The Time for a Spiritual Judaism Is Now

A patient lies on an operating table bare of expression. Years of an unbalanced diet have taken their toll. His heart has stopped and but for the grace of the machine that keeps pumping his blood, he would expire. Doctors work to keep him alive and restore his vital organ.

Such is the state of spirituality in much of the Jewish world today. While millions upon millions of dollars are poured into Jewish causes for the sake of the continuity of the Jewish people -- may we live and flourish -- these lifelines are doomed to failure, flailing attempts that grasp for life from the midst of lifeless carrying-on and the impending doom of irrelevance.

Spending some time in India and Nepal a little over a year ago, I met an amicable 30-something Jewish guy from San Francisco who was spending three months on retreat at a Buddhist meditation center in Nepal. "Want to hear a joke?" he said to me. "Sure," I replied. "What do you call a Jew in California?" "What?" "A Buddhist."

He thought that was funny. I thought it was sad. Being just one day before the Passover seder, I asked if he had plans. Not this year, wasn't going to work out. I started to share with him some of the inner teachings of Judaism about liberation and the seder. He stood dumbfounded, struggling to find words with the shock at the possibility that he could actually feel at home in the tradition he was born into, that it might actually bear some relevance to his life and the spiritual path he felt drawn toward.

A modest estimate reckons there are 100,000 Jewish Buddhists. And that's not including the tens of thousands of Hindus, Sufis and New-agers, or those who have just dropped out altogether, or even those who live traditional and religious lives, but have no awareness of the teachings and possibilities for deep personal growth and awareness within the Jewish tradition. The vast majority of these people have never been exposed to a spiritual Judaism or Jewish spiritual practice, and you can't blame them: It is hard to find. I spent some time running an open house for Jewish spirituality in India and met hundreds of Israelis, almost every one deeply thirsting for spiritual nourishment, yet so many deeply alienated and calloused by years of exposure to hyper-politicized, xenophobic, coercive Judaism that has everything to do with what you wear and what you don't, and little to do with awakening to the Divine and manifesting love for your neighbor. They were shocked and awed that Judaism could speak to their lives.

I have friends whose parents have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in years of Jewish education, camp and time in Israel (all worthy pursuits) only to find them in college and their 20s asking questions which their teachers never raised or knew how to answer, and struggling to understand why any of this matters. Tens of thousands of college students go on Birthright and have wild times and crazy parties and hook up with Israeli soldiers, "bonding" for the first time with the Jewish state, but beyond memories and national pride, have no real sense of why Judaism matters or what role it might play in their emerging adult lives.

I lament from a place of privilege. An array of opportunities and gifted teachers over the years have brought me against all odds into a deep engagement with the sources and practices of a spiritually vibrant Judaism. What's missing for so many of my peers is a sense of simple relevance, of a path of simple presence. In our pathologically busy society where people are ever-more connected but actually more alienated, isolated, lonely, and longing, there is an enfeebling silence in the face of the ever-asserting question of Genesis: Ayeka, where are you amid all this?

The 2008 National Survey on Spirituality by Synagogue 3000 says 50 percent or more of Jews want to know how spiritual exploration, meditation and sacred text can relate to their lives. Seventy-eight percent want their rabbis to talk about spiritual issues. People are yearning for a sense of context and groundedness for their lives. They want structure to build communities and relationships around intimate connection and caring for one another, having and celebrating joys, and also to have space to share and be supported in their struggles. Like the prophet Jonah, we will evade the call of the Divine at our own peril.

Traditional theology asserts that God is everywhere, but today's listless spirituality needs more than the mere assertion of theological truths. Rather, we must provide people the tools and pathways to experience the transformative power of awakening to their own deep potential, to the presence of the Divine in all spaces, closer to me even than my thoughts. We must engage questions that are alive and do practices that make us more alive. How do I learn to see the miraculous in the mundane? How do I live close to my soul? How do I deal with anxiety, stress and depression? How do I connect to the confidence that is at my core, beyond failure and independent of accomplishment? How do I come to actually care about the other and feel our unity? What does humility mean? What is my purpose? How do I come to awe? How can I learn to be vulnerable and honest, and despite imperfection to live with the dignity that comes from honoring what is essentially human?

Jewish continuity will only be assured when its organism is connected to a vital, vibrant heart. And then continuity will take care of itself, the natural product of a vital organism. We must expand the way we think about Judaism and transform the way we practice, tearing down the walls that limit its relevance to lifecycle events and so-called Jewish space and making it a fully integrative life practice.

I am heartened by the life-changing reports participants share from their experience in the classes, retreats and workshops we run at Or HaLev, our Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, and the nascent Jewish spiritual renaissance that numerous of my teachers, peers and colleagues are kindling in initiatives around the world. As much of the body of Am Yisrael is mechanically kept alive, the clock is ticking. The question, as in Ezekiel, looms: "Can these bones live?" The answer of prophetic inspiration is a resounding yes. This, however, is a charge, not a guarantee. The whole house of Israel cries out, saying, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost." Ezekiel speaks the answer of the Divine, as we must now: "I will put My spirit in you, and you shall live." The time for a spiritual Judaism is now.