“Yearning for God and Spirituality.” All of us define God and the Divine very differently. What is the difference between religion and spirituality? And how can we connect?
Rabbi Michal Loving
In my Bat Mitzvah drash when I was 13, I wrote about the fact that I only went to services on Friday nights because my parents insisted on it. True story. I told everyone there that services were NOT for me, and that I distinctly did not believe in the God of the prayer book and Torah, the God who was Lord and He and Father and King who ruled over us. I wanted a touchy-feely God, a God who gave metaphorical hugs, a “Force” of Star Wars type God. All I could relate to at that time was nature, to the beauty and wonder of the world around us. So that’s what I wrote about in my drash. I remember there was poetry in it, about trees and sunsets.
My mother and my rabbi were thrilled with this, but my drash didn’t sit well with my very traditional grandmother, raised in a Romanian shtetl. Her Divine Presence was not an indwelling spirit within us all, found most easily in nature.
Her God was the God of the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, Someone or Something Out There versus In Here. God, to her, was a physical Being to be talked to and prayed to, who directly intervened in our lives all the time, even if we didn’t understand the reasons why or wherefore.
My grandmother and I both were Jewish, believed strongly in Judaism, in the history and the culture and the morals and the values, but I couldn’t conceive of her belief system, nor she of mine. What we did share - and I understood this, even at that age - was a yearning to connect with… Something. What that Something was, I didn’t know.
Today, more than twenty-one years after my Bat Mitzvah, I want to revisit that drash again. But my questions today are a little bit different: What is God and how do we define it? How is belief in God different than spirituality? Can we have one without the other? And how do we find it?
Jewish philosophers and rabbis have pondered these questions for centuries. They muse on the qualities and description of God, and debate God’s very existence. First-century Philo thinks God is pure Mind and Intelligence, the Soul of the Universe. Twelfth-century Maimonides believes that God is the Unmoved Mover, the mysterious Cause behind evolution and the rules of science. Seventeenth-century Baruch Spinoza thinks that God is nature. Nineteenth-century Martin Buber says that God is the Eternal Thou, waiting on us to manifest and be relatable. Rabbis of the Talmud from the first half of the first millennium say that God is all-good and all-powerful and takes direct action in the world, while twentieth-century Milton Steinberg says that God is not all-powerful, and doesn’t intervene in the world at all.
Nobody agrees. Pick a philosopher, pick a century, and you will have an entirely different conception of God.
The best part is, all of these conceptions are Jewish.
We don’t know what God is. We can’t prove what God is. All we can do is speculate. It’s practically our birthright. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob physically tussles with an angel and earns the name Yisrael, meaning, “one who strives, [or wrestles,] with God.”
He did it literally, and we do it metaphorically. Torah and rabbinic literature alone contain more than seventy names for God. Adonai, “my Lord,” signifies that God is a sovereign who rules over everything. Ein Sof means “Without End.” El Shaddai means “God Almighty” or “God the nurturer.” Makor HaChayim is “the Source of Life.” Oseh HaShalom is “the Maker of Peace.” HaMakom is “the Place.” Rofei HaCholim is “the Healer of the Sick.” We don’t even know how to pronounce the letters found in Torah, yud-hey-vav-hey. But the word, which we call God, is understood by our rabbis to be the merging of three verbs: was, is, and will be. God’s name, then, has no temporal attachment, no time. It is “Existence,” “Being,” “the Eternal.”
Because we can’t describe God, we give God different qualities and affectations that reflect who we are. A rabbinic work from the third century, the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, explains that we anthropomorphize God, call God our Parent, our Ruler, our Sovereign, because we can’t relate to a God who isn’t like us. “We describe God in creature figures, to make it acceptable to the ear,” says the midrash.
The language found in Torah and our prayer books give the Eternal human qualities like gender and physical form, because we have gender and physical form. We can’t conceive of a God wholly unlike ourselves, so we grant our Eternal the same qualities that we ourselves possess.
Rabbi Karyn Kedar explains that “our ancestors understood that the vastness of God can be understood only if we use words that include as much of human experience as possible. God is like a judge, like a birthing woman, like a compassionate mother, like a warrior, like a ruler, like a friend.”
