“There is, undeniably, something of a crisis in Jewish spirituality today,” wrote the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in an essay entitled “Spirituality: An Introduction.” “This is sad because for many centuries, Jews were the G-d-intoxicated people.”
In this Rosh Hashanah issue, we asked a number of prominent rabbis, rebbetzins, educators and communal leaders about the decline in spirituality in Orthodox Jewish life and ways to address it. We asked participants to respond to at least one of the questions below:
1. How would you define spirituality?
2. Do you feel there is a decline in spirituality in the Orthodox community? If so, what is causing it and how is it manifesting itself?
3. If Orthodox Jews might even be turning away from traditional Judaism because it seems to lack spirituality, what practical steps do you suggest we take to reverse this trend?
4. How do we generate enthusiasm for religious life among children and teens?
5. Did past generations of Orthodox Jews struggle with spirituality? If so, what tools did they use to enhance spirituality, and what can we learn from their efforts?
While religion pertains primarily to a communal existence, spirituality is a personal journey.
The problem of Judaism devoid of spirituality begins when Judaism becomes a culture of habits.
One way of making ourselves more open to spirituality is to prioritize G-d in our lives. The development of the cultural infrastructure of the Jewish community, while generally a very good thing, has made it possible to be very comfortable in our observance such that prioritizing Hashem in our lives is not something we necessarily think about. This can lead to a life that is technically Jewish, but without much thought about Hashem.
One significant opportunity to bring Hashem into our thoughts is in the choices we make about how we participate in popular culture. We should ask ourselves not whether something is permitted by halachah but rather, “Does this bring me closer to Hashem and to my Jewish identity?” This approach will condition us to be more receptive to a spiritual mindset.
Another step is to identify Hashem in our lives by looking for hashgachah pratis (Divine Providence) in our daily experience. This can be a family exercise. For example, at the dinner table we might share serendipitous events that demonstrate Hashem in our lives. We might also acknowledge when something uncomfortable happens to us that it is also the Hand of Hashem, by saying “Thank you, Hashem” for the painful serendipity just as we do for the delightful experiences.
Yet another pathway to enhancing our spirituality is to learn the meaning of the tefillos we say daily. While studying the way tefillah expresses our needs, the history of the prayers, or nuances in the text is very important, the work that brings us to a more spiritual mindset is the study of Pesukei D’Zimrah and Birchos Kerias Shema, the parts of tefillah that are intended to bring our attention to the presence of Hashem in our lives. This will prepare us to be able to focus during davening on the spirit of the words we are saying (which may require prioritizing attending a slow minyan, even if that means a later lunch on Shabbos!).
Rabbis’ sermons that deal with what other people need to be doing, problems in the Jewish community, which political party is more evil or even those that address important events in Israel (though they may sometimes need to be addressed) do very little to challenge us toward spiritual growth. Instead, every time I speak, I try to ask myself how Hashem is inviting me and my listeners to be closer to Him through this devar Torah.
Rabbi Yossi Mendelson is rav of Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills, Queens.
By Shira Smiles
As told to Barbara Bensoussan
Jews are wired for connection to Hashem. Spirituality inheres in every Jew. Rabbi Moshe Wolfson compares it to birds who have a homing instinct and will always seek their way home. A Jew possesses a similar instinct to “fly home.”
He explains that the mitzvah of emunah isn’t about accepting that Hashem exists: our neshamos already know that. Instead, the mitzvah is about making it real for ourselves. Similarly, Rabbi Mordechai Miller explains that the commandment to love Hashem isn’t a matter of creating a love of Hashem, but rather taking our natural love of Hashem and bringing it to the fore.
The problem is that human beings create blockages to this natural emunah and love. These blockages are spelled out in Pirkei Avos (4:28): “Hakinah, hata’avah v’hakavod motzi’in es ha’adam min ha’olam—Envy, greed and pursuit of honor take a person out of the [spiritual] world.” When the focus is yourself, there’s no room for Hashem—or, as the popular expression goes, ego equals Easing G-d Out. Today, we live in a world in which we are consumed with physicality. Life is all about Me—feeding Me, making Me feel good, having My desires delivered by Amazon (preferably yesterday). This blocks our spiritual selves.
Since technology isn’t going away, what can we do?
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler taught that when you want to do teshuvah—when you want to be connected to Hashem but aren’t—you should search for one mitzvah to connect to, and focus on it like a laser beam. It will become your portal to greater connection to Hashem.
But many people today are so distanced that they don’t even have a mitzvah that speaks to them. We need another path that will open the doors.
I find that music is an invaluable tool to arouse the neshamah. Speech is what makes us human, but music touches an even deeper part of the soul. The Modzitzer Rebbe said that in Heaven there are different palaces: a palace of chesed, a palace of Torah, a palace of teshuvah and a palace of shirah, song. But those last two palaces, teshuvah and shirah, are not separate from each other.
Music opens the heart. In the Beis Hamikdash, if a person came to say Vidui and the Kohen sensed he wasn’t reciting it with a full heart, he would instruct the Levi’im to sing. The singing would infuse the person’s tefillah with the proper kavanah.
One of the classes I teach in Darchei Binah women’s seminary is entitled “Haniggun Shebalev,” meaning, the song that’s in the heart. In that class I’ll take a contemporary song of Jewish music and present the words to my students. Then we turn out the lights—the room becomes completely dark—and I play it for them. I follow this with a twenty-minute lesson about the hashkafic ideas of the song. Following that, I give the students journal prompts, and ask them to write responses while the same music plays softly in the background. The girls reflect, write and have the opportunity to share their writings if they choose to. I ask questions such as, “When was there a time you wanted to give up, but you pushed through anyway?” or, “Take five people in your life, think about what they’re missing and how you can help them.” The girls say it’s like therapy; it opens them up to levels of their selves they never accessed before. One girl, who was hovering on the edge of Torah observance, cried when she did one of these exercises, and later told me it turned her around. She now sends divrei Torah via WhatsApp to a group of women, with over 100 posts to date.
