Success Must Be Measurable
Any undertaking to achieve results or impact must have goals that are measurable. This is true for any serious effort, whether personal, commercial or charitable. Occasionally success is quantitative, such as when a program’s success is based purely on the number of participants or whether attendance has increased over time. For communal efforts, most often it is the impact of a program that must be studied. Therefore, at the Orthodox Union, we strive to evaluate the impact of our myriad programs and initiatives. For example, what percentage of Yachad participants enjoy increased integration? Do unaffiliated Jewish students attending NCSY events increase their religious engagement, or at least their Jewish social affiliation? Do our state tuition advocacy efforts increase government allocations to yeshivas and day schools?
The central objective of the OU, as is true for most Orthodox institutions, is to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim (sanctify God’s Name) and to enhance each community member’s ability to do the same.1 How do we hope to achieve these goals? By increasing the religious observance and spiritual experience of American Jewry, and of Orthodox Jews in particular.
How do we even begin to identify the criteria by which to evaluate whether these religious efforts are successful? Enhancements in religious observance are frequently quantifiable. We can quantify the availability of kosher food or Torah study. Similarly, we can collect data regarding esrog purchases, synagogue attendance and mikvah use. By contrast, evaluating our success in enhancing Jewish spirituality poses a much greater challenge; how is spirituality measured? In fact, is spirituality measurable at all?
What Is Jewish Spirituality?
Before examining whether spirituality can be measured, how the word “spirituality” is used must be clarified.
What is Jewish spirituality? Is it the emotional warmth that washes over us while entranced at a kumzitz? Is it the wonder of holding a newborn, especially one’s own, or the awe upon encountering the Grand Canyon or Victoria Falls for the first time? Do these experiences qualify as “spiritual,” or are they instead wonderful, albeit human, experiences, accessible to anyone with emotional sensitivity, regardless of a belief in God?
Intense emotional experiences can be conduits for religious spirituality, as can intellectual endeavors and other experiences.2 They have a spiritual impact only if deliberately captured to serve to increase one’s service and awareness of God and the grandeur of His creations. Even the spiritual impact of Torah study and mitzvah observance, which are inherently spiritual pursuits, will be influenced by the extent to which they are embraced with a focus on serving God.3 Perhaps it is a less-than-fully God-focused Torah observance that translates into the less-than-sensitive ethical standards of certain individuals steeped in these very practices.4
So what is Jewish spirituality? God lovingly affords us the opportunity to increase our connection to Him, as it were. An experience is spiritual when it enhances the relationship between our neshamah, our soul, and God. This relationship is often referred to as deveikus.5
Spiritual growth is achievable only during one’s lifetime. Unlike physical things that are dynamic,6 the metaphysical is static. In other words, spiritual creations neither improve nor diminish. An angel, which is entirely spiritual, is therefore described as having but one leg—reflecting its inability to advance.7 Torah is God’s gift to we humans, reflecting His will and blueprint for our affecting deveikus.8
But how do we know whether or not our relationship with God is advancing? How do we determine whether our efforts to intensify spirituality on a communal level are effective?
Metaphysical concepts are often difficult to comprehend, and measuring spirituality is therefore elusive. We can, however, enjoy glimpses into the meaning of our relationship with God by drawing parallels to familiar human experiences. A pathway to understanding the nature of a spiritual relationship with God is to learn from our experience in loving other individuals. Perhaps we can, similarly, entertain methods by which to measure spirituality by reference to our relationship with those people whom we love.
One grows to love another person by getting to know as much as possible about the individual, and by giving to the beloved with no expectation of reciprocity other than the relationship itself. This mirrors the methods by which we develop a closer relationship with God.9 We can give to God, as it were,10 by following His mitzvos and emulating His characteristics,11 as we understand them. We can increase our knowledge of God, as it were, by studying the Torah, which is God’s revelation to mankind.12
Observing the love we have for others may also illustrate how significantly our attitudes and actions can impact our relationships. Attending to the needs of our loved ones is meaningful even when doing so happens to benefit us in other ways, and even when done mindlessly. But a relationship is truly enhanced when we address the needs of our beloved with thoughtfulness, and when it entails sacrifice on our part. Providing for a beloved is most meaningful when there is no agenda other than to manifest love and care.