And God is each of these things to us, at different times. No one time in our life, nor any person, is the same. Each of us has our own unique relationship with God, depending on what we are going through at that moment.
Our liturgy understands this diversity of God-concepts. The Avot v’Imahot prayer, for example, speaks to the fact that each person relates to God in his or her own way.
“Baruch atah Adonai,
Elohanu v’Elohai avotainu v’imotainu,
Elohai Avraham, Elohai Yitzchak, v’Elohai Yaacov.
Elohai Sarah, Elohai Rivka, Elohai Rachel, v’Elohai Leah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God,
God of our fathers and mothers,
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,
God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.”
The prayer doesn’t lump all of our ancestors together. It’s not “God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” No. It’s God of Abraham. God of Isaac. God of Jacob. And so forth. Each ancestor had a different image of, and relationship with, the Divine Presence. The God of Isaac was not the God of Sarah who was not the God of Rachel who was not the God of Rebecca. God is an individual belief.
And it’s okay for us to have different beliefs, or to not really know what we believe, to be unsure of the nature of God, or if and how God responds to human actions, or prayers, or intentions.
For Judaism has no catechism, no Articles of Faith that decree what God we must believe in in order to be a good Jew. Maimonides wrote what is called “The Thirteen Creeds” in the twelfth century, but they didn’t take. They’re not binding. Because Judaism is concerned with how we act, not with what we believe. Belief in God, and especially in any specific God, is not a prerequisite for being a member of the tribe, for taking part in Jewish culture and religion.
This quest for God, this normative acceptance of individual autonomy in belief, is logical. Most people have reasons, whether rational or emotional, for their belief, based upon their life’s experience.
This is very different, however, from spirituality.
Spirituality is about learning to appreciate and understand the parts of our minds and souls which speak to something larger than logic and rationality. It’s a deep, emotional response to what we perceive in the world around us, addressing the larger questions in life: what is my purpose in this universe?
How do I find meaning?
Spirituality can be inspired by being in nature and by the beauty of the world around us, or by formal religion, through words and rituals and symbolic objects as we recreate our mythic history through retelling them in Jewish holidays. It can occur spontaneously, like an emotional response to a beautiful painting or a gorgeous piece of music. It can be nurtured through practice, through repeated meditation or yoga. We can believe in God but not consider ourselves to be particularly “spiritual,” or we can be extremely spiritual, and be unsure if God exists, or not believe in God at all.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, a contemporary rabbi in Tampa, writes that “for a long time, my preferred definition of spirituality has been, ‘an awareness of standing in the presence of God.’ But, I also know what a fraught, ambiguous, confusing, resistance-inducing word ‘God’ can be. So, I often substitute ‘something greater than yourself.’ Spirituality is ‘an awareness of standing in the presence of something greater than yourself.’”
It’s a pretty good definition. The closest word we have in Hebrew to “spirituality” is ruchaniyut, coming from the Hebrew word ruach, which means “spirit.” In the Book of Genesis, ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, hovers over the waters when the earth was yet unformed, before night and day were created. So to many, spirituality is that intimate connection with the Divine, a presence of Other that cannot be explained. It’s finding a sense of the holy in the everyday. As Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kramer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College puts it, it’s “noticing the wonder, noticing that what seems disparate and confusing to us is actually whole.”
Now I’d be willing to wager that most of us, maybe all of us, have had at least a moment or two in our lives like this. Not necessarily a moment when the heavens opened up and the light of God shined down upon us, nothing that drastic – just a moment when suddenly, something ordinary unexpectedly seemed to be infused with meaning. When something which we’d always thought to be beautiful, all of a sudden became something more. We couldn’t quite define it, but we felt it in our kishkas, in our guts. A moment when we sensed… Something.
Try this with me, if you wouldn’t mind. Just like in a Shabbat service, I’d like you to close your eyes. Try and remember one of those times, one of those moments. It might be something fairly obvious, like the birth of a child or an extraordinary sunset at the beach. It might be something less expected, like when you suddenly see the intricacy of the bark on a palm tree when you’re taking a walk which you’ve taken a hundred times before. It might be a poem or a song lyric which struck you with greater force than any time before, or since. Think of the simple, gratitude-filled pleasure of being alive on a beautiful day.
