Secular Spirituality

Secular Spirituality

INTRODUCTION By Bonnie Cousens

On a beautiful fall weekend in October, 2001, an audience of more than three hundred gathered at the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit to hear a distinguished panel of authors and scholars explore the juxtaposition of secularity and spirituality. Against a wall of windows revealing crisp clear starry nights and days of streaming sunshine, many of the speakers sought to evoke the very spirituality the audience had come to discover.

Among the members of the audience, doubt was palpable. Can you be spiritual without being religious? Can you be rational and spiritual at the same time? Is there a secular spirituality? Can it enrich my life? Yet hope remained. Would secularists have come if they were not seeking a path to spirituality? If they did not want to discover answers?

Occurring just six weeks after 9/11, the colloquium turned at times to events of that day and those following: the unspeakable acts of terror committed in the name of religion, the courageous acts of bravery, the images of the towers collapsing, leaving a void in the Manhattan sky- line, the threat to our nation’s capital, the walls of photos of the missing, the tear-stained faces of survivors seeking loved ones, the candles and memorials that appeared on street corners, in front of fire houses and police stations, and in towns everywhere, the outpouring of support from around the world. In the formal presentations, in the dialogue among the speakers, and in informal exchanges throughout the weekend, the memories and emotions surfaced, evoking feelings some described as spiritual.

This national tragedy elicited profound spiritual responses, but could tragedy be the only pathway to spirituality? And what of a spirituality that does not invoke the name of god?  Can there be a secular spirituality?  That would be the driving question, as the presenters explored the theme of the colloquium:  “Secular Spirituality, Passionate Journey to a Rational Judaism.”

For many, the idea that secular humanists can be spiritual is inconceiveable.  The very word spirituality, they believe, belongs to the religious, the supernatural world of God and the ethereal domain of the dead. It evokes a non-substantive, transcendent realm that humans cannot quite know, a sphere that only can be approached through prayer and other religious behavior.  “Secular spirituality” seems to be an oxymoron, a Combination of concepts that cannot be conjoined.

Yet, people living very secular lives, driven by rational thought, logic, and science, say that they are seeking spirituality, although they have difficulty describing what they anticipate. Certainly, they do not hope for a mystical experience that involves God or spirits. Rather, to them, spirituality seems to suggest comfort, connection, support, guidance, peace, and, most importantly, happiness — all ideas that are easily reconciled with their secular lives. Their spiritual dimension must be found in their daily lives, in their connections to something greater than themselves and within themselves, in the things they experience through their senses – in all that they see, smell, taste, hear, and touch.

These ideas would form the thread connecting the themes of the weekend colloquium as we sought to discover a secular spirituality.

Introduced as a poet and a romantic, noted author Andre Aciman quickly set the stage, creating a mood that many described as “spiritual.” In hushed tones, he related his own spiritual quest, conjuring up the scent of lavender remembered from his youth. For him, this search for the remembered scent of his youth, a scent that eludes him, and the discovery of other, more perfect scents, became the metaphor for a personal quest for his personal self, his best self, all the selves – past, present, and future – he could be, some forgotten, some not to be, but each very real. As his words created a sense of being surrounded by the scent of lavender — or perhaps remembered scents that took us deep within ourselves — our weekend’s quest began. As we looked within, our senses, our memories allowed us to embark on a path to discovering our own personal story, our own true self: our desires, our beliefs, our goals. But is this the path to secular spirituality?

We began the quest for answers with an examination of traditional (and nontraditional) spirituality. Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a professor of Judaism at the University of Wales and a Reform rabbi, clearly defined the issue: without a belief in God, can Secular Humanistic Jews lead a spiritual life? As he led us through the stories of the Bible, the Jewish mystics and kabbalists, he seemed to be telling us that without cleaving to God, there could be no spirituality. But, he then turned his attention away from western religions to the definitions of spirituality to be found in eastern religions. Here — in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism – we find a spirituality that is grounded in this world, that focuses on human life, that offers a guide for daily living; we find a model for secular spirituality.

Cohn-Sherbok, relating the framework for a secular religion posited by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism (and the final speaker at this colloquium), offers a path to a secular Jewish spirituality, embedded in Jewish tradition, following the historic Jewish practice of adaptation, modeling Jewish culture and history in a contemporary context, and firmly believing in reason as the means of uncovering truth.

Though we had been presented with a path to spirituality, a definition remained elusive. Joseph Chuman, a longtime leader in the Ethical Culture movement, a visiting professor at Columbia University, and a member of the faculty of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, offered us contemporary definitions with meaning for Secular Humanistic Jews. He includes in this new, naturalistic spirituality the emotional uplift resulting from an experience shared in a community.

From these connections with something greater than the self – family, community, country, humanity — naturally arises, claims Chuman, a spirituality of ethics that transcends flesh and blood to reveal value in the individual. Neither inherently good nor bad, this spirituality is an outgrowth of how we relate to ourselves and to others. It is our sense of ethics – valuing dignity, justice, freedom, happiness, compassion – that elevates our experiences beyond the mundane, that enables us to find spirituality in our connectedness.