So too is the nature of our relationship with God. Performing mitzvos and learning Torah are meaningful in all events. But a relationship with the Creator is powerfully impacted when these efforts are undertaken for the sake of the relationship, and not because of peer pressure, social gain or a lifestyle comfort zone.
Finally, since the intensity of loving relationships can fall anywhere along a spectrum, from our personal relationships we can also observe how degrees of love can be distinguished. Someone whom I love casually will be on my mind while we are together or when I am addressing his or her needs. But someone whom I love passionately will occupy my thoughts constantly, even when apart and even when I am involved in unrelated activities.13
Perhaps our personal spiritual trajectory can be measured in the same manner; what role is God playing in my day-to-day life?14 Am I thinking about God and His will only when focused on prayer or ritual, or do I view every aspect of my life as integral to my relationship with God? I do not know if this approach is the only, or even a correct, manner by which to gauge one’s spiritual growth. But if it is, I suggest that we can measure our personal spirituality by considering two simple questions:
1. How often do we factor God into our daily decisions, both large and small?
2. What are we prepared to “give up” to comply with what we perceive as God’s wishes?
Perhaps we can measure our spiritual trajectory not only by the degree of kavanah, focus, we have when we lay tefillin or light Shabbos candles, but also by our mindfulness of God when making large life decisions or even when navigating the series of small daily choices.15
Our communal agenda has effectively elevated the collective level of Torah study and religious observance. Ever-expanding enrollment in Orthodox day schools, yeshivas and kollels continues at impressive rates, as does the number of men and women engaged in post-formal education Torah study. Not only has the demand for Passover matzah exploded, so has the demand for shemurah matzah.
The community’s emphasis on halachic observance rather than on principles of faith and spirituality may be partially due to the ease with which such efforts can be measured. But can our community afford not to focus on Jewish spirituality as well? Can Orthodoxy survive without a genuine deepening and intensification of our relationship with God? Despite the fact that American Orthodox Jews admirably adhere to increasingly high levels of halachic observance, this very observance is vulnerable to deterioration if not accompanied by a true, loving relationship with God; in other words—spirituality.
I suggest that a deepening of our understanding of the meaning of mitzvah observance must accompany our observance, and that an increased focus on our relationship with God is the essence of observant Judaism. I invite you to share with me your views on how spirituality can be measured, and how we can collectively deepen and strengthen our relationship with God. Please e-mail your thoughts and ideas at ou.org/oupresident.
1. “And the ninth commandment is that we are commanded to sanctify the name [of God], as it states: ‘And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.’ (Leviticus 22:32) And the idea of this commandment is that we are commanded to publicize this true belief in the world, and that we should not fear the persecution of any oppressor.” Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Asei 9
“All of the house of Israel is obligated in the sanctification of this great name [of God] as it states: ‘And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel’ (Leviticus 22:32).” Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:1
2. “And what is the way to [bring one to] loving [God] and fearing [God]? When a person contemplates His works and creations which are wondrous [and] great, and [thus a person] will see from them the wisdom [of God] which is immeasurable and endless, immediately, one will love, praise and exalt, and experience a great desire to know the great name [of God].” Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2
3. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is [the meaning of that] which is written: ‘And this is the Torah which Moses put [sam][before the children of Israel]’ (Deuteronomy 4:44)? [If one] is deserving, [the Torah] becomes a potion [sam] of life for him. [If one] is not deserving, [the Torah] becomes a potion of death for him. And this [idea] is what Rava said: For one who is skillful [in his study of Torah and immerses himself in it with love, it is] a potion of life; but for one who is not skillful [in his studies,] it is a potion of death.” Talmud Bavli, Yoma 72b
4. “[The verse states concerning the Ark:] ‘From within and from without you shall cover it’ (Exodus 25:11). Rava said: [This alludes to the idea that] any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside, [i.e., whose outward expression of righteousness is insincere,] is not [to be considered] a Torah scholar.” Talmud Bavli, Yoma 72b
5. Literally “clinging.” Based on the verse, “But you that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive, every one of you, this day.” Deuteronomy 4:4
6. “A person is called ‘one who moves,’ as one needs to constantly go from one level to the next level. And if one does not advance upwards, then he will fall downwards, God forbid, being that it is impossible that a person should remain on one level…” Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797), Commentary to Proverbs 15:24
