Six Jewish Spiritual Paths: A Rationalist Looks at Spirituality

Six Jewish Spiritual Paths: A Rationalist Looks at Spirituality

by Rifat Sonsino

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The quest for spirituality is universal, but with so many paths of spiritual nourishment to explore, how do we begin to find the one that is right for us?

“Our tradition provides us with appropriate vehicles to express our spirituality within the framework of Judaism. Jewish sages, taking into account the need and makeup of the individual Jew, have been very generous in outlining for us various alternatives…. As you become aware of your emotional and intellectual needs, and search for an appropriate path to meet them with integrity, you will soon realize that you have a preference for certain paths among the many.”
—from Chapter 9

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino—a self-proclaimed rationalist—offers a candid, comprehensive discussion of the major paths to spirituality within the framework of Judaism, and the differing way each path can help us on our quest to nourish the soul and enlighten the mind.

Acts of transcendence, prayer, meditation, study, ritual, relationship and good deeds…which is the best path for you? How can you follow it?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781580236973
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 01/03/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 206
File size: 675 KB

About the Author

Rifat Sonsino, scholar and rabbi, is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts. Ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, he holds a degree in law and a Ph.D. in Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies. He has served as editor of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal and is the co-author of Finding God—Ten Jewish Responses and What Happens after I Die? Jewish Views of Life after Death. He and his wife, Ines, have two children—Daniel and Deborah—and are the proud grandparents of Ariella.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Spirituality—What Is It?


The term spirituality is very popular these days. Very often it is combined with other concepts, such as living in harmony with nature, following one's own inner voice, seeking purpose and meaning in life, searching for the Ultimate, for God. Spirituality has also been equated with the idea of transcendence, either through self-realization or in connection with the divine. The language of spirituality is now part of the regular parlance of ordinary life. People are even delving into "health care spirituality" and the "spirituality of shame."

    The thirst for meaning and purpose that comes after a period of personal crisis or reflection, such as the death of a loved one, has always caused people to search for spirituality. The question is this: why has our generation turned to seeking a form of transcendence so diligently? Why now? Many reasons come to mind, for example, the realization that science cannot solve all our problems and a resulting disappointment with our technology-oriented life; the precarious life we live under the constant threat of war, violence, and tragedy; and the understanding that we are not the center of the universe as we experience the world becoming "smaller" thanks to global communication.

    The quest for spirituality is a universal phenomenon. Contrary to popular belief, it is not limited to Eastern religions. And while some are seeking religious renewal outside the faith of their birth, many others are searching for higher levels of awakening within their ownreligious framework.

    Jews are part of this search as well, and have been for a long time. And now they too are seeking spirituality with great fervor. There may be particular reasons for this renewed interest. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun and one of the contemporary leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement, notes, "It is no wonder that after having faced massive and staggering destruction and dislocations, many Jews feel spiritually and emotionally dead.... It has taken many decades for Jews to feel secure enough to begin to renew the spiritual tradition." Rabbi Arthur Green of Brandeis University suggests a related factor: "the high level of material success that many have attained over the course of these four generations." This point is highlighted in the Utne Reader as an example of a lack of spirituality in our media and popular culture; Bill McKibben writes, "For a long time in our lives, materialism was more fun. Why? Because we didn't have much stuff. We lived on the farm or in the slum, we lived through the Depression, our material lives were pretty bleak.... But here, the middle and upper classes have reached a saturation point where new things no longer provide an added increment of pleasure."

    Many contemporary Jews, however, find Judaism wanting in spirituality. Though they strongly identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism, they find that Jewish religious practices inhibit their quest. "I am a cultural Jew, not a religious Jew," they say. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the most important leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement today, writes, "Jews everywhere are on a quest motivated by a malaise, a feeling that there must be more in Judaism than the cut-and-dried version frequently encountered in contemporary services. The seeker [is] in search of a way to express spiritual stirrings, and a practical method with which [to] develop that holy source within so that it will begin to flow freely." Similarly, Dr. David Ariel, president of the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, says, "Many of us do not find our faith to be a significant factor in our lives or a compelling guide to life today. We search, often in vain, for a spiritual home in Judaism. Our spiritual aspirations are often high, but Judaism does not seem to be sufficiently spiritual .... We feel Jewish, but we find it difficult to put that feeling into words."

