Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Spiritual but Not Religious

On the internet dating sites there is this interesting category for religious preference called ‘’spiritual but not religious’. There is no category called ‘’religious but not spiritual’’, nor have I ever seen anyone ever describe themselves this way. An Orthodox Jew not into musar, kabbalah, or chasidus might very well describe herself as religious but not spiritual. In the liberal/secular Jewish world such a category does not exist.

Some Jews who write spiritual but not religious are simply responding to the way the question is framed. They are no choices labeled secular. They don’t want to write atheist, or agnostic, when all they really want to say is that they have no business with organized Judaism. So they check as a default mode the only remaining alternative ‘’spiritual but not religious.’’ Others however mean something very definite. Most members of the ‘’spiritual but not religious’’ category are women. Men on the internet mostly say straight up they are not observant. They don’t suddenly become spiritual. Why is it that when a woman is a non-observing Jew, she feels the need to graduate to a new religion called Spiritual but not Religious? I don’t know the answer

Here are some examples of what it means for a Jew to define him/herself as ‘spiritual but not religious’.
I was born into a Jewish family but am not religious. I am culturally and racially Jewish. I have the foundational values that many Jews have; exercising the intellectual muscles, interest in ethics and justice, and good old dark and ironic humor.

Here we have a sophisticated attempt to deal with being Jewish but not religious. In fact, I am sympathetic to the secularized version of Reform Judaism that is being presented: intellectualism, an intense moral consciousness with a universalist flavor, and what he calls “good old dark and ironic humor.” There are two ways of understanding this humor. The first is that it’s a leftover from the shtetl. Jews were ironists and humorists because it was a natural way of coping with their political condition. The second is that there’s a special dark and ironic humor attached to being conscious of being Jewish but not religious. Woody Allen is an example. (I actually believe that Jews with no background in historical yiddishkeit who are spiritual but otherwise not self identified as Jews, lack humor to the same degree as more traditional Jews.) A sad fact about the American Jewish culture is that the personality type this person represents has not survived into this century with any great numbers. In the forties and fifties, people used to say of themselves they were cultural Jews. You hear the phrase less and less. Now it’s spiritual all the way. I wonder if this is because of the New-Age spiritualism that has overtaken California and the spa world. Or is it because American-Jewish culture is in the dumps? The non-stop assimilation of American Jewry has brought about a dumbing down of American Jewish life.

I am Jewish but not religious. I have an interest in Quantum physics from a spiritual perspective. My other interests are eclectic... Buddhism, therapy, integrating the psychological and spiritual for the present moment.

Here we have a classic example of a spiritual but not religious smorgasbord and it illustrates both its strengths and its weaknesses. We’ll take them one at a time. I know what the woman is talking about when she mentions Quantum mechanics from a spiritual point of view. There is this very weird, but real, phenomenon called quantum entanglement which we now know to be true because of Bell’s Theorem. Some people, even physicists, have suggested it has some implications for spirituality. The Chafetz Chaim used to say, “If they sneeze in Paris, they feel it in Radin.” Maybe so, but as of now no one has shown any interesting application of quantum weirdness to spiritual life. As it stands, this woman can have an interest in quantum mechanics for the rest of her life, nothing will happen spiritually.

On the other hand, the combination of Buddhism, therapy, and the various techniques for integrating the psychological and spiritual in some practical way can’t be dismissed as nonsense. The program is roughly this…you do an hour or two of yoga a day, workout in the gym, run two- three miles, eat organic foods, stay thin, meditate for an hour, see a therapist three times a week, and repeat for the next ten years. It does make a difference. When you compare such people with those who work sixty hours a week, are overweight and bent out of shape, sedentary, consume copious amounts of junk food, and live such a frenetic life that there is no time for introspection and contemplation, it is hard to say there is no difference. It’s not a particularly Jewish way of achieving spirituality, but even here there have been various attempts to combine this sort of rigorous discipline with Jewish symbols and culture. These attempts are varied and sometimes go under the general names of Jew-Bhu and Jewish Renewal. (An easy way of getting started as a Jew-Bhu is to begin with Rodger Kamenetz’s sweet little book The Jew in the Lotus). I plan on taking a closer look at Jewish Renewal.

I feel a connection to my Jewish heritage. Spiritually, I am always aware of the miracle and absolute sacredness of life and I take seriously our role as brother's keeper and earth's caretaker.

The last quote is an example of the ecology branch of Jewish spirituality. Here the quest for purity and wholeness is projected out onto the environment. Almost every spiritual person is anti-Bush on environmental issues. The concept of a market in pollution rights is foreign to their way of thinking. Almost like eating chazir. We might call this stripe Green Jew- Bhus.

I have two complaints against “spiritual but not religious” Jews. The first is that frequently they are devoid of any nationalist feelings or appreciation of our history. So even if they can fill the void that comes with secularism, they still lack a strong sense of being part of a continuous historical community. It is difficult to raise children on a steady diet of yoga and gym. My second complaint is that many people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” refuse to discriminate between various occult sciences and disciplines. Monday’s the therapist, Tuesday’s the astrologer, Wednesday’s the gypsy palm-reader, Thursday is homeopathy, rolfing and alternative medicine, while Friday is the day to experiment with the new products and services that constantly come to market. In my mind, it frequently degenerates into a counter culture mush that doesn’t make much sense.

We are talking about a large group of Jews who are looking for something and have given up on Judaism. When a Jew is spiritual but not religious they are announcing they do not have a serious Jewish religious identification. They are dead to Jewish life even if they still frequent the local deli. They are a classic example of what the Protestants call “un-churched.” A special place in heaven is reserved for somebody who can figure out a way to reach these people.


