish ears; they are like tomorrow's spring fashions imported from a Christian designer to be tried on for size. As Jews using Christian terms, we may be like women trying on men's jeans during the period when women wore only dresses and skirts; it was not as if women couldn't wear them, but the jeans weren't exactly contoured for their bodies. It took good designing to reshape jeans as women's wear. So, too, with ideas clothed in words. It is not as if Jews can't use those words, but it takes work to make them fit. With words and ideas, the redesign is best thought of as translation.
Here is the problem: Jewish categories can end up being translated in such a way that they become utterly Christianized, in which case they cease being descriptive of what Jews actually experience. Or Jews can answer questions about Christian categories by simply translating old Hebrew documents into modern English and then pointing to them as if to indicate what the Rabbis would have said if they lived in our time and spoke English. These two pitfalls can be called, respectively, "satisfying the anthropologist" and "going native."
Satisfying the Anthropologist and Going Native
I keep a cartoon on my office door that pictures a family of natives living in a thatched hut in some far-off jungle. They are frantically carrying off their television set, freezer, and stereo system to a hidden alcove. The caption reads, "Quick! Get these out of sight; the anthropologists are coming, the anthropologists are coming."
Inquiring about Jewish spirituality is like being an anthropologist in a strange culture called Judaism in that we want to know what Jews have to say about topics they never actually talk about. Anthropologists who set up camp in a strange village might, for instance, be interested in family relationships, which they have learned in their doctoral studies to call kinship systems, a term the natives have never heard. So, the field workers have to ask the natives about other things to get to that information: how do males "get a woman" perhaps, or "why do people call their mother's sister's daughter their sister rather than their cousin?" Imagine, however, some crafty native informants who have gotten hold of an anthropology textbook, figured out what information the anthropologists want, and have decided to save their questioners a lot of trouble by answering right away, "Oh, the kinship system; certainly. We are matrilineal and matrilocal." Unwary anthropologists would record such statements at their own peril, even if they were true. The anthropologists would have translated the culture into proper scientific categories but missed the whole point of what they were there to find: how these people may be similar to others, but still special in their own way. Alternatively, imagine that all the anthropologists get is the usual native interpretations, which they dutifully record but then decide not to translate into scientific categories. They would then publish a book that transcribes in English exactly what they were told by the natives; but, again, they would have missed the point, this time capturing native perceptions but never conceptualizing them in a way that is useful to people other than the natives, who hardly need anthropologists to tell them what they already know.
Excerpted from The Journey Home by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. Copyright © 2002 by Lawrence A. Hoffman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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author of Sacred Fragments: Recovery Theology for the Modern Jew, and Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Theology Seminar of America
Meet the Author
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of liturgy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is a regular contributor to The Jewish Week and lectures widely to Jewish and Christian audiences. Author of Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, coauthor of What Is a Jew?, and editor of the My People's Prayer Book series, Hoffman is also the author of many scholarly works on Judaism. He lives in Rye, New York.
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