You can do similar exercises with adults. Every year I attend Chizuk Mission’s trips to Eretz Yisrael. I pick a song for us to sing together before my shiur begins. I deliver the shiur, and we sing it again throughout the shiur. The women close their eyes and feel the music, and it leads to deeper dimensions of connectedness; both the mind and the heart become involved. The same dynamic happens in men’s kumzitzes and long musical Havdalahs.
Rabbi Dessler suggested that we connect to Hashem through giving laser focus to one mitzvah. But when people aren’t even at that stage yet, music is perhaps one of the laser beams that pierce the heart and moves a person forward.
Shira Smiles is a mechanechet at Darchei Binah Seminary. She teaches at the OU Israel Center in Yerushalayim, as well as in many other adult venues.
Barbara Bensoussan is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
I have no doubt that our Orthodox community is losing adherents in part because there are those who fail to see the beauty, warmth and personal meaning of Judaism (what I refer to as “spirituality”) and focus only on the technical details of halachah.
It is important to stress to all—and to stress again—that commitment to a halachically informed way of life requires engaging Jewish law on two levels: the act or performance of the mitzvah, as well as the experience of the mitzvah—what Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik referred to as “formal compliance of the law” along with the law as “a living experience.”
“Jewishness,” in fact, consists of two dimensions—act and feeling, deed and affect, behavior and emotion. While halachic commitment is associated with certain actions like sitting in a sukkah, lighting Shabbat candles, drinking Kiddush wine or fasting on Yom Kippur, actions alone are insufficient. But there is a feeling or emotional aspect to halachic commitment as well—not just reciting the words of prayer, but being transformed through prayer, not just drinking Kiddush wine, but experiencing something meaningful about Shabbat.
One year, in the course of a “Ten Days of Repentance” lecture that Rabbi Soloveitchik used to deliver annually in various venues in New York City, he deviated from the subject under discussion (Maimonides’ view regarding the mentioning of the Tetragrammaton by the High Priest during his “confession” on Yom Kippur) to make “a kind of a private confession” of his own, sharing “a thought that has caused me loss of sleep.” He happily acknowledged that even in a world where “the profane and the secular reign supreme,” there are Jews who observe the Shabbat. “But,” he continued, “it is not for the Shabbat that the heart aches, it is for erev Shabbat. There are shomrei Shabbat [Sabbath observers] in America, but there are no erev Shabbat Jews [“Yehudim shel erev Shabbat”] in America who go forth to greet the Shabbat with focused souls and yearning hearts. We have those who observe the mitzvot with hand, foot and mouth, but how few are those who know what is service of the heart [avodah she-ba-lev].”
And the importance the Rav placed on focusing on Shabbat in anticipation of its arrival was mirrored by his stressing the importance of extending the Shabbat even after it formally came to a close. Shabbat deserves to be savored and experienced, anticipated in advance and extended after its departure. And this is also the case with any other mitzvah.
But this concern is not the product of contemporary times. There are many examples of an emphasis on “spirituality” in the Talmud and later rabbinic works. One example will suffice. The Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, a composite work authored by Rabbis Yosef Karo and Moshe Isserles in the sixteenth century, is rightly seen as a handbook for Jewish ritual behavior outlining every religious act down to the most minute, technical detail. But let us not overlook the opening statement of Rabbi Isserles, which, to him, clearly sets the tone for all that will follow. He writes, citing Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed,
“‘I have set the L-rd before me constantly’ (Psalms 16:8); this is a major principle in the Torah and amongst the virtues of the righteous who walk before G-d. 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.”
Close to five hundred years ago, Rabbi Isserles understood that having a real sense of G-d’s presence must precede any ritual act. We would do well to take these words to heart in our times.
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is a university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at Yeshiva University.
As told to Barbara Bensoussan
I would define spirituality as being tuned into the Eternal: to our neshamos, to our connection with Hashem. It means being conscious of Hakadosh Baruch Hu and in sync with Him, even as we live in physical bodies and express ourselves in a physical world.
In my work in kiruv, I have seen that people in the secular world see spirituality as an awareness of a higher meaning or connecting to their higher selves and higher Power. But if it isn’t grounded in knowledge and a commitment to mitzvos, Hashem’s protocol for His creations, then it’s just another feel-good experience. Such spirituality can become self-serving, a form of avodah zarah.
When it comes to the work I do as a teacher of high school girls and adult women, I find that in terms of spirituality, you might say, to paraphrase A Tale of Two Cities: “It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.” On the one hand, we have so many spiritual resources available to us. At the same time however, we have become saturated with externality and physicality. You see the contradiction in our magazines. There will be an article about the holiness of Shabbos next to an ad for expensive Shabbos wines, or a deeply introspective article followed by an ad for high-end jewelry or luxury vacations. We have more women learning Torah on TorahAnytime and other platforms than ever before in history. We have hundreds of chesed organizations. Yet at the same time women are spending so much of their energies redecorating homes, going on incredible family vacations that kings of yesteryear would be jealous of, and planning weddings, along with event planners, with an emphasis on perfectionism and materialism. This ultimately leads to a sense of emptiness, which, paradoxically, for some people actually leads to a craving for spirituality.
