Jewish Spiritual Direction

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January 1, 2003
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by Jacob J. Staub

The Jewish Spiritual Direction (JSD) program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is now in its fifth year. After a decade of experiments with “spirituality programs,” RRC implemented the current program with the support of The Nathan Cummings Foundation. The object of JSD is discernment – to cultivate one’s ability to discern God’s presence in one’s life, to maintain an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, to explore ways to be open to the Blessed Holy One in challenging, difficult, and joyful moments.

The Psalmist was considering this goal with the words, “Shiviti Adonai lenegdi tamid [I place the One before me perpetually].” R. Bahya Ibn Pakuda spoke about it in his Second Gate as noticing the Divine traces in all things. Maimonides wrote about it in the culmination of the Guide as experiencing the Divine kiss. In the depths of darkness, the Piesetzner Rebbe emphasized such discernment to his Hasidim in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Jews have effectively cultivated this awareness in the past by davvening three times a day (Jewish men, anyway) and by reciting berakhot (blessings) at dozens of moments each day. JSD does not replace these practices. Rather, it enhances them, by moving us to a state of awareness in which such practices resonate with our experiences.

One of the great challenges for contemporary liberal Jews is sanctifying the everyday. We are aware of God while singing together in synagogue, or when we witness a sunset, a birth, or a wedding. We have more difficulty, however, on supermarket checkout lines, in traffic jams, or in proceeding through our daily routines.

The JSD program offers students three options: individual or group Jewish Spiritual Direction, and Spiritual Hevruta. Individually, students meet with their directors monthly for one hour. (Our eight directors–six rabbis and two transpersonal psychologists-are trained and supervised by Barbara Breitman.) Each meeting begins in prayerful silence that is broken when the student is ready to speak. The “director” listens attentively for moments in the student’s narrative at which God (however the Divine is named) sparkles through. She or he calls attention to a word, a moment, or pattern and brings the student back to it. In this way, students build up a vocabulary of sacred experiences that we then notice the next time they occur. Through this process, students define their own quests – which may or may not involve God, the Divine Process, the Holy, the Mysterious.

The impact on RRC culture was immediate and striking. With 75 percent of our students participating voluntarily (a percentage we have maintained in subsequent years), discussions in academic seminars and in the halls suddenly were focused on the inspiring and sacred. People had words to describe experiences that are awkward to articulate in the larger secular culture. Moreover, there has been a dramatic rise in student participation in communal spiritual practice – presumably because the idiom of traditional ritual and prayer now resonates more intensely.

Students also have the option of participating in supervised Spiritual Hevruta, where a pair of students commit to meeting weekly for an hour of mutual contemplative listening, or Group Spiritual Direction, where four or five students meet monthly with a director.

The discipline of Spiritual Direction was developed in the medieval Christian monastic tradition and has undergone a dramatic recent revival in liberal Catholic and Protestant circles. Once translated into a Jewish idiom, it is well suited because of its insistence that there are different spiritual “types” – intellectual, devotional, activistic, familial, aesthetic. It does not presume prayer or ritual to be the only, or preferred, mode of discerning God’s presence.

As our rabbis go out to work in pluralistic and diverse communities, it will serve them well that they have developed a practice of discernment that will sustain their spiritual needs and that they have a way of approaching Jewish religious practice that begins wherever a person finds sparkling moments in his or her life.

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Jacob Staub is Academic Vice President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He is co-author of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach.

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