Spiritual Authenticity: Breaking from Religious Conformity

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
April 20, 2014
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Consider how Thomas Jefferson viewed our modern era, guided by self-government and privileged with scientific progress. Jefferson believed that periodic revolutions were necessary so as to restore freedom and independent thinking, shake power structures, and relive the struggle for self-rule so as to be a part of the community and state:

May it be to the world the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs.

We should look at our generation with the same hope and promise that Jefferson did with his. We have been blessed with so much! Yet these same blessings have led us to succumb to routine and conventionality. It is time we break from this conformity, religiously and socially, and seek spiritual authenticity.

We are in desperate need of deeper moral struggle in religious life today, for individuals to wrestle autonomously, in dialogue with text and community, with moral problems. We must break free from the bondage of spiritual conformity and our routine methods of thinking about and addressing moral quandaries. Religious life that is driven by the social fear of being placed outside the camp has ceased to be an authentic religion of value. We must rebuild a culture of authentic, courageous, honest, encouraged spiritual exploration and service.

There is significant value to having ethical norms respected in society and in our various religious communities. Yet, we must not be satisfied with these ethical norms—we must not stop there. Lawrence Kohlberg, the founder of the modern academic field of moral development, taught that conformity to law and societal norms is an average level of moral development. Ultimately, one must live by conscience and principle, which may at times be opposed to social norms and spur a higher level of moral development.

This is the purpose of religious life—to open us to a higher calling. The great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elaborated on this point eloquently:

There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no place without a fragment of G-d’s light waiting to be discovered and redeemed; no situation without its possibility of sanctification; no moment without its call. It may take a lifetime to learn how to find these things, but once we learn, we realize in retrospect that all it ever took was the ability to listen. When G-d calls, He does not do so by way of universal imperatives. Instead, He whispers our name—and the greatest reply, the reply of Abraham, is simply hineni: “Here I am,” ready to heed your call, to mend a fragment of Your all-too-broken world (To Heal a Fractured World).

Let us shed the fundamental misunderstanding that has come to plague our theological discourse and divide people. Our world is broken and we must echo that simple, yet profound, reply of Abraham—hineni­, here I am—and heal the world that we have, undoubtedly, contributed to fracturing. We must realize that religious life is not about absolutes or relatives, but about living the values we have chosen to adhere to. We cannot look to any outside authority to awaken our own spiritual intensity or to arouse our heart to our own moral and spiritual calling. We must do that work on our own, albeit in community. Our tradition is rich and beautiful yet demanding, and we must faithfully serve others in the way that all those who have come before us have; for this is what spiritual authenticity is about. In the spirit of Jefferson—the time for revolution is now!

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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