    In the last few years, many inquisitive Jews have in fact sought spiritual enlightenment in Eastern religions or in the meditative spiritual techniques of foreign cultures. Today it is not uncommon, for example, for Israeli young men and women to leave Israel after army service to travel in the Far East in search of transcendental experiences, often in order to find an alternative to rigid Orthodoxy in Israel. Many have explored Buddhist teachings, and some have even left the Jewish religion altogether. But others have remained Jews, though Buddhism heavily influences their religious beliefs. These so-called JUBUs (Jewish-Buddhists) do not see Judaism and Buddhism as incompatible. In fact, it is the congruence of the two approaches that brought many of them to conclude that they can be both at the same time.

    However, there is no need for a Jew to seek spirituality by looking elsewhere in other cultures. Judaism has a very rich spiritual tradition of its own. This is not to deny that other societies lack religious fervor or that they cannot enrich our own quest. Judaism has frequently incorporated elements from the surrounding cultures into its own fabric, and is open to inquiries from any searching mind.

    Today, the quest for spirituality is a high educational priority in almost every Jewish institution. Whereas social action used to be at the head of the Jewish community's agenda, it is spirituality that now occupies center stage in response to our society's high premium on individuality. Jews want to know what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century. How does being Jewish affect me as an individual? To meet this ever-increasing need, many rabbis and educators have started to talk more about God, faith, and the meaning of life in Judaism. Classes and seminars are now being conducted throughout the Jewish world on religious subjects, as people recognize the limits of pure rationalism as the basis of contemporary Judaism and want something more. And many Jews are responding favorably. Through weekend retreats, adult education seminars, and intensive community educational programs, significant numbers of Jews from San Francisco to Sydney are studying about Jewish history, customs, ceremonies, values, and beliefs. The path of Jewish mysticism and, particularly, the study of the Zohar, the masterpiece of Spanish Kabbalism of the thirteenth century, are particularly popular topics of discussion in synagogues and community forums. Universities are offering classes on general Jewish topics and even Kabbalah to an ever-increasing student population, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Some people are meeting in living rooms to study mysticism with private teachers. In many areas, Kabbalah has even reached the masses: In Tel Aviv, the Kabbalah Learning Center has a display in the central bus station.

    What is presently needed is for seekers to look for and find legitimate avenues of spirituality in Judaism, being careful to avoid viewing one single path as the only valid approach. Regrettably, some thinkers have in the past promoted—and many still do—this kind of path by pointing, for example, to Kabbalah or mysticism as the exclusive way. There is no doubt that the mystical approach is a legitimate way to experience spirituality, but it is not the only possible one within Judaism.

    It is important that whichever spiritual avenue a person chooses for himself or herself, it should not only meet the needs of the heart but also be compatible with reason. As Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, the Great Lakes Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and author on spirituality, warns us, "Beware of the spiritual path if it does not invite the mind to gauge its sense of reality."


While many struggle with the terms and content of spirituality, some Jewish thinkers strongly argue just the opposite. They claim that spirituality, by itself, is antithetical to Judaism. To many Jews, spirituality evokes monastic life, otherworldliness, and the awesome silences of dark cathedrals, so alien to the values and experiences of many Jews. No wonder some of the reactions are very strong. "I do not require 'spirituality,'" writes Rabbi Harry Essrig, the publisher of The American Rabbi. "It is enough that I have Judaism. If more Jews attended Sabbath services, if more Jews observed the beautiful rituals of our faith, if more Jews attended adult education classes, if more participated in the struggle for social justice, would we not have a superabundance of 'spirituality'?"