My students who have exposure to social media often lose their sense of self-worth. They become obsessed with comparing themselves to others, which leads to a loss of self, body image issues and feelings of inadequacy. Some of them, with great idealism, are able to move beyond it by embracing greater spirituality as they become disenchanted with the life they’re living. They become excited about the possibility of connecting to a dimension beyond the material and they make incredible spiritual strides.
In some circles where the population has grown exponentially, with a concomitant proliferation of high levels of Torah learning, and other serious spiritual endeavors, the growth has had a challenging side as well. For some there is a loss of self. Teenagers sometimes feel lost in the crowd. They are not the inspired select few of yesteryear, founding new Bais Yaakovs or bikur cholims. It’s already been done for them. They may feel stymied in their capacity to create; some wonder, where do I go from here? The pressures of rapidly growing societies tend to make people feel disenfranchised. Some women simply feel too overwhelmed by their lives—by the ongoing financial pressures and, due the community’s exponential growth, by concerns about getting their children into school.
Over my many years of teaching I have found an approach that is helpful in addressing the problem of loss of self. I call it “the internal success revolution.” (My daughter, Shona Schwartz, describes this approach in a book entitled How To Stop Caring What Others Think: For Real). I try to help women and girls develop a mindset that they are thirsty for and that deeply resonates with them after living in this frustrating olam hafuch, disingenuous world. Through analyzing and reframing deeply held attitudes and ideas and introducing new vocabulary, I encourage women to stop defining themselves by external social markers like beauty, prestige, successful husbands, personal academic and career successes, cooking prowess or even externally displayed middos, and instead learn to take the perspective that greatness lies in using what Hashem gave us in the best possible way. I suggest enjoying the successes but laughing at them as they don’t define us. Gifts do not equal greatness! Greatness lies only in what you absolutely control, working hard to be your personal best while recognizing that success, as well as everything else, ultimately comes from Hashem. Most of us do not excel at anything relative to others; most people have average abilities (hence the word average) and we should be focused on developing our own neshamos, which are indeed unique and grand, using the tools we’ve been given that make us our finest selves.
My message is: Keep your eyes on the ball, pay attention to what Hashem wants from you—your tefillah and your middos—while focusing on making the world a better place drop by drop, whether that means having more patience for your spouse or students or graciously changing linen for guests.
At first this approach is a hard sell because we love huge wins, like starting a life-saving organization or a movement that gets noticed in a big way. Most of us don’t have dramatic successes and our real “wins” are rarely visible. But in order to really integrate this mindset, you must first believe in your own unique value as a human being and an eved Hashem, and from there all joy and passion for life can blossom.
Rebbetzin Yael Kaisman is a teacher, lecturer, life coach and outreach professional. She has been an educator for over forty-five years, teaching high school students and lecturing as a scholar-in-residence. She runs a private life coaching practice, supporting clients in their parenting, marriage and self-development.
There is a feeling among many Jews, including many Orthodox Jews, that the services in shul lack adequate inspiration and spirituality.
Among the complaints: the synagogue ritual is chanted by rote; the prayers are recited too quickly; the prayers are recited too slowly; the service is not understood by congregants; people talk too much in shul; the services do not involve everyone in a meaningful way.
Here are some of the “solutions” that have been suggested over the years:
l Introduce Chassidic/Carlebach melodies. These may be more lively and inspirational than the usual synagogue music . . . but for many, such music seems more like a hootenanny than a vehicle for addressing G-d.
l Make the services more egalitarian. For some people, this seems like a way of getting men and women more involved. Yet the Reform and Conservative movements have been fully egalitarian for many years—without any perceptible improvement in the overall spiritual life of their communities.
l Make services shorter; include more readings in the vernacular. For some people this makes the synagogue experience more palatable. But it is doubtful whether it brings people to a greater feeling of the presence of G-d.
The real problem is: moderns are losing, or have already lost, their sense of intimacy with G-d. Making changes in the synagogue service will not restore the intimacy; those are focusing on symptoms rather than on the malady itself. To a religious Jew who feels G-d’s presence in daily life, the synagogue service poses little or no problem.
The synagogue is just one of many contexts in which one experiences the Divine. If we want synagogues to be more spiritual, we have to be more spiritual ourselves. If we want our “dwellings” (our synagogues) to be spiritually alive, we first have to be sure that our “tents” (our homes) are spiritually alive.
There are no quick-fix shortcuts for developing spirituality in our communities. The goal should be to create an environment for individuals to internalize their own thinking and connection to G-d.
Here are some suggestions:
1. The rabbi/chazzan (and lay leaders who sit in front of the congregation) should themselves set the tone of being in the presence of G-d. No talking, walking around and socializing during prayers, no sitting casually with legs crossed, et cetera. Those who lead the community should reflect spirituality themselves and set an example for the congregation.
2. Each person should be encouraged to adopt a “pasuk” of their own to think about or meditate upon regularly throughout the day, e.g., shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid; dirshu Hashem v’uzo bakshu fanav tamid; lev tahor bera li Elokim. As people become accustomed to thinking about G-d regularly and feeling His presence, their own spiritual lives will grow.
3. The rabbi’s sermons should demonstrate reverence—no jokes or frivolous comments. While rabbis will speak on many topics, some sermons/shiurim should focus on themes exploring prayer, G-d’s place in our lives, the need for hitbodedut, and the like.
4. Rabbis/lay leaders should conduct themselves with humility and devotion, and not be perceived as egotistical, power hungry or insincere in their own religious commitment.