Now, remember how it felt to be in one of those moments. Remember how powerful it was and - this is important - remember how real it was.
Remember how, at that moment, there were no questions and no answers,
only the presence of the moment itself. And, perhaps, a hint or an echo of something Other.
Now, open your eyes. How did that feel? Was it a good feeling? Don’t we want more of it in our lives? It’s what we search for, what we yearn for, this sense of presence, of awe, of spirituality. It’s what we all want to experience, this sense of connection, whether we call it Force or Other or God. We search for this spirituality over and over in our lives, for all sorts of different reasons.
We seek spirituality because we want to center ourselves, to make and sustain meaning in our lives. It helps us to put our life into a larger context, it reminds us not to be overwhelmed with the daily chores and task lists, and to focus on what really matters.
Sometimes we want spirituality because we are afraid of death, and dying, and not leaving a mark upon the world. We want to know that our time and place on this earth has not been wasted, and that we have made a difference. Spiritual connections remind us that we matter, that our actions matter, and that what we do today has ramifications for years to come, for people whom we do not yet, and may never, know.
Spirituality can give us a foundation, a rock on which to draw during those periods of our lives, both wonderful and traumatic, that are heightened with emotion, that punctuate our memory with a flare of light or a deep well of darkness. If we can connect to something greater than ourselves, it helps us deal with these periods, especially in times of pain and loss. We hold onto spirituality as we would cling to a life preserver, knowing that we most likely will not find our answers in these moments, but realizing that the quest itself provides hope, and gives us the energy to continue the fight.
And lastly, the search for spirituality connects us with our roots. It continues and perpetuates Jewish community, for it binds us to our people. We may not agree with those around us – two Jews, three opinions, after all – but when we seek spirituality and get in touch with our core, we connect to what it really means to be part of a chain of tradition, of l’dor v’dor, generation to generation. We are then obligated to work on and improve our relationships with other people, for we recognize that we are all alike, we are all inextricably intertwined, as Jews and as human beings.
Spirituality is not elusive. It can be found in a myriad of ways: we can connect through prayer, and meditation, and singing niggunim, songs without words, as we get lost in a melody. We can find spirituality by being fully present in nature, and marveling at the awe-inspiring splendor of our world. We can connect spiritually through learning, and study, and intellectual stimulation, in the sharp joy of a perfectly turned phrase or an exquisitely balanced mathematical equation.
We can find spirituality in relationships, through community, through being with others, through doing mitzvot, good deeds, and tikkun olam, helping to repair our world. We can find spirituality sitting in synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, as we take part in ancient Jewish ritual and practice.
Just as our relationship with God is wholly individual, so is our relationship to spirituality. No one else can find it for us. We must do the work alone, seek God, seek spiritual connections, wherever we can, so that we may find shleimut, wholeness, and feel that who we are and what we do has meaning and deep importance in this life.
This Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, we as a Jewish people collectively feel closest to God. We feel the most open to spirituality, the most welcoming and embracing of connection. So today, I pray that each one of us may give ourselves permission to question God, and to yearn for spirituality. May we recognize that questioning itself is worthy, and valid, and part of our age-old tradition. And may we ultimately grant ourselves permission, and space, to transcend, to feel, and to know in our kishkas who we are, and why we are here.
Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be so.
 Genesis 3:28
 Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness,” Jewish Lights 2015, 5.
 Mekhilta to Exodus 19:18
 Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, “Va-era: The Many Names of God,” in The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, ed. Elyse Goldstein. Woodstock: VT: Jewish Lights 2008, 132.
 According to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement in eighteenth-century Poland, as found in The Judaic Tradition by Nahum N. Glatzer, Beacon Press 1965, 442
 Translation from Mishkan Tefillah Shabbat Evening Service I, 166
 The Thirteen Creeds are found in Maimonides’ commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin 10.
 Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, “Practicing Spirituality,” Rosh Hashanah 5775
 Genesis 1:2
 Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kramer, as found in Rifat Sonsino, Six Jewish Spiritual Paths: A Rationalist Looks at Spirituality, Jewish Lights 2000, 12
 Last three paragraphs adapted from Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, “Practicing Spirituality,” Rosh Hashanah 5775