    Other Jewish thinkers who are critical of this spiritual quest fear that focusing on nonworldly matters will severely limit our ability to deal with pressing everyday issues. Francine Klagsbrun, an author and a Jewish activist, warns that spirituality must not become "a substitute for the rigors of scholarship, for wrestling with reality, for struggling with the nitty-grittiness of existence."

    In a similar vein, others fear that spirituality will take people away from their involvement in social action. "Certainly I am not opposed to any effort that will bring our people closer to God and His kingdom, but I would like to see some of this aggressiveness and zeal applied to tikkun olam, the repair of society, as well," writes Rabbi Harold L. Gelfman of Jacksonville, Florida. Then he adds, "One of the greatest fears I have about this 'spirituality' is that it makes us believe that our problems can be solved by simplistic solutions, by the right attitude, by the right words.... Spirituality in our day is a subtle form of assimilation."

    Charles S. Liebman, a prominent writer, questions the validity of spirituality as an appropriate religious orientation: "Spirituality is not the answer to the Jewish problem. Spirituality is the problem." He adds, "We are commanded to be a 'holy,' not a 'spiritual' people, and the musar [Jewish ethical writings] literature is concerned with holiness, not spirituality." He advances three major objections to this trend: (1) Its informality borders on the "leisure-time ... that includes chatting with God." (2) Its egalitarianism ends with the "reification of selected attributes of the individual himself." (3) Its ethical ideals are based on the proper intention and ignore the requirements of the rituals that are to be carried out according to custom and law. Liebman concludes by saying that spirituality "substitutes a Judaism focused upon the legitimation of self." As such, it is "a recipe for disaster."

    Dr. Michael Chernick, professor of Talmud at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, expresses concern about what he calls "warm fuzzies spirituality," which, he says, is narcissistic in nature and reduces God to a source of personal pleasure. Still other critics question whether spirituality is an authentic Jewish value, arguing that it reflects a dualistic approach to the human being—divine soul and earthly body—which is more Greek and Christian than biblical and rabbinic. These critics maintain that such a dualism, at the very core, implies a debasement of the human body, claiming that it is nothing but a prison for the nonmaterial spirit.

    True, the Greek and Christian views of spirituality are based on dualistic thinking, but that does not necessarily mean that Judaism is devoid of spirituality altogether or that it has to be defined in Greek and Christian terms. As we shall explore, it can be argued that an authentic Jewish spirituality is indeed rooted in Jewish sources and is compatible with Jewish thinking. It can satisfactorily meet the needs of Jews today. Unquestionably, all the caveats mentioned above must be taken seriously, but they do not warrant an avoidance of the spiritual quest, which is rooted, I believe, in the human need to transcend oneself in search of answers to life's existential questions.

    Any kind of exclusionist approach will turn off those of us who cannot, on the basis of thought or practice, sign onto a particular spiritual path and will cause us to feel as if we are not legitimate within the system. In reality, Judaism has a rich tradition of spirituality and provides distinct avenues of religious expression that can nourish the soul and satisfy the needs of the mind as well. Where do we find these answers?


Though spirituality is popularly discussed in many sources, there is no clear definition of this term. It has become like a buzzword, dealing in general with liturgy, ritual, study, meditation, community, social justice, and certainly God. Rabbi Jeffrey J. Weisblatt (z"l) of Temple Ohev Shalom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, put it succinctly: "There is no one definition for it."

    Although not all Jewish thinkers agree on a definition of spirituality, several have been proposed. Here are a few examples:

• "Spirituality may inclusively be regarded as the sum of the efforts of the human psyche, individually and collectively, to attune to the impulses and rhythms of the universe, whether internal to the individual or external in nature." (Dr. Martin A. Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)

• "Man's spiritual life can easily be thought of in three divisions: his pursuit of truth, of beauty, and of moral goodness." (Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn [1910-1995], Temple Israel, Boston)

• "Spirituality, as I understand it, is noticing the wonder, noticing that what seems disparate and confusing to us is actually whole." (Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Philadelphia)