7. “…That is why a person is called ‘one who moves,’ which is the opposite of the station of an angel who is referred to as ‘standing,’ as is well known. This is [the meaning of the verse] ‘Their feet are a straight foot,’ (Ezekiel 1:7) as [an angel] stands constantly on one level, unlike a person who needs to always add…” Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polonne (1710–1784), Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Parshat Bo
8. “Drawing close to God is only possible through the medium of God’s commandments, and there is no road to the knowledge of the commands of God except by way of prophesy; not by means of speculation and reasoning, as there is no connection between us and the commandments except through the truthful tradition. Indeed, those who have handed down these laws to us were not a few individuals, but rather a multitude of people, all of them great sages who received [the tradition] from the prophets, and in the absence of prophecy they received it from the bearers of the Torah; the priests and Levites, and the seventy elders. And from the days of Moses, the tradition was never interrupted amongst Israel.” Sefer haKuzari, 3:53
9. “…A person should love God with a very great, abundant and intense love, until his soul is bound with the love of God, and the result is that he is always enraptured with it, as though he is lovesick and his mind is never free of thoughts about that woman, and he’s constantly obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats, when he drinks. Even more so should the love of God be in the heart of those who love Him, constantly obsessed with it, as He commanded us: ‘[And you shall love the Lord your God] with all your heart, and with all your soul’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). And that is what Solomon stated as a metaphor: ‘I am lovesick’ (Song of Songs 2:5). [In fact] all of the Song of Songs is a parable for this concept.” Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3
10. “… When Israel performs unworthy deeds they—so to speak—weaken the power of the Holy One Blessed is He, and when they perform worthy deeds, they give power and strength to the Holy One Blessed is He. About this it states: ‘Give might to God’ (Psalms 69:35).’” Sefer HaZohar, Shemot 32b
11. “Abba Shaul says: ‘Ve’anveihu’ (Exodus 15:2) [should be understood as if it were written in two words: ‘Ani vaHu,’ me and Him [God]]. Be similar to Him; just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too should you be compassionate and merciful.” Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 133b
12. The third Mitzvah is that which we are commanded to love God, which means, that we should think about and contemplate His commandments, His words, and His works, so that we will gain a conception of him, and we will benefit by this conception in the most beneficial way. This is the love that is obligatory. As the Sifrei says: ‘Since it says: ‘And you shall love the Lord your God,’ the question arises, how does one love God? Therefore the verse states: ‘And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart,’ for through this [contemplation of God words], you will come to recognize the One who spoke and the world came into existence.” Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Asei 3
13. “…And it states: ‘Let not the wise man exult in his wisdom…’ and it says ‘only with this shall he exult; that he understands, and knows Me’ (Jeremiah 9:22-23). And this is the highest level in the knowledge of God, because one who truly knows Him will cling to His service and to fear of Him, according to the knowledge in his heart and his conscience, and he will fulfill the duties of the heart and limbs without effort and without toil, but rather with fervor, enthusiasm and zeal, as David said: ‘I made haste, and delayed not’ (Psalms 119:60)…” Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Paquda (c. 1050-1120), Duties of the Heart, VIII:6
14. “Rabbi Yosei says… And all of your actions should be [performed] for the sake of Heaven.” Mishna, Avot, 2:12
15. “I place the Lord before me constantly, for he is like my right hand, so that I will never be shaken.” Psalms 16:8
“‘I have set the Lord before me constantly’ (Psalms 16:8); this is a major principle in the Torah and amongst the virtues of the righteous who walk before God. For a person’s way of sitting, his movements and his dealings while he is alone in his house, are not like his way of sitting, his movements and his dealings, when he is before a great king; nor are his speech and free expression as much as he wants when he is with his household members and his relatives like his speech when in a royal audience. All the more so when one takes to heart that the Great King, the Holy One, Blessed Is He, Whose glory fills the earth, is standing over him and watching his actions…” Rabbi Moshe Isserles- Rema”h (1520-1572), Glosses to Shulkhan Arukh, Orakh Haim, 1:1
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.
Ask the President
The Orthodox Union is first and foremost a communal services organization. Your feedback and input about how the OU is doing in that role is critical to our success as a community. As president I want to hear from you.
Your input and views will certainly be studied, and will be considered in the context of the views of others.
If you pose questions that are appropriate for a public response, I will do so if you provide permission.
I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
President, Orthodox Union