Category Archives: spirituality

A Living God in Derek Eretz

R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel begins God in Search of Man with the following:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions….There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.

In the Talmud Tractate of Derek Eretz Zuta, we find inspiration for living in a way that opens us to receive the miracle of each moment. Jewish spirituality includes a desire to honor life, to be awake to its possibilities, to cherish the ordinary until we see its beauty, to be amazed by the leaves on the trees, the sound of rain, the eyes of another person, the food we eat, the intricacies of our bodies, the magnificence of the solar system, etc. We also find in Derek Eretz a discussion of core values that highlight what we owe to each other as a society, including beliefs about such concerns as worker’s rights, freedom of religion, and responsible stewardship of the environment. The book Great is Peace: A Modern Commentary on Talmud Bavli Tractate Derek Eretz Zuta, which I co-authored with Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal, provides a complete translation of this important Tractate along with a line-by-line explanation of the text in contemporary language. Some of the values we hold dear appear in Derek Eretz as follows:

Be a good merchant, pay well, and strive always to do good….Our business ethics never say caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, but lifne iver, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind.


Love all creatures, and respect them….Jewish law requires us to prevent tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.


Love doubtfulness (i.e. everything shall be doubtful to you until you convince yourself of it)….The love of doubtfulness – the love of critical thinking – leads us to the love of study.


Nine entered the Garden of Eden when they were still alive….Six of those allowed to enter Paradise were neither Hebrew nor Jewish. Two were converts. Three were ba’alim teshuvah, returning. “The righteous of all nations [religions] have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).


Let your accounts always be correct, and your conduct excellent. Keep your promise….We must not relate to other human beings as if they are vehicles or obstacles to our goals.


Love righteousness….”Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Deut. 16:20). The Talmud explains that the first tzedek teaches us to judge by the letter of the law, and the second reminds us to live by the spirit of the law (Shnay Luchot HaBrit, Shoftim 101a.)


Seek peace, and pursue it….The pursuit of peace and justice are not time-bound [as are other commandments]. In places without them, we work to establish a peaceful and just environment.


The Actions Which Point to One’s Faith


The Torah is a Tree of Life, Aitz Chaim, to those who grasp onto it firmly (Proverbs 3:18). We first encounter the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9. It is one of two special trees in the Garden of Eden; the other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit of the second tree is forbidden to Adam. Eve eats from the Tree of Good and Evil, and Adam soon follows her example. Consequently, they lose their angelic purity, and become human. They acquire a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha ra, an evil inclination.

Our Midrash tells us God intends for Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but not until after they eat from the Tree of Life. In other words, God wants them to first learn the ethical and spiritual message of the Torah, so that they will be able to listen to the yetzer tov and ignore the yetzer ha ra.

– Rabbi Arthur Segal

A year or so ago I began a series on Duties of the Heart, the 11th century classic by R’Bachya Ibn Paquda of Spain. In the first couple of hundred pages R’Paquda lays out his argument in support of the existence of God and our obligations to God. R’Paquda makes a distinction between what he calls “knowledge of the duties of the limbs,” and “knowledge of the duties of the heart.”  The duties of the limbs include the rituals which have been passed down by tradition. He argues that the duties of the heart, which “belong to the hidden, private realm” are no less obligatory than the ritual commandments, and in fact must precede them as the foundation of a spiritual life. “Since the very basis for an act, and what it revolves around, depends on the intention and inner life of the heart, the knowledge of the duties of the heart should come before the knowledge of the duties of the limbs.” The physical commandments are intended to serve as reminders to perform the spiritual commandments – ritual performed for its own sake, without kavenah, is empty. Furthermore, the duties of the heart are binding at all times, unlike the duties of the limbs which are schedule-dependent. What are the duties of the heart? For starters, R’Paquda finds five spiritual commandments in the Shema:  1) Hashem exists; 2) He is our God; 3) He is one; 4) we should love Him with all our hearts; 5) we should serve Him wholeheartedly.

In my search for texts on mussar, (Jewish self-improvement) I have found concepts identified but not described, i.e. character traits such as “humility.” What does that mean, exactly? Perhaps I know it when I see it, but how do I take my instincts to the level of intellectual understanding so that I can articulate my experience and check to see if I am living according to those ideals?