• "The striving for life in the presence of God and the fashioning of a life of holiness appropriate to such striving." (Rabbi Arthur Green, Brandeis University, Boston)

• "The cognitive and/or behavioral activities designed to help individual and community to reconnect to God." (Deanne H. Shapiro and Johanna Shapiro, psychologists at the University of California, Irvine)

• "The immediacy of God's presence." (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Rabbi-in-Residence, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)

• "Spirituality is essentially a way of responding to God, becoming conscious of God." (Rabbi Jeffrey J. Weisblatt [d. 1995], Temple Ohev Shalom, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania)

• "Spirituality is the process through which the individual strives to meet God." (Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, Jewish Outreach Institute, New York)

• "A highly personal outlook about what is sacred about us; it is the expression of our most deeply held values, and it is that sense of higher purpose that guides our daily lives." (Dr. David S. Ariel, Cleveland College of Jewish Studies)

    We can see that these definitions are not that different from one another and that they share connections. My personal preference is to define spirituality as broadly as possible, seeing in it an overarching experience involving our search for meaning and purpose in life.

    Spirituality is an act of will as well as a process. But primarily it is a state of mind. It can—and should—lead to action and often does, but basically it elevates our spirit and makes us more aware of ourselves and the place we occupy in life. Ultimately, it brings us closer to God as the source of our existence. Living a spiritual life enables us to reach a comprehensive and integrative sense of our purpose and role in life—in effect, mindfully placing ourselves in God's universe suffused with God's wonders. I define spirituality as simply "the awareness of standing before God," no matter how the term God is defined within the larger Jewish tradition, and whether or not God can be "met," "experienced," or "felt." In this definition I hear an echo of the text on top of many synagogue Torah arks: "Know before whom you stand" (Ber. 28b). When we really "know"—in the sense of reaching an intimate inner transformation, as in the Hebrew term da'at ("knowledge")—that we are standing before the Ultimate Source of Reality, we are filled with awe and wonder, and we consequently respond to the divine and to the reality that surrounds us with an open heart and total commitment.


In modern Hebrew, the term spirituality is usually rendered as ruhaniyut. This word is based on the Hebrew word ruah, which is frequently combined or used with two other Hebrew words: nefesh and neshamah. Over the course of time, these words have become almost synonymous, meaning "spirit" or "soul." In the past, however, these terms had more restricted meanings. To gain a better understanding of spirituality in Judaism today, it is appropriate to survey the development of these words in the Jewish sacred texts over the centuries.


The root meaning of ruah is "wind" or "a movement of air." For example, when Moses in one of his confrontations with the Pharaoh held out his rod over the land of Egypt, the Bible tells us that God drove an "east wind" (ruah kadim) over the land all day and all night (Exodus 10:13). Similarly, according to the Book of Proverbs, "A north wind [ruah tzafon] produces rain" (25:23). It is also in this sense that we read, at the beginning of creation, that "a wind from God" (ruah Elohim) swept over the water (Genesis 1:2).

    The word ruah, by extension, also means "breath." Thus, God tells Noah, "I am about to bring the Flood ... to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is the breath of life" (ruah hayyim) (Genesis 6:17). In the Book of Job, one of Job's companions, Eliphaz, says that the wicked person shall "pass away by the breath of His mouth" (ruah piv) (15:30). Job himself complains that "My odor [literally, 'my breath,' ruhi] is offensive to my wife" (19:17).

    The word ruah also refers to "prophetic spirit." For instance, when the disciples of Elisha saw him crossing the Jordan, they shouted, "The spirit of Elijah [ruah Eliyahu] has settled on Elisha" (II Kings 2:15). When Joseph was able to interpret the Pharaoh's dreams to the king's satisfaction, the Pharaoh asked his courtiers, "Could we find another like him [namely, Joseph], a man in whom is the spirit of God [ruah Elohim]?" (Genesis 41:38).

