Religion and Spirituality

As the very good dlevy notes in his post about the recent Boston event, Jay Michaelson
and I have this ongoing machloket (Torah debate) about religion, spirituality, and a number of other things. As such, the nice folks over at asked us to write it out–or, rather, for me to respond to a piece of Jay’s.
Here’s what he said:

To define those terms a bit, by “religion” I mean those structures, dogmas, and practices which bind communities together, help people be a little less mean to one another, and provide pre-set ways to be a good, and even holy, person. By “spirituality” I mean almost the polar opposite. Spirituality transgresses existing structures. It doesn’t construct the self—it transforms it, even negates it entirely. And while it, too, is interested in goodness and holiness, its heroes are those who blazed their own paths, and were often deemed rebels in their day….Spiritual people don’t like organized religion because organized religion is someone else’s, and thus to some degree inauthentic.

And I said, among other things:

But the biggest issue, I think, with our cultural moment is in the splitting of “spirituality” from “religion.” This bifurcated language has been around since the 60s or so, but I think it’s become more acute in recent years, as the schism has become more entrenched between a hyper-literalist fundamentalism and a feel-good panacea offering easy steps to enlightenment….It seems to be about the personal, individual journey of the brave individual self—one pictures Jack Kerouac setting out on the road, needing nobody and finding no use in external help.
Yet this picture belies 2,000 years of nuanced theology. The spiritual giants about whom we often talk—Heschel and Rebbe Nahman, St. Theresa and Gandhi, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, the Kabbalists of Safed, Rumi—these were people deeply embedded in a religious tradition. They were certainly brave enough to go deep into the dark, hidden corners of the soul, to meet their own naked heart and the soft murmur of Divine with an openness to hear whatever might be heard, but they did not do so as rogues beholden to no one. They did so as religious adherents, as people who prayed sometimes even if the experience was boring, or uninspired, who followed the tenets of their practice even when it was sometimes inconvenient, who took on strictures even if they weren’t always even sure why they were doing so. They innovated in their thinking and actions, to be sure, but their extraordinary transformation to the people who could offer up such depth came as a result of being pushed by their practice in ways that they might not have pushed themselves.

Check out the whole story here and here, and decide for yourself.

5 thoughts on “Religion and Spirituality

  1. when i come to eat a piece of chocolate… and i want to experience the divine goodness placed in this world- its’ an interesting place to look at the “spiritual” vs. “religious” experience, as framed in the article. According to Jay’s definition- when i am going to bliss out in this Divine experience- enjoying the taste and savoring the Creators gift in my mouth- at which point am I being spiritual and thus transcending self- when i’m feeling so good- or doing the religious act of blessing before I eat?
    A bracha- and a halachic system- CAN be exactly the place where my selfhood can truly reach something beyond itself… not just in the experience of the bracha- but in the halachic adherence’s imposing onto my will…
    just a first thought for commenting…

  2. One of the biggest problems is the lack of interest in the idea of community in the spirituality leaners. It is inauthentic to think that one will find oneself a part of the divine by oneself – no man is an island. rather religion (as includes spirituality) must come to include that your senile granny, your annoying neighbor, all those people that don’t share your interests (whether that means the internet, latin dance, or your comics collection) – they are still an essential part not only of the world, but also that without them you cannot reach the divine. You need them, and they need you.
    Divorced spirituality says it’s all about me, my feelings, my selected group ( all us cool kids in our 20s and 30s or all us old farts or all us havurahniks, or all us meditation gurus), the folks I want to hang out with – at most- but that’s not real spirituality, it’s a fraud, beause it doesn’t recognize the discipline of daily requirement, and the setting aside of the self in order to achieve something larger.
    Of course if one sets oneself aside too much, that’s a problem too – that’s why all those people have also to accept the individual – but ti can’t just be either an individual seeker nor a like-minded group.

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