For the week ending 17 June 2006 / 21 Sivan 5766

Misplaced Spirituality

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Karen in WI
Dear Rabbi,

I am Jewish, but I don’t find Judaism to be particularly spiritual. It seems to be so much about laws of do’s and don’ts. On the other-hand, eastern religions are so uplifting and really make me feel spiritual. What do you think I should do?

Dear Karen,

You are right about Judaism being a lot about do's and don’ts. Torah literally means “instruction”, and includes much about how to practically live our lives in a way that benefits us and others. In fact, Jewish spirituality is largely based on practically becoming better people, and benefiting others. However, that is not the whole story.

Judaism has a very rich and extensive mystical tradition that addresses all of the facets people find enchanting in eastern religions: meditation, inspiration, dreams, the soul, reincarnation, forces, Divine energy, and much, much more. I can’t go into all the details here, for they are fitting for years of study, but you can start by browsing our website for an introduction to many of these topics in Judaism. There are also many good books on this topic that can be found in kosher Jewish bookstores. I suggest starting with the classic, “The Way of G-d” by Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto.

The following story I heard recently seems very apropos:

As is common among Israeli youth after completing army service, a brother and sister went to travel in India. Interested in observing one of the Jewish holidays while away from home, the brother contacted a Jewish organization there. He enjoyed his experience so much that he started attending classes until he decided to return to Israel to enroll in a yeshiva. In the meantime, his sister became inspired by a charismatic guru who spoke about the cosmic unity of the universe and other tantalizing spiritual ideas. Eventually she returned to Israel for a short visit to the family.

Her brother pleaded and pleaded with her to explore Judaism, until finally, toward the end of her visit, she agreed to attend a lecture on the deeper spiritual side of Judaism. Once there, the organizer apologized that the intended speaker couldn’t make it, and announced that he would talk about the laws of returning lost objects instead. The brother couldn’t believe it. His sister finally agreed to listen to something that might interest her in Judaism, and now she had to sit through this anything but “tantalizing” topic. He determined that she just must not have the merit of hearing what she needs to hear yet. Uninspired, the sister returned to India and her guru.

After some time, she was walking with him through the market when he happened upon a wallet full of money – and identifying documents. Amazed to see him so contently pocket the wallet, she asked whether he intended to return it to its rightful owner since there was ID in the wallet. The guru launched into a lofty discourse on the universality of energy and how he and the owner really share the same soul divided into separate bodies and that in order to maintain celestial equilibrium and harmony he must keep the wallet for himself.

When she heard this spiritual sanction for stealing she recalled the “boring, irrelevant” lecture that she had “mistakenly” attended with her brother about the Torah’s detailed legal requirement to return lost objects. At that moment she decided to pick up a lost Jewish soul she found in India and return it to its Rightful Owner. She took the next plane back to Israel and enlisted in a women’s seminary for Jewish learning.

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