The Journey Home: Authentic Jewish Spirituality

By Hoffman, Lawrence A. | Tikkun, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Journey Home: Authentic Jewish Spirituality


Hoffman, Lawrence A., Tikkun


JUDAISM

Jewish spirituality? What's that!?" too many Jews still say to me. "Spirituality is Christian, not Jewish, Jewish spirituality is a contradiction in terms."

Here we are in the midst of only the third Great

Religious Awakening in all of American history, an era with spirituality at its very center, a time when people are leaving organized religion in droves precisely because they do not find it spiritually satisfying-and Jews who care deeply for Jewish continuity, or who speak glowingly of a Jewish renaissance, deny the very idea that Judaism has the spirituality that millions seek. Why? Can it really be that Judaism is bereft of spiritual insight? Of course not. If spirituality is the practice of living self-consciously and mindfully, based on a unique perspective on the universe, then, clearly, Judaism-like any of the world's religions-has the capacity for spirituality. If we can't find spirituality in Judaism, it might be because we have not yet learned how to recognize Jewish spirituality when we see it.

To begin to see Jewish spirituality, we must first look at the language we use for spirituality. Over its two thousand year history as the dominant force in Western civilization, Christianity virtually formulated the English language. Almost every English word with religious significance sounds Christian at first: salvation and resurrection, for instance. But salvation (or its synonym, "deliverance") is just Hebrew for the biblical yeshuah and resurrection (in Hebrew techiyat hametim) is a cardinal theological precept for the Rabbis. To find Jewish spirituality we must act like anthropologists in the strange culture of Judaism. Like anthropologists looking for particular kinship relations in a community, we are looking for something-spiritualitywhich is present in Judaism, but which Jewish sources rarely discuss directly.

Satisfying the Anthropologist

In our investigation, we must be careful to avoid two particular errors: "Satisfying the Anthropologist" and "Going Native." A cartoon I have posted on my office door pokes fun at the danger of Satisfying the Anthropologist. It pictures jungle natives in a thatched hut frantically stowing away their television set and stereo system, with the warning, "Quick! Get these out of sight; the anthropologists are coming." When we look to find something in cultures foreign to us, we all too often come with our own ideas in mind about what we will find. The cartoon spoofs the idea we have that people living in thatched huts do not participate in the global media.

In a more subtle way, we also need to beware of Satisfying the Anthropologist with the very language we use to inquire into or describe the subject of our investigations. For example, anthropologists of a particular community might be interested in family relationships, which they have learned to call kinship systems, a term the members of that community do not know. So the field workers ask such things as, Why do people call their mother's sister's daughter their "sister" not "cousin"? Imagine, however, some crafty native informants who have gotten hold of an anthropology textbook, figure out what the anthropologists want, and decide to save their questioners a lot of trouble, by just answering right away, "Oh, the kinship system; we are matrilinear." Unwary anthropologists would write that down at their peril, even if it were true. They would have translated the culture in question into proper scientific categories, but missed the whole point of what they were there to find out: how these people may be similar to others, but still be special in their own way.

Going Native

The reverse of this problem is Going Native. Going Native happens when we record or repeat what we observe in another culture without relating what we observe to our own or other cultures. For example, when anthropologists "Go Native" they record the usual native practices, stories, and rituals but decide not to translate these back into scientific categories at all. …

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