    The word ruah frequently means "spirit" in the sense of disposition, vigor, temper, courage. Thus, for example, during the days of Joshua, when the local kings heard what God had done on behalf of the Israelites, "they lost heart, and no spirit (ruah) was left in them" (Joshua 5:10). The Book of Proverbs praises the one who has "self-control" (moshel ruho) (16:32). After Pharaoh's second dream, the Bible tells us, he woke up because "his spirit (ruho) was agitated" (Genesis 41:8).

    In the rabbinic period, the sages expanded the definition of ruah to include demons as well. Thus, for example, we find in the Talmud the following statement: "R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar stated: In all those years [after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden] during which Adam was under the ban, he begot ghosts (ruhin) and male and female demons" (Erub. 18b). Centuries later, in Spain, the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1125-1204) used the term to mean "intellect," "purpose," or will." In modern Hebrew, ruah combines most of these meanings and refers to "wind," "spirit," or "mind."


Another Hebrew term connoting "spirit" is nefesh, a word related to the Akkadian napishtu or Ugaritic npsh, meaning "throat." (A trace of this original definition can be found in Psalms 105:28: "an iron collar was put on his neck" [nafsho].)

    In time, by extension, the term came to mean "a living being," "the person himself/herself." Thus, for instance, in Job 12:10, we read: "In His hand is every living soul [literally, 'being,' nefesh kol hai]." Similarly, when God blew into Adam's nostrils the breath of life, he became a "living being" (nefesh hayyah) (Genesis 2:7). Speaking about his sons Simeon and Levi, Jacob prayed, "Let not my person (nafshi) be included in their assembly" (Genesis 49:6). In the Book of Leviticus, many laws begin with the words "If a person ..." (nefesh ki ...) (Leviticus 5:1, 2, 4, 15, 17, 20, etc.). The word nefesh can sometimes best be translated as "life." For example, when someone murders another, the penalty is "life for life" (nefesh tahat nefesh) (Exodus 21:23).

    In certain contexts, the word nefesh also refers to human feelings, as, for example, in Exodus 23:9, where the law tells us not to oppress the stranger, "for you know the feelings [nefesh] of the stranger." When paired with a qualifying adjective, nefesh is used at times to express the fulfillment of basic human needs, such as "For He has satisfied the thirsty [nefesh shokekah], filled the hungry [venefesh r'evah] with all good things" (Psalms 107:9).

    In rabbinic literature, nefesh took on the additional meaning of "soul," "desire," "will," and even "a resting place," "a cemetery monument." Many medieval Jewish philosophers used it in the sense of "rational soul." In modern Hebrew, nefesh is a general term for "soul," "spirit," "person," "self," "mind," "will," "tomb," and so on.


In the Bible the basic meaning of neshamah is "breath," very much like ruah. Thus, in the Book of Isaiah, we read, "Oh, cease to glorify man, who has only a breath [neshamah] in his nostrils" (2:22). Very often, this word is used synonymously with nefesh, as in Joshua 11:11, "They proscribed and put to the sword every person [nefesh] in it. Not a soul [literally, 'a person,' neshamah] survived." At times, it appears in combination with the word ruah, as in Genesis 7:22, where we are told that during the Flood the devastation was so great that "All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life [nishmat ruah] died."

    The word neshamah also refers to the divine vital principle that makes an individual a person. Thus, for example, when God created Adam, God blew into his nostrils "the breath of life" (nishmat hayyim), and he became a human being (Genesis 2:7). Similarly, according to the Book of Proverbs, "the life breath of man [nishmat adam] is the lamp of the Lord" (20: 27). In rabbinic literature, the word means "a person" but also an independent "soul." In modern Hebrew, neshamah refers to "soul," "spirit," or "life" and often has the connotation of "a good person."