5. The congregation should set itself a goal so that all congregants know what is expected; for example: Today in our prayers we want to experience being in the presence of G-d. If after services you don’t feel this has happened, let’s talk about what we as a community can do to enhance our tefillah experience.
Rabbi Marc Angel serves as rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan. He is the director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.
It is quite obvious that the values in today’s society and, as a corollary, the rights of each person are dictated by what individuals feel is right for them, rather than by what is correct or true in any absolute sense, or even what is beneficial for the broader society. Fallout from this shift in worldview results in people trying on all possible variations of identities, in a desperate search to find themselves and establish their own particular brand of meaning and value.
This inevitably filters down to frum society. How people feel about things, including religion, becomes paramount, frequently more so than beliefs. Beliefs are still there, hovering in the background, but often not strong enough to dictate behavior. Feelings compel, and while beliefs are given lip service, they often aren’t enough, particularly among younger people, to sustain fealty to basic components of religious life such as tefillah or sometimes even Shabbos. The chevra, where you can feel good and your feelings about things are respected, is primary. We see groups of young people who consider themselves Orthodox, who engage in many practices that are anything but, and yet would be very offended if you challenged their dedication to “Judaism.” This results in a portion of our youth who are not opting out totally, but are living a spiritually watered-down life with questionable sustainability. This is often tolerated within frum society, because what is the alternative?
Another aspect of this issue is that knowledge alone no longer impresses. A rabbi or a rebbi who is knowledgeable is nice, but not enough, as the almighty Google knows more. Owning knowledge is less of a value, because the world’s knowledge is at my fingertips, and now that I know how to use ChatGBT, I can craft that information to my benefit. My phone is smart, why do I have to be?
This leaves the mind soft and the soul thirsting more than ever. It’s not that we are experiencing a mass exodus from Orthodoxy. The lifestyle is good. Kiddush in shul is enjoyable. Jewish weddings are fun, and kosher food is readily available in multiple vacation destinations. It’s easier to be friends with people who grew up in the same weltanschauung. There isn’t much reason to rebel against that. At the same time, it’s external, superficial Judaism, and there is nothing internal beckoning or quenching the soul’s thirst for genuine connection to something higher.
What seems to be drawing people in, both the disenchanted and those looking to nurture the fire of their connection to Hashem, is the neo-Chassidic movement—rabbis who didn’t necessarily start off in the Chassidic world, who give over deep Chassidic content that not only impresses the mind but touches the soul. Only the real deal will work. These rabbis need to be on fire and live what they teach, be warm and compassionate people who truly care about their constituents, and have wisdom, not just knowledge, to impart. Their words must inspire intellectually and uplift spiritually at the same time. They must catapult a person out of their mundane world and give him a taste of existence on a higher plane, awakening slumbering souls and helping the individual identify what it is he is truly thirsty for.
In today’s milieu, a teacher who remains in the old model of strictly frontal teaching is likely to lose a good portion of her students’ attention along the way. Our religious institutions need a way to respond to the very changed needs of much of our youth. And even though we can all point to some students and young people who are continuing to thrive in the traditional structure, are we willing to let go of that portion of our youth who no longer respond to that? We aren’t talking about creating special education, rather about spiritual education that can address the needs of a population with deep sensitivity and an uncanny antenna for Truth, or the lack thereof.
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt has been involved in teaching and counseling Jewish women for over twenty-five years. Rebbetzin Greenblatt speaks about practical applications of Jewish thought and personal relationships. Besides being a founder of the Women’s Division of Gateways, she lectures often for the Jewish Renaissance Center, and gives classes in the New York metropolitan area as well as across the country.
As told to Barbara Bensoussan
I define spirituality as having a connection to Hashem and a life focused on a relationship with Him. We are, unfortunately, living in very superficial times. There is a significant number of people who keep the Torah and mitzvot yet remain detached from it all. They have a tenuous connection to Hashem and a lack of passion for Judaism, and they are at risk of falling out of it completely.
While the phenomenon of a weakened connection was once less common, historically speaking, this is not the first time it has happened. In the prewar generation, a significant number of Jews were attracted by all the “isms”—Communism, Secular Zionism, Bundism and socialism. Women who lacked a Torah education until Sarah Schenirer started the Bais Yaakov movement were easily influenced by secular society. At that time, although Jews had different levels of connection to Judaism, most of them stayed within the Jewish community. Today, in a similar vein, many people who appear externally to be within the fold are lacking a true spiritual connection. Outside observant circles, however, the vast majority of Jews have no Torah knowledge and are completely assimilated. I don’t know if we ever had such a situation in all of Jewish history. Perhaps in the time of the Hellenists or the Romans.
Education is essential. The Bais Yaakov movement has immeasurably strengthened women’s spirituality by providing young girls with Jewish education and inspiration. Jewish publications have also helped strengthen the Torah world, from newspapers and magazines to textbooks that are customized for our schools.
Yet every generation has its own challenges. We have to respond to the materialism, the instant gratification and the superficiality that prevail today. We must re-examine the way we educate both young and old. We transmit a lot of information instead of concentrating on understanding. In the US, we put emphasis on teaching the Hebrew language, but then we cover less material; and the content suffers as well. We’ll teach a pasuk with its many commentaries, but students end up seeing only the details, not the big picture.
Learning should be a process of discovery, not simply spitting back information. Connection comes from engagement with the material. Our students need to learn a comprehensive system of machshavah that starts from Creation and leads all the way to the End of Days. Too often, we take our students’ emunah and acceptance of Torah for granted. They need to learn the foundations of our beliefs.