The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, by Rabbi Arthur Segal, provides a step-by-step guide to creating a spiritual inventory, or chesbon ha nefesh, an accounting of the soul. Rabbi Segal’s recent book, The Path and Wisdom for Living at Peace with Others, A Modern Commentary on Talmud Tractates Derek Eretz Zuta and Rabbah, Volume 1, offers the most precise and accessible working definition of spirituality that I have ever encountered. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know when we’ve arrived? Derek Eretz was written approximately 1500-2000 years ago. The Sages describe, in great detail, a set of behavioral  ideals that can inform and illuminate one’s spiritual quest. Part history lesson, part mussar, Rabbi Segal’s commentary demystifies and explains these ancient texts in relatable, contemporary terms. This book has become my “go to” for clarity and peace of mind.

The Midrash teaches that all Jews are ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim, believers who are descendants of believers, but more important than faith itself are the actions which point to one’s faith. Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1810, Poland) said, “Whether a man really loves the Divine can be determined by the love he bears toward his fellow men.”

Religion: What is it good for?

A great deal of violence has been done in the name of God and religion. I can appreciate why atheists feel as they do. Religion is often used to justify anti-social behavior. As my husband is fond of saying, “The worst thing about religion is religious people.” And yet, to my mind, the notion that there is a creative force reponsible for the creation of the universe has merit. We don’t know. Fortunately, in pure Judaism we don’t have to know – in fact, we can’t know – who or what God is.

Some believe the spiritually advanced are blessed with wealth, if not also fame and beauty. They worship money, and tend to preach “survival of the fittest.” People like this frighten me because they think they are entitled to decide who is the fittest, and then apply that notion to human interactions. Others, who may have suffered significant personal loss, rail against the universe and demand to know why “God” would allow such things. They say they will not believe in a God who causes pain, misery, disaster, starvation, disease, mayhem, etc. Apologists for God will say that human beings are the source of evil in the world. “God” is a loaded term for many people.

I’ve found ways to re-frame religious ideas to make them relevant and meaningful in my life. Yes, we live in world we did not create and cannot control. Yes, bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. Yes, natural disasters are powerful and cause great harm. While we don’t get to decide what happens, we do get to decide how we will respond to it. I equate that choice with belief in God. We have the ability to create, as God does in Genesis. We have the ability to envision the kind of world we want to live in, and work to make it a reality. Religion is a set of tools. Ideally it should help us to become our best selves, teach life-enhancing, pro-social values, and make the world a better place. The concepts, theology, beliefs, and practices determine a methodology which is hopefully designed to help people pay attention to the right things. “Spirituality” is the extent to which we do pay attention to and act on what we profess to value. When people confuse the technology with the destination, I think they are missing the point.

Some questions you might ask:

1.) How do we develop an attitude or approach that works for us individually and collectively?

2.) What’s the most constructive use of our time?

What would it look like to envision God as an abstract representation of ethical standards and values, such as the ideals of kindness, compassion, love, mercy, service, honesty, altruism, and respect for life? What would it look like if we agreed every life has meaning and value, and is worthy of respect? What would it look like if we resisted the reptilian urges toward greed, deceit, selfishness, and materialism? What would it look like if this set of beliefs and attitudes are, themselves, our “God”? Imagine holding them in your mind and heart at all times, like a compass, or a light.

What matters is what people do, not why they say they do it, or who told them to do it. Would it be fair to define spirituality as loving people and using things, instead of the reverse?Whether an omniscient, benevolent Intelligence chose to create the universe and gave each one of us (hopefully) a conscience or the ability to make choices about how we conduct ourselves may be, on a practical level, somewhat irrelevant. If it is useful to believe in such a Being, because doing so provides a more solid foundation for continuing to do the right thing when faced with other not-so-nice choices, why not? I made a decision to believe in a Creator who is loving and wants the best for us, because for me, that’s helpful. No matter what we do, we are limited by human perception. Maybe science will have something definitive to say about it eventually, and that’s fine. I wish I could remember who said, but some famous rabbi or other said, “If I knew God, I would be God.” Judaism says God is essentially unknowable, so we don’t concern ourselves with the nature of God. We concern ourselves with conducting our lives in a way that makes a positive difference.

You do not have to be repressed to be spiritual. Faith doesn’t mean walking around with glazed eyes and a fake smile trying to act happy. The opposite it true. We don’t have to be perfect or enlightened. Faith means being honest with ourselves, realistic about our limitations and those of others, keeping things in perspective, and trusting that we can make good decisions about what is right. In his book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal, of whom I am a big fan, offers this test: Is the choice you are about to make based in love, altruism, honesty, and purity? If it is, go for it. If not, stop and reconsider.

