When Jews seek spirituality elsewhere
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California — Obviously Jewish survival must depend upon something more than empty sentimentalism. There must be something more than a cultural Jewish identity that finds Jewish fulfillment in bagels and lox. While many Jews live a nostalgically religious life, at least an equally large number have become ambivalent about their spiritual heritage. Consequently, a substantial number of Jewish young people have left their religious roots and have gone to other faiths, while over two million Jews no longer even superficially identify as Jews. The following amusing anecdote captures the complexity of the dilemma.
- Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish lady from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vant to go to India.” She asks the elderly woman, “Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s filthy, much hotter than New York; it’s full of poor people.” “Honey, I vant to go to India . . .” The travel agent advises her, “But it’s a long journey, you’ll get sick: the plague, hepatitis, cholera, typhoid, malaria, God only knows. What will you do? Can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors?” “I vant to go to India . . .”
- The necessary arrangements are made and off she goes. After she arrives in India and joins the seemingly never-ending line of people waiting for an audience with a guru. An aide tells her that it will take at least six hours of standing in line to see the guru. “Dotz OK . . .” Eventually she reaches the hallowed portals. The assistant firmly reminds her that due to the long lines she can only say SIX words to the guru. “Fine . . .”
- She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the wise guru sits in a lotus position, ready to bestow spiritual blessings upon his eager initiates. Just before she reaches the holy of holiest room where the guru is sitting, she is once again reminded: “Remember, just SIX words.” Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. Instead, she stands directly in front of him, and crosses her arms over her chest. She fixes him, and says: “Sheldon, It’s your Mother! . . . Come home.”
A substantial number of our Jewish young people have left their religious roots and have gone to other faiths, while over two million Jews no longer even superficially identify as Jews. Unfortunately, following in the footsteps of Abraham our ancestor, the Jew is a seeker. The psychologist Jean Huston in her book, A Mythic Tale, tells the story about a conversation she had with a rabbi who lamented about the ubiquity of our problem.
- A rabbi once bemoaned to me the fact that so many people born Jewish were not attending synagogue except on High Holy Days. He feared that they were losing their spiritual life. As I thought about this, I saw before my inner eye people I had met with names like Shakuntala Schwartz, Sri Devi Epstein, and Thomas Cloud Tanzman. Then I understood. “Why, Rabbi,” I said, “I think the Jews are probably the most religious people on Earth.” “How can you possibly say that?” he asked in astonishment. “Easily,” I replied. “It’s self-evident. In America, Jews make up the greatest number of Sufis, Hare Krishnas, Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, and most certainly Native American style shamans.”
Huston is correct. Jews are probably among the most spiritual people on the face of the earth. Yet, why have so many of these Jewish young people, gone so far away from their faith? We want our prodigal children to “come home.” However, what are we as parents prepared to offer them? Maybe it’s because young people have a way of discerning our Achilles’ heel. Children are instinctively aware when we are being false to ourselves. Perhaps at its deepest level the real reason why they no longer identify is because we have abdicated as Jewish role models—through either ignorance or cowardice—to serve as spiritual guides to our children. Too many of us have sold our traditions and spiritual values for wealth or status. It is no wonder why so many young Jews find this tradeoff so abhorrent. Our children must find within Judaism a moral compass how to live their lives. As parents, we cannot expect our children to value and love Judaism if we ourselves treat its spiritual essence as if it were trivial and unimportant.
At the institutional level, the synagogue (as we mentioned earlier) has become a part of the problem. As the flock looks to the faithful shepherd for guidance, healing, nurturing, and support, the same is true with the rabbi/congregant relationship. People look to their rabbinic leaders, and their lay-religious leaders, for spiritual guidance, support and nurturing. If the spiritual leaders of a synagogue see God as an uninvolved, apathetic parental figure, this will have a mirroring effect in the kind of God-image the congregation will develop.
More often than not, the spiritual leadership has become part of the problem. As clergy, whether we like it or not, our own attitudes about God often shape the attitudes of those we are supposed to serve. The inability to articulate a meaningful and engaging message about the importance of Jewish spirituality indirectly contributes toward the congregants’ own spiritual ambivalence, which in turn affects the way they as parents engage their own offspring. A person’s God-images develop and take formulation at a very young age. According to the child psychologist David Heller, children frequently represent God as geographically and emotionally remote from them. These children lament that they feel that God is so distant and inaccessible. It is vital that parents learn to get in touch with their own spiritual journey and only then can they meaningfully engage their children. If parents show indifference, it is important to remember that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
(To be continued)
From Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel’s new book, Psalm 23: A Spiritual Journey (I Universe 2013)
 Jean Huston, A Mythic Tale: Learning to Live Our Greater Story (San Francisco: Harper One, 1996), 56-57.
 David Heller, The Children’s God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 61-63.
Short URL: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/?p=32003