To address this need, I have created a two-year curriculum entitled HaKivun, which is now being utilized in sixty schools. It contains thirteen basic units, two lessons per week, which are designed to create a process of discovery of Judaism and an understanding of what Judaism is truly about. It is comprised of material that any limudei kodesh teacher should know, but sadly, many teachers themselves weren’t taught such knowledge in any systematic way.
HaKivun should be taught to parents as well, so that they can be collaborative partners with the yeshivah in the education of their children. If children and adults alike were to find the intellectual framework and inspiration they need, the enthusiasm would flow from parents to students and back, as well as from parents to the school.
In addition, since young people today have a harder time accepting authority, they need to be enticed to learn, rather than forced to do so. A lot depends on the rapport and relationship teachers develop with the students as they engage their minds. Learning doesn’t have to be dry. When you give students positive, relevant messages and get them really thinking, you open them up to genuine understanding and connection to Judaism.
Rebbetzin Leah Kohn is the director of the Jewish Renaissance Center, a Manhattan-based outreach program for women. A tenth-generation Jerusalemite, she trained as an educator in her native Israel and has been teaching internationally for over forty years. Her intellectually inspiring classes are geared toward today’s woman, focusing on how the Torah’s age-old wisdom is relevant to our modern lives.
For Torah-abiding Jews, the word spirituality means feeling a connection to Hashem. In a Western context, spirituality is defined as an awareness or feeling of something greater than the self. Music, art, a loved one, or a social or political cause would all qualify. For us, spirituality finds expression mainly through tefillah, observing the mitzvot and learning Torah, as well as through any halachically sanctioned experience that enables us to feel Hashem’s presence in our lives.
In an article on spirituality, my rebbi, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, explains that if we had to choose between a dry, formal system of obedience to mitzvot that is devoid of meaning and a loose spirituality whose entire aim is just to sense the transcendental, there is no doubt that we would choose the former. But, asks Rabbi Lichtenstein, does anyone imagine that the Ribbono Shel Olam would confront us with such a cruel choice? “Our aim, duty and aspiration is both the conjunction of spiritualized Halakha and disciplined spirituality, the fusion of which enables us to realize the poetry and prose of ideal Jewish existence” (“Law and Spirituality: Defining the Terms,” in Varieties of Religious Experience [New Jersey, 2011], 185).
Ours is hardly the first generation to struggle with spirituality. Within a few weeks of witnessing supernatural miracles, the generation that left Egypt was already wondering hayeish Hashem b’kirbeinu im ayin, asking whether G-d is in their midst (Shemot 17:7). Generations later, Yeshayahu HaNavi derides mitzvot anashim melumadah, rote mitzvah performers going through the motions out of force of habit (Yeshayahu 29:13). Examples abound throughout Jewish history.
While every generation struggles with spirituality, each does so in its own way. Today, it feels as if we do not suffer from a decline in spirituality as much as a surfeit of competing options presented to us by Western culture, vying to satiate this core human need. The ready availability of information, entertainment, and endless connection to others through digital media means the zeitgeist—literally, the spirit of the times—is blowing like a hurricane.
To access our connection to Hashem then, we need first to rediscover our own resources. Fortunately, we already have all the tools for meaningful spirituality at our disposal through our vast and venerable tradition. The problem is not that we lack for tools, but for their proper use. The Ba’al Shem Tov tells the story of the blacksmith’s former apprentice who returns to complain to his mentor of his inability to replicate his master’s work. Journeying to the student’s foundry for an on-site inspection, the teacher looks into the oven and asks: did you remember to light the fire?
Attempting to light or relight a fire while the wind is blowing can be extremely challenging. Here are a few practical, simple suggestions for how to come in from the storm:
First, Shabbat remains the greatest weekly opportunity to focus on our ruchniyut. In the presence of our neshamah yeteirah, we can ask ourselves what our Shabbat looks like: Do our meals include zemirot and divrei Torah as no less vital than the physical nourishment prepared in advance and served at the table? Are we prioritizing limud haTorah every Shabbat, a day free of distractions? Is the Shabbat atmosphere in our home being undermined by a lack of respect for it in terms of dress, speech and behavior?
Second, even slowing down and paying attention to the simple act of eating can open a moment of connection with the Borei Olam. Yes, eating a nectarine can be elevated into a spiritual experience. Chazal enacted various berachot for specific classes of foods for a reason. Are we paying attention to the words in the blessing we recite both before and after we eat? (From berachot, a person should then aim to build toward developing greater spirituality in tefillah.)
Third, we should learn to view limud haTorah as a great spiritual experience. When Hashem explains the impending Churban as a result of “their abandonment of My Torah” (Yirmiyahu 9), Rabbi Yehudah explains in the name of Rav that this was a result of their neglecting to recite the berachah prior to Torah learning (Nedarim 81a). Apparently, the batei midrash can be full even as hearts are emptying out. Talmud Torah needs to be framed as a spiritual activity, not as a mere intellectual exercise. Which area of Torah can help a person access Torah as a spiritual endeavor? It depends on an individual’s personality: for some, it is Tanach, for others it is Shas and posekim, while yet others prefer musar or machshavah or chassidut. Whatever the area of Torah, when it follows Birchot HaTorah, the learning becomes an encounter with Hashem.
There are no shortcuts to working on developing spirituality. It remains a lifelong quest to cultivate the sense that one is in the presence of Hashem. Fortunately, the Torah anticipates this challenge in Parashat Hateshuvah (Devarim 30), and encourages us to feel confident that we can achieve this closeness. It does not require someone to bring us new spiritual ideas from Shamayim, nor from afar. In short, it is up to us, and we can do it:
“For this mitzvah that I command you today is not too wondrous for you, and it is not far away. It is not in the Heavens, so that one would say ‘Who will go up for us to the Heavens to get it for us and teach it to us, that we may fulfill it?’ And it is not beyond the sea, so that one would say ‘Who will cross for us to beyond the sea to get it for us and teach it to us, that we may fulfill it?’ For this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to fulfill it” (Devarim 30:11-14).
