I’m spiritual, not religious
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
Very often I hear folks say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (To be precise “religion” derives from the Latin religare meaning ‘to bind’, and by definition religiosity includes binding beliefs, practices and obligations. The etymologic underpinnings of “spirit” have to do with breath, and imply a focus on the soul, life force, and self.) Well, if you describe yourself as “spiritual, but not religious”, this week’s Torah portion, N’tzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 contains a crucial teaching for you.
In the midst of explaining how to live a “religious” life, that is, a life that follows certain rules, encourages specific habits, and regulates one’s less savory impulses, the Torah notes that these undertakings will not be possible unless one’s heart is open and connected to one’s soul. Ostensibly, that’s the spiritual side of things—so religious behavior is impeded without a spiritual practice. The text then offers the following snapshot:
Surely these guiding principles with which I guide you today are not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us, so we will understand it and we will do it?” It is not beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us, that we may understand it and do it?” Because, really, the word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it.(Deuterononmy 30:11-14)
There are no spiritual leaders who can transfer their knowledge or abilities into us, for indeed each one of us has the responsibility and capacity to lead their own spirit. The Torah is clear—our spiritual life is our own, it is on our lips and in our hearts. Fostering our wholeness in breath, spirit, and soul is essential to the Jewish endeavor. And that said, we all know that having support for our far-flung, and sometimes daunting, spiritual journeys is also key to our success. And that is where community comes in. In community we witness and teach each other, we struggle side by side, we share what we learn, and we celebrate each other’s growth.
This teaching comes at a perfect time in our calendar, landing in our biblical inbox just before the New Year, when we gather to celebrate, unburden and assess our lives. The task of taking a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls, is deeply spiritual work. We gather, first to celebrate that we have accrued another year on Planet Earth (yay!!) and then, we take a deep collective breath, and begin the tough work of filtering and fining out the dross—correcting the missteps, the wasted time, the selfish choices, the destructive impulses—to clean up our spiritual home. And here again we find ourselves at the intersection of our breath and our bindings. Having dependable ritual, familiar liturgy, and moving music provides us the religious structure in which to deepen our spiritual practice. And though no one can do the hard work for us, being in community makes the work manageable.
This Shabbat, as we wend our way towards our truth, may the words of our lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God and to ourselves.