Communal Spirituality: Finding Holiness in Others

April 1, 2014
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Rabbi Arthur Green provides a beautiful expression of the spiritual life, a paradigm of the spiritual human being, where almost all of the basic foundations of Judaism — Torah, Sinai, Creation, Exodus from Egypt, and God — come alive with joy and passion. Our kabbalistic tradition teaches that God, the Jewish people (Yisrael), and Torah are one. The individual model of spirituality that Green portrays captures these different elements and supercharges them; the Torah is reinvigorated in our spiritual lives and God is reinvigorated as well. But one piece is missing: the Jewish people, the community, the other. Sometimes, spiritual people tend to ignore the world around them, feeling that once they have discovered God by looking inward, why would they ever dare to look outward? At the end of his essay, Green raises the question of whether a spiritual quest can actually become self-indulgent — focusing only on the “me” and on how meaningful one’s relationship with God is. To prevent the spiritual seeker from becoming self-absorbed, we must add another layer and another life goal to personal spirituality: communal spirituality. Just as personal spirituality asks us to find holiness in what is normally mundane in our individual lives and activities, communal spirituality asks us to look outside and beyond ourselves to see the holiness in others — in our families, our communities, our people, and the world.

Looking inside at our souls, we may find greed, bitterness, jealousy, pettiness, and so many other character traits that disgust us. But the kabbalistic idea associated with looking inward offers the hope that ultimately our souls are beautiful and holy. If we could only peel away the layers that cover our pure souls, we would find beauty and majesty underneath and the strength to then connect to God and godliness — to think about Sinai and freedom from Egypt and all the great things in this life that are holy when viewed from the prism of the pure soul. Perhaps this work of personal spirituality needs to come first, before we open up and look beyond ourselves at a very imperfect world. Personal spirituality gives us self-confidence and the ability to resist so many of the superficial temptations of this world. But if personal spirituality is all we go for, then it is indeed greedy and the greatest lost opportunity.

The Torah famously does not begin with an act of personal spiritual perfection, symbolized by mitzvot and the holiness of the Jewish people — or even the holiness of Sinai. Rather, the Torah places us in a real world, where the first human beings, and then the first Hebrews, struggle with connecting to the world around them. Abram is not told to stay where he is and look inside himself; he is told, along with Sarai, to go to another land, to leave one community and to form another one. All the matriarchs and patriarchs are challenged by their families and communities, and each must learn how to work with — or sometimes against — them. Our tradition endows these biblical figures with a spiritual dimension, but their struggle, and humankind’s ultimate struggle, is about how to harness that personal spiritual dimension in order to impact the world around us.

The ability — the imperative! — to transform our personal spirituality into a force that enables the community in which we dwell to connect with God and to imbibe the spiritual energy of  its constituents can be termed “communal spirituality.” Communal spirituality asks us to move beyond making our own relationship with God meaningful and holy. It asks us to move toward enabling the community to enter into that spiritual relationship. This means not only that our souls are ultimately reaching for God, but also that the entire Jewish people is connected to and shares a destiny with God.

The imperative of communal spirituality demands not only that we seek to grow the spirituality of our own locality, but also that we, as Jews, seek to reach out to ever-larger communities. For example, the State of Israel needs our love and support and our leadership in order to grow in communal holiness and spirituality. We look to Israel, the historic homeland of our people, as a state that now contains the hopes, dreams, and fears of our people. Israelis — religious, traditional, or secular — know how much effort it takes to build a moral and healthy community. And those of us who aim to live a life of personal spirituality need to help the state find a way to bind itself to God, Torah, and Jewish peoplehood — to share this journey with us.

We sanctify God’s name, kiddush haShem, when the inner sense of soul and the divine command us to do acts of kindness, or to courageously stand up against a bully, or to join with a community in singing the Shabbat service. Our personal spirituality morphs into communal spirituality.

Moshe knows that he cannot remain in his own blissful palace. When he goes out to see his brothers and sisters, he sees their suffering and responds. And, in Midian, he takes this journey to its logical conclusion: He defends Tzipora and her sisters, none of them Hebrews, from oppression. It is in Midian, and later at Sinai, outside of the inner palace of the Jew or of the Holy Land, where the mission of the Jewish people is given. Moshe and the Torah offer us a model to consider: Start with building one’s personal spiritual life, but then address the larger gathering of Jews, and then, the people we have never met before — the Midians, far away from us — who inhabit the world that God created. This enables us to fulfill our godly mission as human beings and allows us to realize the potential for good that our souls and our bond with God contains. Let’s use that powerful way of living to look outward and continue to make this world a place of holiness and a place for God’s everlasting presence.

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Rabbi Asher Lopatin is president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern and open Orthodox rabbinical school that trains men to be Orthodox rabbis who serve the Jewish people and the world.

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