Rabbi Zvi Engel serves as the rabbi of Congregation Or Torah in Skokie, Illinois.
There is a well-known principle governing Jewish history, referred to as “yeridas hadoros,” or “descending generations.” Every generation experiences a spiritual decline relative to the previous one. The souls of each generation are spiritually “duller” and of smaller stature than those of the preceding one, which results in a younger generation whose abilities in Torah learning and avodas Hashem in general are diminished. It is therefore no surprise that there would be a decline in spirituality in our times, as there has always been such a trend.
What makes our situation unique, however, is the pace of the decline in our time.
Historically, the decline in spirituality has been slow and steady, almost unnoticed until after a number of generations, similar to watching a pot boil; although the temperature changes every moment, it is so subtle that it’s hard to notice. It could also be said that each descending generation was on the same general spiritual path as the preceding one, albeit on a lower level. This resulted in the ability of the older generation to communicate and transmit the spirit of Yiddishkeit to the younger one, as they both spoke the same language. All the older generation had to do was to constrict and simplify the message so that it could be received by the younger generation, just as any teacher conveys a concept to a student.
Not so in our times. Anyone in education or spiritual leadership will tell you that the change in generations is, firstly, extremely obvious and more rapid than ever before, and secondly, that each generation seems to be completely different than the preceding one. The general approach of merely simplifying and constricting the spirituality of the earlier generation to allow it to be processed for the later one does not seem to work nearly as well as this method always has. This phenomenon has already been foretold by Chazal in many places in describing the nature of the generations of ikvesa d’Meshicha, “the heels of Mashiach.” These words do not describe the usual manifestation of yeridas hadoros.
The reason for this difference is that besides for the spiritually natural principle of yeridas hadoros, there is a different, almost inverse, soul phenomenon taking place. There is a fundamental principle in penimiyus haTorah [the innermost, mystical dimension of the Torah] that events in Jewish history have a reverberating effect, not only going forward in time but also backward, similar to ripples in a pond made by a pebble (the ripples travel in all directions). Events that have yet to occur but are predestined can be subtly felt by the Jewish soul. These “ripples” may be so imperceptible that the soul may not be able to process them properly and clearly, but their effects can be extreme.
Our generation is being deeply affected by the “light of Mashiach” that boomerangs back toward us. We may not see it, or be able to explain it, but this phenomenon is changing the very nature of spirituality, as well as countless other aspects of society. The methods that the Jewish community always used to cope with yeridas hadoros will not work for us.
In fact, many of the methods used in the past to address yeridas hadoros will be counterproductive. As mentioned earlier, the general approach was to simplify and constrict the message as one would do when educating a young child. This is the opposite of what is needed in a generation feeling the ripple effects of the light of Mashiach, who will herald in an era of untold depth in Torah and a sense of living with a consciousness of Infinity. A generation sensitive to this light is a generation that is in desperate need of being given a Yiddishkeit that will be familiar to a soul searching for ways to process this reverberating light of Mashiach. This is a Yiddishkeit that is deeper, with more nuance, and which is focused on giving the soul a language to articulate what it senses in its depths: that G-d and His Torah are infinitely deep and the truest reality. We are not necessarily experiencing a crisis in faith. We are experiencing the result of transmitting an overly simplified version of G-d and Yiddishkeit to souls that demand the opposite. For a soul of this generation, an overly simplified explanation and experience of Yiddishkeit is deeply unsettling and does not resonate as true or honest. Ironically, a deeper, more three-dimensional and profound version of Yiddishkeit is most comforting.
Discussions about how we know the Torah is true, intellectual reasons for the mitzvos, or other similar discussions are not what I mean by depth and nuance. Those conversations will actually feel like a foreign language to a soul that is pulsating with the light of Mashiach in whose days the reality of Hashem and His Torah will be obvious to the naked eye. The discussion must rather revolve around what is happening within the soul and the world of Divinity when we perform mitzvos. How are the mitzvos pathways through which the reality of G-d and the G-dly soul is expressed? How can the finite vessel of halachah contain within it the infinite light of Hashem and the soul?
Since there still remains as well the old phenomenon of yeridas hadoros, all of the above must be imparted in a clear manner that is both deep and practical at the same time. This may seem like an overwhelming challenge, but through the generations, Hashem has sent us many tzaddikim who have given us the tools to unlock and transmit these absolutely vital mysteries. An in-depth discussion of these teachings and this approach is beyond the scope of this article, but the siyata d’Shmaya granted to those who are honestly trying to uplift the generation will certainly make this task not only possible but natural and obvious. As Moshe Rabbeinu told us at the end of his life: “These words are very close to you; in your mouth and in your heart to perform them.”
Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky is the rav of K’hal Mevakshei Hashem in Lawrence, New York, where he lives with his wife and children.
One evening after dinner, my six-year-old and four-year-old daughters engaged in a seemingly funny conversation that quickly shifted from humor to horror.
Chaviva: Just so you know, a lion is outside our house.
Ahava: That doesn’t even make sense; a lion can’t leave the zoo and just walk over to our house in Jerusalem.
Chaviva: Yuh huh. Something happened in the zoo; a gate was left open, a lion escaped, and it’s right outside our front door.