Rachel Elior, the John and Golda Cohen Chair of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University, sought to demystify mysticism, making spirituality accessible to secular humanists. Jewish mysticism, from its origins in the post First Temple period visions of Ezekiel through the kabbalists’ imaginings during the Crusades, she related, arose out of the needs of a people who knew no freedom, no pleasure, no security. It was a product of “human imagination, creativity, and interpretation,” a reinvention and reinterpretation of God by a people who, lacking the power to impact their own desperate situations, sought a path to inner truth and understanding of the human experience. The creativity of mysticism provided access to freedom and joy in the imagined alternative reality of a remembered glorious past and a hopeful vision of the future.

Recognizing that different periods need different responses, explains Elior, we still must maintain the connections between the past, present, and future. While the new spirituality of our time will not necessarily be mysticism, it is the freedom to interpret that becomes our tool for the creation of a secular spirituality. This freedom to choose remains mysticism’s greatest legacy.

While mysticism remains a byproduct of religion, the Jewish secular movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were clearly antagonistic towards religion. Yet, said Mitchell Silver, director of Camp Kinderland and of the I.L. Peretz School of Women’s Circle in Boston, we cannot infer that these early secularists rejected spirituality. In fact, spirituality, as a concept separate from religion, had little meaning. Rather than words or ideas, it is the behavior of these early secularists that will reveal their spirituality.

Any attempt to examine the relationship between Jewish secularism and spirituality, Silver explained, must recognize that there were many different Jewish secularists and no single statement about spirituality may be applied to all. Thus Silver chose to focus on a single grouping, the Yiddish Socialists, though even within this group there were many subgroups.

If we understand spirituality as connection, as a means of providing meaning and purpose in life, we must conclude that the Yiddish socialists were, in fact, profoundly spiritual. Though unconnected “to God,” says Silver, “their movement was replete with connections that gave their life meaning and purpose.  To Yiddish, the language of their parents and the world of their parents. To their past, to Jewish heroes who embodied their values. To social activism, a sense of solidarity with fellow sufferers. To the struggle to achieve their utopian vision. For the Yiddish Socialists, these connections were empowering; they also were of this world. There was no faith in a just and benevolent God, who would make the world right. Despite this lack, Silver concludes, in its allegiance to the betterment of humanity, in its willingness to question all, Yiddishist socialism created a very powerful spirituality.

Another approach to seeking connections with Jewish tradition as a path to spirituality in our modern lives was offered by Ruth Calderone, founder and director of Alma Hebrew College in Jerusalem. Interwoven with her personal story, she offered the stories of the developers — mostly secularists — of Zionist ideology. While each seemed to reject halakha, to reject classical Jewish texts, they recognized the need to provide a new way to be Jewish. For Haim Nahman Bialik, this way was to be found in the development of a modern Jewish culture. For Joseph Brenner and Micah Berdichevsky, it was to be found in the commitment to justice within our Jewish hearts. For David Bergson, it was in moving from Tanakh to Palmakh. For A.D. Gordon, it was in a return to the land. For Martin Buber, it was in the relationship of “I” and “thou.” For these and others, the rejection was only of halakha, never of the Jewish people. Rather, within this early Zionist ideology, Calderone sees strong connections to the land of Israel, to Jewish culture, and to the Jewish people, which provided its followers a deep sense of spirituality. However, in the post-zionist modern era, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Calderone sees among Israelis a need to return to their roots. For Calderone, it is in the secular study of Jewish culture, in reinterpreting Jewish texts for modernity, in the use of modem midrash to impart new meaning to ancient texts, that we will find the connections we seek. As generations share in study, as we engage in a dialogue with our tradition — past, present, and future — as we uncover the layers of meaning in each word of text, Calderone believes, we will create a meaningful modern spirituality.

Ralph Williams, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, provided us with a rubric for a secular reading of traditional text that elucidated a psychological approach to a secular spirituality. As we seek to understand biblical stories, we must ask certain questions. First we must understand who gave us the story: what were their motivations, what were the experiences that shaped them. We must recognize that their words held specific meaning for them and not seek new or hidden meanings. Then we must know who we are: what we bring to the story, what our experiences, our values, our beliefs are. Through our understanding of the motivations and biases of the authors of the Bible and of our own biases and motivations, we will be able to achieve a spirituality, grounded in reality and free from supernatural entities.

Rabbi Daniel Friedman, one of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, returned to the question of whether one can be spiritual without God. His response was a resounding yes. Like Shulman, he distinguished between two types of spirituality: mystical and natural. While mystical spirituality focuses on that which transcends the natural world to touch the world of God and spirits, a natural spirituality only recognizes what is of this world.