How can religion move us forward? Often we are lost, off-center, caught up in the grind and flurry of holding down a job, getting through school, raising our kids, maintaining our relationships, maybe trying to build a list of achievements, or struggling to establish a higher standard of living. We want the house, the car, the clothes, the credentials, the accolades. Some people who get these things end up feeling empty inside. Some people may have more than we do, and we envy them. Others may have less, and we feel guilty. The relationship, job, or stuff we thought would make us happy didn’t provide a sense of meaning or purpose. Maybe we want to be part of a community, where we can offer something of value to others and gain their support as well. Maybe we want to feel a connection to something larger than ourselves. From what I’ve observed in my own life, the people who make a difference do so in one of two ways:

1.) They demonstrate, by being who they are, what love means.
2.) They create or discover something that transforms the lives of others.

What are the ingredients of an effective religious practice? For me, they are anything that makes life possible, worth living, helps me recognize my potential, and supports me in bringing my best qualities forward. When I pray, I imagine the stars, galaxies, solar systems, and the motion of the planets around the sun. I think of our planet as “alive” because it has life on it – so far, known to precious for its singularity. We are part of the network of living things, connected to the health of the planet. In a very real sense, we ARE “one with the universe.” That is not an abstract notion, it is a concrete reality.

Happy New Year, Tree of Life

Tu B’Shevat, the Fifteenth of the Jewish month of Shevat, is the New Year for trees. As with anything else in Judaism, there are many different yet compatible interpretations of the holiday. Some today view it as an opportunity to renew a commitment to environmentalism. Others donate money to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel. Still others may find ways to contribute to their communities by volunteering for pea patch gardening projects. In the Hebraic Age, Tu B’Shevat marked the lifespan of trees for purposes of tithing to the Temple. During the Middle Ages, the Kabbalists created a special Seder for this holiday, with wine and fruit to symbolize the emanations of God.

The Tree of Life is a symbol for God and Torah. The seasonal cycles of trees remind us of our own cycles: death and birth, despair and renewed hope. In Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book Seasons of Our Joy, he explains that just as Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for the Jewish people, Tu B’Shevat may be considered a kind of New Year for God, representing a resurgence of divine energy in the natural world.

If we want to be ecologically minded, what kind of Tu B’Shevat Seder best represents our values? Should we import the traditional dates, figs, carob, pomegranates, olives, oranges, and spices? Should we instead serve varieties of fruit grown organically in our own region? Should these fruits be cultivated within 100 miles of our Seder? 50 miles? What about the wine? What about the plates, tablecloths, napkins, and utensils? Are they washable or compostable? If Tu B’Shevat is our Jewish Earth Day, perhaps we should make the content of our celebrations match that commitment. The symbolism includes fruits which can be eaten whole (e.g. strawberries), those with a pit or seed (cherries, peaches), and those with a hard or woody exterior (coconuts, pineapples.)

On the Gregorian calendar, Tu B’Shevat 2010 falls on January 30th. Here is a link to what I feel is a beautiful and inspiring Tu B’Shevat Haggadah by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal.

Beyond Interfaith

“The Three Interfaith Amigos,” perhaps best known for their radio program on NPR, have written a stunning exploration of the Abrahamic faiths in Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi, and a Sheikh (Don Mackenzie, Ted Falcon, and Jamal Rahman.) They attempt to guide the reader down the dangerous rapids of interfaith dialogue, suggesting healing occurs when we focus on what unites rather than on what divides us. Constructive communication is possible when we let go of preconceptions and defensive posturing. We can remain secure in our own beliefs, while opening ourselves to new ideas and perspectives. As we learn to listen more deeply, we discover and are enriched by the unique insights of each tradition. The Amigos share the development of their friendship to demonstrate how they bridged their differences. Each recounts his personal religious journey. Each confides what he loves and objects to in his own faith. Each counters common misconceptions. These revealing stories capture the essence of spirituality – the wellspring of life from which humanity emerges, the face of God reflected in every person.

The Amigos take for granted that the reader doesn’t need to abandon her respective tradition. Here arises an all-too-familiar dilemma: boundaries. When we discover the universal, why keep the specific? If the goal is to move our religious brethren beyond mutual antagonism, why not learn from and embrace every spiritual tradition? If all paths lead to the same God, which road should we take? Why be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu? What makes a specific religion preferable to generalized spirituality? The answers to these questions may simply be a matter of roots. Does this mean no one religion carries greater cosmic significance than another? Yes, but so what? Most of us don’t choose a religious or spiritual path arbitrarily. We choose what works, what speaks to us personally and inspires us. Isn’t that the point?