Ahava: (frozen stiff, begins to sob uncontrollably)
At this point, seeing that the conversation is no longer lighthearted children’s banter, I immediately tell Chaviva to take back what she said, but realizing the influence of her words, she becomes stubborn and replies:
I can’t take it back, because it’s true and I want to tell my little sister so she can protect herself.
Ahava’s body is seized by fear, and she begins screaming. I sternly tell Chaviva:
If you don’t tell her immediately that it’s a joke, you are going to your room for the night.
Chaviva: Okay, okay, it was just a joke; everyone relax.
Ahava now calms down with the assurance that no lion is lurking at the passageway to her home.
The frum world lives like Ahava daily, although there are many different faces and voices to the lurking “lion.” The fear may sound like this:
“You’re moving to that neighborhood? But then your teenagers will go off the derech.”
“You don’t send your kids to summer camps? They will feel deprived.”
“You buy your challah? How can it feel like Shabbos without homemade challah?”
“You’re leaving kollel? I guess, if you have no choice and you need the parnassah. . .”
The brain does not differentiate between an externally induced threat and an internally applied one; it immediately erects an impenetrable wall. Likewise, when a person is emotionally engulfed in a battle of fear, he or she is so preoccupied with survival that there is no room for positive emotional and spiritual feelings to enter.
Spirituality means forming a deep connection to an infinite source of love, warmth, goodness and compassion, which is Hashem. This fulfills the positive Torah commandment of “u’Bo tidbak, “you shall cleave to Hashem.” Loving and feeling connected to Hashem must be a reality as tangible as the ground beneath our feet. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explicitly stated that emunah is not an intellectual concept but a feeling. The root of ruchniyus is ruach, wind, air, something that the human eye cannot perceive but which is undoubtedly felt on a broad spectrum, from a soft breeze to a fierce windstorm. Regardless of its intensity, it is undeniably felt.
Because ruchniyus is definitionally experiential, the possession of ruchniyus cannot be faked, not to ourselves or to our children. The most important mindset shift we can make is to have the desire and openness to move from a paradigm of fear and judgment to one of love and acceptance. Love of our fellow Jew is the root of our sense of safety and the foundation on which all of Yiddishkeit is predicated. Moreover, our children will learn and live not by what we say but by who we are.
What is unique to Judaism is that we had a national experience at Har Sinai, and that experience is what preserved Judaism for thousands of years. For today’s generation, practicing spirituality is not about learning something new; instead, it is remembering that which was lost.
Rebbetzin Avigial Gersht, an experienced educator and guidance counselor, has devoted her career to empowering youth and young adults while also studying nonprofit leadership. Residing in Israel with her husband and four children, she continues her mission to shape the future of the Jewish community.
When Hashem tells us to build Him a home, He doesn’t provide coordinates or details of where it should be constructed. He simply says, “l’shichno tidreshu u’vasa shamah—you shall seek out His dwelling and come there” (Devarim 12:5).
The Ramban explains that when the Torah says tidreshu, it means: if you want to feel Hashem in your life, seek Him, look for Him, reveal Him, connect with Him. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik suggests that whether it is the geographic location of the Beis Hamikdash or the spiritual experiences and moments we long for, the coordinates are not provided to us. We aren’t given a map to arrive at the destination; we have to calibrate our own spiritual compass and find it. We need to ask questions, have our spiritual antennae extended, and be receptive to picking up the signal. Tidreshu: we must seek out Hashem.
The Kotzker Rebbe disagreed with Uncle Moishy. When someone once asked him where Hashem could be found, the Kotzker Rebbe did not answer, Hashem is here, there and everywhere! He answered: Hashem is only where you let Him in. It is up to us to have that relationship, to make that connection, to see behind the curtain and realize that Hashem is there all along.
In Havdalah, we distinguish between several things: bein ohr l’choshech, bein Yisrael la’amim, bein yom hashevi’i l’sheishes yemei hama’aseh—light and dark, Jews and gentiles, the seventh day and the first six. The Rav points out that light and darkness are clear for all to perceive. Even animals respond to the difference in these stimuli. But the havdalah, the distinction, between kodesh and chol, what is holy and what is profane, is in a different realm. It cannot be perceived or measured by the naked eye. We must possess special intuition to distinguish the difference for it can only be sensed with our hearts.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayeira) says that when Avraham went with his entourage to the Akeidah, he saw Har Hamoriah from a distance. He turned to Yitzchak and asked, “What do you see?” Yitzchak answered, “I see a beautiful and praiseworthy mountain and a cloud enveloping it.” Avraham then asked Eliezer and Yishmael, “What do you see?” They said, “We see a barren desert.” He said to them, “Shevu lachem poh im hachamor—Stay here with the donkey, for the donkey does not see and you do not see—va’ani v’hana’ar nelchah ad koh—and I and the lad [Yitzchak] will go until there.” This was a reference to Har Hamoriah, the future place of the Beis Hamikdash. Avraham and Yitzchak intuited and were drawn to holiness; the others saw only the mundane, a barren desert.
To be a Jew means l’shichno tidreshu, to seek out Hashem, and to be able to make Havdalah: to distinguish between holy and profane, spiritual and mundane, and be drawn to holiness and spirituality. A donkey sees everything only at its superficial, surface level. It merely wants to sate its appetite and be content. If we fail to understand that certain images, ideas, media, language and behaviors are profane and the antithesis of holiness, we are no better than a donkey. Our mission is to see beneath the surface, to determine what brings out the best in us and what satisfies a craving that is only skin deep. We don’t strive for happiness, we strive for holiness. To be the progeny of Avraham is to intuit holiness, to calibrate our compass of kedushah and u’vasa shamah, to go to it.