Nefesh, Ruah, and Neshamah as Levels of the Soul

For some Jewish thinkers, each of these three terms for spirit or soul plays a special role in the development of a human being. According to the Zohar, nefesh, ruah, and neshamah, collectively called NaRaN, form a sequence from lower to higher: nefesh enters at the time of birth and is the source of vitality; ruah is postnatal and is aroused when a person is able to surmount purely physical desires; and neshamah, the highest of the three, is developed when a person engages in Torah and its commandments and "opens his higher power of apprehension, especially his ability to mystically apprehend the Godhead and the secrets of the Universe." And according to this hierarchy, "At death, the nefesh remains in the grave, lamenting over the death of the body. The ruah ascends to whatever level of celestial paradise it has earned by the merits it has accrued, and the neshamah goes directly back to the fullness of God."

    For Rabbi Wayne Dosick—teacher and author, and spiritual guide of the Elijah Minyan in San Diego—the soul has not three but five different levels, radiating from the innermost to the outermost level, which is the level of union with God. Nefesh represents the physical being, ruah stands for the qualities of our uniqueness, and neshamah, separating us from animals, reflects our ability to think, reason, and remember. Here Rabbi Dosick adds two more levels: hayyah is our life force, and yehidah is our intuition, "where the singular, unique oneness of each soul crosses the abyss and knows that there is no distance to Yachid, the Infinite Oneness of God."

    The shades of meaning of these three Hebrew words—ruah, nefesh, and neshamah—point to the emphasis in Jewish thought and tradition that a human being is more than a physical entity. There is in him or her an invisible element described by the Jewish mystics as a divine spark that enables every individual to aspire for something greater than the self. This assertion is the basis of any kind of spirituality.


"The impulse behind the new spirituality," writes Rabbi Neil Gillman, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, "is the primacy of feeling." Obviously, the experience of spirituality is a highly personal matter. What appeals to one individual does not always appeal to another. Two people who experience the same event may respond in opposite ways: one considers it as highly spiritual, whereas the other feels it as inconsequential. There cannot be one type of spirituality that is valid for everybody. Life experiences show us that there are various types of spirituality, just as there are different kinds of people.

    Authentic Jewish spiritual expression takes different forms. Whether one chooses to explore it through acts of transcendence, study, prayer, meditation, or relationships and good deeds, each alternative expression, practiced separately or with the others, must be considered an authentic expression of Jewish commitment.

    Furthermore, these paths of spirituality are not mutually exclusive. In other words, a person who expresses his or her spirituality primarily through Torah study can also, on other occasions and under different circumstances, experience a spiritual high through a good deed or during a meditation session. An insight obtained during prayer may lead an individual to carry out a mitzvah for another human being. A religious ritual may at times elevate one's soul to great spiritual heights. As spiritual experiences these special moments are like roads that intersect at some points and then separate from one another. They may be practiced one after the other. One person may prefer to combine two or three together. They are like pentimento, wherein one image in a painting overlies an earlier image but does not obliterate it. They are like fabrics in which one shade of color is interwoven with another. We are not dealing here with parallel lines of spirituality but with paths that often meet in an upward movement toward a Light that uplifts the spirit and makes one whole.

    It is said that Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his students, "Where does God dwell?" Thinking the answer obvious, one of them said, "God dwells everywhere!" "No," said the Rabbi, "God dwells wherever we let God in." Each person must do this according to his or her own personal needs and disposition.

    The challenge for the modern Jew is to understand these paths, to assimilate them, and then to choose, out of the plethora of Jewish ideas, the approach to spirituality that best expresses a sense of personal transcendence.

    Where can we find these Jewish sources? What are the alternatives open to us in Jewish spiritual expression? In the next chapters we discuss some of these paths in greater detail.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction • 1. Spirituality—What Is It? • 2. The Jewish Spiritual Quest from Biblical Times to the Present: A Historical Survey • 3. Spirituality through Acts of Transcendence • 4. Spirituality through Study • 5. Spirituality through Prayer • 6. Spirituality through Meditation • 7. Spirituality through Ritual • 8. Spirituality through Relationship and Good Deeds • 9. Finding Your Spiritual Path • Abbreviations • Notes • Bibliography • About Jewish Lights •

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