At 9:51 AM, Anonymous YDB said...

Unfortunately, my wife's sister is one of these people. The ironic thing is that she grew up very traditional, has frum grandparents (one set are Vizhnitzer chassidim), and went to ModernOrtho day schools thru high school. She wakes up in the morning and recites some quote by the Dalai Lama, beautiful as it is, that resembles Modeh Ani. I have tried to give her books by Alan Morinis (the mussar institute), Aryeh Kaplan Z"L(Jewish Meditation) and Akiva Tatz. These people are jocking for that position in heaven, and they are doing a decent job. In Toronto, where I live, there is a wonderful Rav, R' Michael Skobac (Jews for Judaism) who is also skilled in this area. As for my sister-in-law, I will not give up.

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Spirigous said...

Evanston, It is always a pleasure to read your insightful posts. I for one would appreciate if you would focus more on Orthodox Sociology rather than Reform, etc.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

spirigous...If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you must know that I’ve “spared no efforts” in trying to understand some aspects of Orthodoxy. I might actually be, at this point, the Midwest center for heimish chassidish bloggers. Here we are, different tribes with different customs and personality traits, and we can’t very well read each other. Secular Jews are terrible at trying to decipher charedim. Orthodox, especially Modern Orthodox, have a much better idea of what’s out there but, nevertheless, as a rule pay very little attention to the margins of Jewish life. I’ve only written five posts on Liberal Jews and over a hundred on Orthodoxy. I am working on posts about Modern Orthodoxy and I find the going difficult.

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem, as you have defined it, is that many Jews who associate with Reform, Renewal, Recon and even Conservative shuls fit the description of spiritual and not religious. In Judaism, 'religious' tends to mean strict following of halakha.

So you need to have multiple designations to adequately define the groups: spiritual and halakha-ligious; spiritual and religious in a non-Orthodox sense; spiritual and not religious ( folks not affiliated with any Jewish stream); and the many, many Jews who are secular ( in a non-spiritual and non-religious sense.)

At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem as I see it is one of definition. Religious, it seems, means following a code of behavior, usually one that is communally agreed upon. Spiritual, it seems, means having a symbol system/language in order to more easily/meaningfully relate to the world.

If one has a language without an accompanying behavioral code to which to tie it, it becomes vapid and contradictory, since it is not tied to anything real and therefore unfalsifiable. So, to use my criteria, people who can't tell a coherent story around their daily yoga practice are religious but not spiritual. On the other hand, people who tell a good story but don't concretize that story in action are spiritual but not religious.

The challenge, to my mind, is to get people to unify their narrative of the world (or create one) with their behavioral pattern; ideally, the attempt to make that narrative cohere will result in behavioral tweaks as well, and ultimately result in a more consistent lifestyle that works better.

I admit this post is a bit cryptic and lacks concrete examples. If someone finds it intriguing enough to ask for clarifications, I will be happy to try.

(BTW, I was for a time religious but not spiritual, i.e., observant of halakha but having broken all the extant metanarratives of why I was doing so. I know a number of people who describe themselves this way -- mostly it happens when one clings to the halakhic lifestyle with which one is comfortable but find that many elements of that lifestyle violate one's fundamental values and one cannot accept the normative metanarratives that tell you to forget about your values. Fortunately I found a narrative that has worked for me, although it has the disadvantage of not being widely held by any community currently extant.)

At 9:48 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 1…I am using “Spiritual but not Religious” for Jews who are not affiliated with any denomination and are uncomfortable being secular straight up (your third possibility). I would call cultural Jews, who are not religious, secular. It is true that there are some Jews who are associated with a denomination who are also spiritual in the ways I’ve described in my post. I find this innocuous provided it is not being used as a substitute for Jewish life. Jews who are identified strongly with their denomination and act accordingly, I would call religious, whether or not they are spiritual.

There is a medieval erm ‘ruchnius’ frequently used in musar literature that can be translated as spiritual. But I think they are not really equivalent. It’s a long story but in my mind it involves the following. The yoga etc. spirituals believe they can ascend to heaven if they practice. In Jewish religious life, as Rabbi Soleveitchik has emphasized the idea is to bring heaven, the spiritual down into our daily lives. Big difference. I don’t think the existence of chasidic tzadikim or kabbalists changes the basic pt.

Anonymous 2 …your usage is sufficiently different I can’t respond with any confidence. Is this what you are saying in the halacha case?. Everyone needs a story that they can believe is plausible, and that gives an account why the mitzvoth are necessary. In addition the story plus the actions required should not violate values that one firmly accepts on independent grounds. If yes, I think it might still be inadequate. There are many accounts that hang on what economists call externalities. For example, wearing a yarmulke cuts down on melanomas. Even if true it seems like the wrong sort of metanarrative . Are we anywhere near the same page?

At 12:19 PM, Blogger avakesh said...

Now that we think spirituality may have a genetic component (http://www.amazon.com/God-Gene-Faith-Hardwired-Genes/dp/0385500580), let us return to the view of religion as a socially integrative force, as something that shapes societies and human relationships and as one that has something to offer to all kinds of people. If we insist on measuring religon by its spirituality content, we shortchange history, society and the entire Jewish sensibility. We also miss the whole point of halachic structure.

There is Torah and there is Prophecy.

This is precisely the difference between religion and spirituality. Religion can be infused with sprituality but the Jewish view of religion is that of unifying force, the glue that holds the nation together on the basis of shared history and values. Everyone can be religious, even those whose genes do not predispose them to spirituality. The Torah is the inhertiance of the entire cogregation of Jacob but prophecy is reserved for those few who are suited to it.


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