“I’m spiritual. I don’t need religion.”
I have heard this statement a thousand times.
I ask, “what does it mean to be spiritual?” They talk about nature, beauty, moments of transcendence. They sometimes mention a higher power, as close as they’ll get to saying the word God.
More often than not, they want to tell me everything that’s wrong about religion. Which, according to them, is pretty much everything.
I get it. They’re thinking about religious wars and persecution of the Other. When I point out that religion also has given the world much that is good, they shrug it off.
What about spirituality within religion? I ask. The I’m-just-spiritual crowd say that religion gets in the way of spirituality. Religion, they declare, is filled with empty rituals. They don’t need ritual. They prefer the freedom of simply enjoying a sunset.
Do you have a spiritual practice? I ask. Oh yes, comes the reply. I do yoga on the beach, I meditate, I even have a beautiful altar with incense and sacred stones.
I can’t help myself; I know the next answer, but I ask it despite myself: And do you do any of these things daily? Do you connect with the Divine and does it affect how you live your life? A few say yes. But most don’t. “Well, you know, the weather was awful today,” I was told recently.
I can sympathize. A spiritual practice, whether within the confines of a religion or one’s own concept of spirituality, doesn’t come easily. It takes dedication. It asks you to do spiritual things even when you don’t feel particularly spiritual. Even when it’s raining. Or you have a headache. Or you just don’t feel like it.
The transcendent moments we feel in nature, seeing the stars at night or shafts of sunlight through the trees, or sitting quietly with a flickering candle, are easily accessed. It’s harder when your days are filled with mundane things, the minutia of daily life.
Judaism is far less concerned with spirituality, and much more interested in communal interaction and responsibility. The Talmud sums it up in five words: Kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba’zeh. All of Israel is responsible for one another.
My spiritual nature is inextricably tied to my Jewish identity. To be Jewish is to be part of a community. And to be part of a community is to be responsible for each other.
My spirituality is linked to yours. If you are hungry or alone or afraid, I am obliged to help. And when I reach out to you, I uplift both you and me; both of our hearts are opened to the Divine spark that resides in each person.
But how do we do that during a pandemic? How can we care for each other, share meals and prayer, stay in close contact with the people who make up our community?
With Covid forcing us to stay apart, this communal aspect of spirituality can be difficult to attain. It’s hard to see a person’s expression when they’re wearing a mask Praying in a minyan of 10 people on Zoom is an oxymoron — we are simultaneously separate and together.
My answer is this:
We use the tools at our fingertips. We pick up the telephone. We write cards. We stand in front of each other’s homes and sing Happy Birthday at the top of our lungs, holding home-made posters. We send group emails with jokes and uplifting words. We carefully gather in small groups outdoors. We look into each other’s eyes instead of at the masks and can see the crinkle of eyes when smiling, the furrows of brows when worried.
We pray together, and we bless each other. We zoom into services and revel in seeing each other’s faces, and a tiny bit of every person’s home. We sing the prayers of our people with full hearts, even though we can’t hear each other.
The rituals that others call empty are full of meaning and beauty and power.
My spiritual experiences are linked to my community, and in these incredibly challenging times my community has learned to rise to the occasion. We don’t want to stay physically apart, but if we must, we know how to stay in touch, how to adapt Jewish practice to meet our needs today, and how to engage in communal spiritual experiences that benefit each one of us.
Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh. Together, we soar.