To live a spiritual life, to go “there,” is to see Hashem in everything. Search for Hashem’s presence in the here and now. In every bite of an apple, every sunrise, every meaningful experience and every contact with kindness, you can feel Hashem. In the words of the Kotzker, let Him in, make room, invite Him into a relationship.
In order to let Him in, He needs a space to reside, and that place is not our body but our soul. But from the moment we become mindful of our identity and existence, we naturally see ourselves as our physical body. After all, we eat, drink and sleep. We indulge, pamper, dress and care for our body. We believe we are who we see in the mirror—our external appearance. If we are lucky, we may have encountered our neshamah, perhaps during a meaningful Neilah, the birth of a child, a moving kumzitz or an act of chesed. But those moments are few and far between, and they leave us doubting what is authentic, and yearning for more.
Ultimately, spirituality is about internalizing the knowledge that we aren’t a body that has a soul; we are a soul that has a body. The real us is connected to a world of immortality and eternity, to Someone and something so much bigger than the here and now. Our soul is nourished with meaning and purpose, with a life of service to Hashem and to others. It is nurtured with mitzvos and Torah learning. Spirituality is not found in conferences and conventions, self-help books and seminars; it is found in being in contact with our authentic selves, our neshamah, and investing in a relationship with its source, Hashem.
All relationships need nurturing. They are fed with a diet of time, attention and communication. To sustain our relationship with Hashem, the connection between our soul and its source, we need all three.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, an OU shul in Boca Raton, Florida.
One of the big mistakes that we Jews make is to think that something plaguing our community is a “Jewish problem.” We are all a product of the larger society in which we live, no matter how high the walls we attempt to build around our communities. We are currently in the midst of a spirituality crisis, not a “Jewish” one, but rather a worldwide one. A recent book, Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, demonstrates definitively, using hard data, that the “secularization thesis” is correct and that religion is losing its grip on societies worldwide.
Religion is predicated on spirituality. Spirituality is often defined as a belief in and commitment to anything that transcends the physical realm, the realm that is observable and quantifiable. Judaism and other theistic religions simply cannot start without a belief in G-d, which is the epitome of spiritual belief. One of the factors contributing to the great erosion of spirituality is the advent of new technologies, which have obviated the need for any invisible source as an explanation for how and why things exist in our world.
Ryan Cragun, one of the authors of the book cited above, gives the following example of the correlation between tech and secularization: I have a classroom of students, and if I ask them, “How does this iPhone work?” most will not be able to answer the question. But if I suggest that there is a supernatural spirit imbuing the iPhone with abilities, they would know that that is not true. Even though they don’t understand how an iPhone works, they know that someone else knows how it works. Similarly, technology in general has demonstrated to young people that while they may not have all the answers to the major questions, the answers are out there; they just haven’t discovered all of them yet.
In his book The Great Partnership, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote about how science and religion are not at odds, but should rather be viewed as working in tandem. “Science teaches us where we come from. Religion explains to us why we are here. Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning.” Unfortunately, Science did not receive that memo. Today, scientists like Sean Carroll and Yuval Harari are claiming that science necessarily provides a sense of purpose and meaning, since anything religion offers is mythical or delusional. This represents a conscious assault against religion within the larger society. It is no wonder that so many of our children, regardless of the heroic efforts of parents, schools and shuls, are leaving the fold.
I’m not convinced that any single effort will be able to stem the huge tidal wave of societal influence. We’d do well to humbly realize that sometimes, societal phenomena are beyond our control. No matter how much we spend on studies and experts, and despite our best efforts, current trends may continue. Part of living our lives as ma’aminim is to resign ourselves to Hashem’s tutelage and master plan. Indeed, when meeting with parents who berate themselves over their children who have opted out of Yiddishkeit, I often offer this point of consolation.
With that said, there are some tweaks and paradigm shifts that should be considered. Among them are:
l Focusing more on Jewish mysticism and metaphysics in any yeshivah or seminary curriculum. One example is the resurgence of Chassidut, which should be added as a formal curricular subject.
l Creating mentorship programs, where older students are given the responsibility to mentor and tutor younger students, since our youth are empowered through leadership roles.
l Identifying charismatic leaders who will be able to inspire younger generations. Historically, some Orthodox communities have been averse to charismatic leadership, but we should rethink that aversion.
l For younger children, limiting their screen time on all devices, regardless of content. The essential ingredient for any religious thinker is that of imagination: to be able to imagine a spiritual realm beyond our own. All of the concrete images on the screen that bombard young minds stifle our children’s imagination as well as their religious drive.
l Deemphasizing material pursuits in our communities, living with greater humility and recommitting to decorous prayer spaces and serious adult Torah education.
Societal pendulums swing back and forth over the years. Several factors led to the great ba’al teshuvah movement of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, including the hippie movement—with its introduction of eastern mysticism to the western world—and the Six-Day War. This wave of spirituality transformed world Jewry, despite a period of close to twenty years prior when religious observance among American Jewry was in serious decline. No one has a crystal ball, but world events can shift quickly: “The salvation of G-d happens in the blink of an eye.”
We should pray that spirituality will be restored to society not through a catastrophe but rather through a great and glorious epiphany. For all we know, artificial intelligence may one day “discover” G-d and reintroduce Him to humanity. The greatest irony would be for technology, which has stolen our spirituality, to become the antidote.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is the rabbinic leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto (BAYT) in Thornhill, Ontario.
Special thanks to Jewish Action contributor Steve Lipman for helping to prepare this article for publication.