OPINION: What, precisely, is Jewish ‘spirituality’?

OPINION: What, precisely, is Jewish ‘spirituality’?

By Dr Annette M Bockler

s200_annette.boecklerIn recent years, a new term came into fashion in Judaism: “spirituality”. I usually hear the word when people are “moved” by a service or ritual, felt a “warm welcoming atmosphere”, when a certain prayer “really spoke to someone”, sometimes connected with a certain style of music. The word “spiritual” literally means “filled with spirit”, originally with the Holy Ghost. Christians believe that, since Pentecost, God infuses his spirit into humans to make them produce certain actions and attitudes. So what is “Jewish spirituality”?

What we usually mean by “spirituality” in Jewish circles is an emotionally defined kavannah. It can be created by a person convinced about his own message using rhetoric or song leading techniques: repeating words or phrases, using tunes, meditations, forced moments of silence and personalised texts.

Moments of spirituality sometimes happen in a normal service, unplanned, surprising and they do good. To try to create them consciously, however, may create an addiction.

Once you have experienced a very special moment of emotional religious depths, you would want to repeat the experience. Emotional kavannah can shut off the problems of this world for a moment and this feels good, but it can also lead to unearthliness to escape from loneliness or despair.

Emotional kavannah usually needs a homogeneous group; otherwise, the “inspiring” leader has the power to split, as emotions cannot be debated to find a consensus.

In my opinion, religious services provide us with tools to tackle future tasks, in the present moment a service may be meaningless, but when we need it, we will suddenly remember a phrase from the Bible or the prayer book that gives us hope, comfort or admonition.

Do we really need to add the challenge of a short living emotional kavannah or Jewish spirituality?

Dr Annette M. Boeckler is a senior lecturer on Jewish Liturgy and Jewish Biblical Interpretation and a Scholar Librarian, Leo Baeck College

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