For Friedman, spirituality derives from humans; that is our greatness. It is human consciousness, human self-awareness, that enables us to develop values, to make choices, to interpret experiences, to establish bonds. Our choices, our interpretations, our knowledge, our connections — shaped by reason and emotion — enable us to impart value and appreciate that which is distinctive. We perceive different combinations of colors, sounds, tastes as beauty, and our appreciation allows us to achieve a sense of spirituality.

While any human experience that utilizes human attributes can be spiritually enhancing, for Friedman, a natural spirituality requires respect for the human spirit in every person. In pursuing our own spirituality, we must not infringe on others ability to pursue theirs.
Norbert Samuelson, Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University, sought to explore the relationship between science and spirituality, most specifically through answering the question of whether Albert Einstein’s life and thought could provide a model for Jewish spirituality within the framework of Secular Humanistic Judaism. As he led us through the events in Einstein’s life, Samuelson created the image of a twentieth century man, totally absorbed in his science, to the exclusion of all else. While his failure to connect with other human beings, said Samuelson, might eliminate Einstein as a role model for Secular Humanistic Jews, one can learn from Einstein’s life the intrinsic value of the pursuit of knowledge.  For Einstein, this was the source of spirituality.

As the weekend progressed, despite the undercurrent of doubt among the audience, each of the speakers seemed to begin with an acceptance of secular spirituality, though many sought to provide palatable definitions. Not until Harry Cook rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Clawson, Michigan, and a former writer for the Detroit Free Press, did denial erupt from the stage. Declaring himself allergic to the term spirituality, Cook denied the possibility of any compatibility between the words secular, meaning of this world, and spiritual, meaning related to God and the supernatural world. Part of our task as secularists is to find the tools to satisfy all those who still turn to God as their source of spirituality.

For many, spirituality has become a way to explain phenomena that we cannot rationally understand. However, said Cook, just because a rational explanation is not immediately available, it does not mean that an explanation does not exist or will never be knowable.  The fact that the senses cannot apprehend something does not mean that it is in another realm.  The darkness of unknowing is merely a place we have not yet reached. What some call spirituality, Cook chooses to call “the passionate embrace of present not-knowing.” Our task, as he defines it, is to aggressively expand the reach of the light, constantly extending our ability to apprehend that which is currently just beyond our senses. It is this that keeps us alive.

Scheduled, though not able to join us during the weekend due to unforeseen circumstances, was Yaakov Malkin, a professor of rhetoric and aesthetics at Tel Aviv University and a leader of the Secular Humanistic movement in Israel and director of Meitar, College of Judaism as culture. His paper explored the growing need by both the religious and secular for spirituality, recognizing that while the two groups are seeking everyday lives they cannot agree on what will satisfy their needs. For the secular, according to Malkin, the desire for spirituality can be satisfied through social connections and community. A belief in humankind’s potential, the conviction that natural laws as revealed by science are universal, the acceptance of certain moral precepts, and the awareness that men and women can devise new realities, both mental and physical, all enable secular humanists to achieve a secular spirituality.

For Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the concluding speaker of the weekend, rationality is key to “staying sane in a crazy world,” as his recent book informs us. Yet he is unwilling to relinquish spirituality to the religious. Rather, he believes, we live in a world where spirituality has been redefined. No longer is its focus merely knowledge of God and the pursuit of salvation in the next world. Instead, many view spirituality as the pursuit of happiness in this world. What many call spirituality, according to Wine, evolves from experiences of transcendence, beauty, and serenity that empower us. Whereas, in the past, access to God through magic or worship or gift-giving brought empowerment, today it is connection with others and with the natural world that provides empowerment.

As Secular Humanistic Jews, we can choose to argue over the use of the word spirituality, says Wine, or we can accept the realities of empowerment in the modern world. We can accept that there will be things in this world we cannot yet know or understand. We can choose to use the resources of Judaism and Humanism to find the power within. We can recognize that we are dependent upon our connections with others. Therein lies our power and our path to a “secular spirituality.”

Colloquium ’01 was the fourth such colloquium sponsored by the Inter- national Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism to examine critical issues of Jewish life today. Offering Secular Humanistic Jews the opportunity to explore the nature and meaning of spirituality in their lives, it provided a unique opportunity for many to discover a path to the enrichment and comfort they seek in this world in their day-to-day lives. Yet for some, there remained more questions than answers. Some will continue to seek, confident that they will discover their own “secular spirituality.” Others will avoid the word spirituality, preferring to use more precise words such as happiness, connection, beauty, morality and even sorrow, to describe the feelings some might construe as spiritual. Perhaps, as modernity unfolds, the word spirituality will come to have a meaning more in concert with the secular path we’ve chosen.

The International Institute has collected some of the presentations of the speakers in this volume to enable readers to better consider and explore the ideas expressed during the weekend. Included also is a paper by Yukon Malkin, who was unable to participate in the weekend. We hope you will find the published talks interesting and provocative. Both audio- and videotapes of the presentations that will enable you to better share in the excitement of the colloquium weekend are also available from the International Institute.

Note: Readers might notice inconsistencies in the transliterations found in this volume. These are the result of preserving the individual preferences of the contributors.