Reimagining Jewish Spirituality: Acts of Loving-Kindness

April 1, 2014
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When one thinks of “spirituality,” words like “meditation,” “personal reflection” and “prayer” often come to mind. We may imagine attending an idyllic retreat center or a Buddhist temple miles away from civilization. While these experiences may foster inner growth, engaging with Jewish spirituality is a radically different encounter. Our temples are in the crowded streets of our cities, and our highest spiritual practice occurs when engaging with our fellow human beings, seeing God in every person. But how does an individual cultivate an intensive spiritual practice within such a chaotic world? As Jews, we experience God through hesed, everyday acts of loving-kindness, by transforming ideals into deeds, as the sages of the Talmud teach: “One who gives to the poor merits to receive the divine presence.” (Baba Batra 10a)     

As part of a generation that has grown more alienated from institutions like the synagogue, we aim to create a Judaism that is deeply spiritual at its core and always accessible — regardless of time, space, or financial means. Everyday acts of loving-kindness are as important as daily prayer. As Abraham left God in the plains of Mamre to greet strangers, so, too, we must seek people wherever they may be. Rather than following the classical model of creating institutional programming in the synagogue, we will bring spirituality into the streets; our synagogue will be mobile. We will offer fresh food, a welcoming face, and a listening presence as part of our weekly communal service. We will redefine our daily human interactions as spiritual encounters with the divine.

Prayer, the normative mode of Jewish spirituality, can be fully realized only by first tending to the other. Our rebbe, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, advocates for a similar outward spirituality, but he ultimately believes that nurturing a personal spirituality needs to come before helping the other. Our hesed model of spirituality, though, has a different starting point. The Talmud teaches us that Rabbi Eliezer would give tzedakah to the poor before beginning his morning prayers, as it says in Psalms 17:15, “In righteousness, I will see your face.” Encountering your fellow in a moment of vulnerability is to see God. Therefore, a prerequisite for an individual’s inner, spiritual practice of prayer must be caring for one’s fellow human beings. This concept became so pervasive that Maimonides declared that he had never heard of a Jewish community without a tzedakah box. (Mishna Torah, Matanot L’evyonim 9:3) Hesed is not an alternative to prayer, but a necessary intention to precede it. Though self-work is crucial, it is only complete — indeed, it can only be started — after reaching out to those who are struggling.

Even more so, our joy is intrinsically connected with others and their wellbeing. The Rambam reminds us: “Eating without feeding the poor is not rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of one’s gut.” (Mishna Torah Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18) During the reading of the Haggadah, we are told, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” This must not be a symbolic gesture; it requires practical planning and sincere invitation. Our failure to do so compromises our spiritual practice and ultimately ruptures our relationship with God. As the mystics teach, “He who separates himself from his fellow, it is as if he caused a division in God.” (Tikunei Zohar: Tikkun 1)

Judaism’s classic home for spirituality is modeled after the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where God’s presence was most palpable. Aaron, a man defined by his love and pursuit of peace, was the conductor of this holy work. He understood that, before reaching to the divine, wholeness and peace must exist among the Jewish people. Our relationship with God — our spiritual practice — is directly correlated with our behavior toward our fellow human beings. We must offer a Judaism that is relevant and impactful, and we must not succumb to cynics who claim that our charge is unrealistic or a break from tradition. If we are truly to begin our work of cultivating a spiritual practice, how much longer can we ignore the cry of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

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Jon Leener and Avram Mlotek are students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Leener is currently the rabbinic intern at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Md. Mlotek, a Sh’ma blogger, serves as the rabbinic intern at Hillel at Hunter College and at the Carlebach Shul Synagogue in New York City.

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