Paths of Spirituality: An Interview with Alan Brill

by | May 3, 2023 | Cultivating Jewish Spirituality | 0 comments

Jewish Educational Leadership: How do you define spirituality?

Alan Brill: The word spirituality is recent, only as old as the 1970s and ’80s. Until the 19th-century, the word referred strictly to matters concerned with the ascetic practices in a monastery, and spiritual was contrasted with worldly. That usage disappeared in the 20th-century when it was used in the context of the transcendent realm or to indicate something uplifting, like spiritual art and spiritual poetry. In the 1980s that changed, and the word spiritual became a replacement for the word mystical. In the 1990s the word lost all clear boundaries—it began to mean a higher purpose, a sense of flow, the sublime, anything uplifting or meaningful. When people used to go to the Grand Canyon, they would describe their experience with the word sublime; in the 1990s they began to describe their experience as spiritual. If people get a good feeling when exercising or dancing, or even a daily discipline, or have a sense that their life has a purpose or meaning, enthusiasm, they use the word spiritual to describe it. People now talk about things like basketball, hiking, singing, or podcasting as spiritual activities—there are hundreds of examples of mundane things being called spiritual.

I’m still a fossil, sticking with the original meaning of the word from the 1980s, in which spiritual would be anything that addresses the inner dimensions of a person, anything related to the spiritual core, and the deep center, dealing with the transcendental dimension, where you experience God, ultimate reality, deeper understanding. And the way you reach this core is through the development of the self through a journey. This concept of reaching a core or journey to the spiritual means that the focus is on prayer, spiritual direction, a map of the journey, and methods of achieving and deepening that spiritual core. So for me, it’s about getting to that inner core, reaching the Divine, and the methods for getting there.

Do you think that spirituality can be taught?

Let me start with a story. When I was on my Fulbright, teaching at Banaras Hindu University in India in a room filled with Buddhists and Hindu monks, I was teaching William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience in which he presents mysticism and spirituality as something we can achieve on our own. My class unanimously said: “That’s not true. You need a teacher, you need a guru, you need a path. You can’t just sit in your bedroom and become spiritual. You must know where you’re going; you need somebody to guide you. William James is just wrong about most spiritualities in the world, except for his variety.”

You know, even people who don’t usually consider themselves spiritual have moments that could be called spiritual moments in which they thought, “Wow, that was great.” It could be at a Shabbaton, or a great hike, or a feeling of something deeper, a cosmic consciousness, or whatever.

There’s a metaphor in medieval spirituality of collecting pearls. You can have a whole cup of pearls, but unless you learn how to string them into the necklace, it isn’t much of anything. You must string them into a necklace to show their beauty; you actually have to know what you’re doing to create a path or development. It is not the isolated incidents, but rather, the spiritual path. That’s where the teaching comes in. Here’s a Jewish angle. Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro says that if you don’t have a clear path of spiritual growth, then you’re not spiritually growing. You really need roads or train tracks, whatever metaphor you want to use, to know where you’re going. You ask, “Can it be taught?” On some level, it has to be taught—whether by books or by somebody you visit once a year, but you need to know where you’re going, or else it’s just a momentary experience. Almost every gap-year student in Israel will be able to identify at least one spiritual moment, but having a path which will connect them and move a person forward, that’s what needs to be taught. That’s what needs to be cultivated. In that sense, it’s no different from any other discipline, like Talmud study—the more you cultivate it, the more it grows.

What does that roadmap look like?

There are lots of roadmaps—Rabbeinu Bahya’s Hovot Halevavot, Avraham ben Harambam, Luzzato’s Mesilat Yesharim, Eleizer Azikri’s Sefer Haredim, Hovot Hatalmidim of the Piaseczna Rebbe—and each present very clear paths to spiritual growth. In terms of teaching these approaches, it means having a regular disciple, a commitment of daily or weekly practice that you do regularly and get guidance for. Like any other regular practice people have, like jogging.

I’ve always thought that twenty or thirty years ago we missed an opportunity—we should have opened up a Jewish spirituality center as a central address for Jewish spirituality. Not for everybody, but for those people who want it and need it, to be able to go in and take something for a weekend, a week, a month, a year, in which there are various teachers on various paths. It’s not the model of the Lithuanian yeshiva, but for our generation, it should have been done.

How would you teach spirituality to teens, or even to younger students? Can spirituality be taught to those who aren’t seeking it out?

Let’s start with teens. I originally started teaching meditation when I taught at Maimonides High School. Nobody was davening and I was a rookie teacher who didn’t know better. So I decided to do something about it. In the first week, I gave them photocopies from Hirsch’s Horev and from Steinsaltz and from other things, and I told them that if they’re not going to daven then they should at least read about tefillah. But then I told them that they would be coming on a journey with me. I taught them meditation. I could have been fired on the spot, but eventually it became the “slow minyan.” That’s how I started to teach meditation, in public, and through the teaching of tefillah. High school students are very receptive—in fact, the biggest challenge for them is letting them know that this is not foreign to Torah.

Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber, a hundred years ago, said that everyone should be studying hasidut every day, even just a little, he created a movement that was grounded in everyone trying to experience God. He made this expectation of experiencing God while in yeshiva part of his teaching.

You mentioned that the word spirituality has taken on different meanings over the course of the last few hundred years, even using your own definition of spirituality. Is spirituality something which changes over the course of time or is it something which remains stable because people and their souls are essentially the same as they’ve always been? Are the classic books you mentioned just as relevant today or do they need to be updated?

There are elements of spirituality that are just an eternal process, like Torah study, and there are elements that are different because the prevailing culture has changed. There are so many different forms of spirituality and different forms speak to different generations. When I was in school, nobody studied Breslov, and for this generation, Breslov is one of the leading modes of spiritual learning. Years ago, there was nobody engaging  Aboulafia and that is now very popular.

But on the other hand, there are fundamental changes that need to be made otherwise none of this makes sense. None of us deals with Neo-Platonism or has the medieval cosmology which is so present in many of the classical texts—any relevant teacher is teaching you how to read those classic texts within our 21st-century world. There’s no other way to do it. That’s what the Buddhist teachers are doing. The Hindu and Yogic teachers aren’t opening up the 8th or 10th-century meditation manuals and teaching medieval cosmology; they are giving a 20th-century version that takes out medieval metaphysics and cosmology and adjusts for our psychology—and they create very attractive meditation sources.

If you went to Shaar Heshbon Hanefesh, which is the visualization-meditation chapter of Hovot Halevavot, those practices don’t seem relevant to us because we don’t have that cosmology. The ideas of seeing God everywhere and feeling His presence have to be re-scripted for the 21st-century. Even things from one hundred years ago need to be re-scripted. It has to be put into contemporary idioms and it has to also be redone in terms of what your goal is.

For example, hundreds of years ago they didn’t have a problem remaining calm, but we have a problem calming down. We live active lives. Take a look at the Ba’al Shem Tov and you see his concerns about arrogance, desire, and anger—those are eternal. But when you look at how he defines them, his definitions of anger are not the anger of a contemporary lawyer or stockbroker. Same for desire, we’ve readjusted a lot of things that were originally geared for day workers and we put it into a very different form. We need to do the same for our students.

Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed (3:51), speaks about his monastic and meditative practice to seek out God. Maimonides advocated not associating with society or going to social events. The Jewish people today are socially gregarious; they are not anxious about going into circulation. Those passages from Maimonides on seclusion do not speak to today’s generation. If anything, today’s generation seeks God in everything, so the texts we should be seeking are those which highlight that idea.

I’ll give you an example. In the Orthodox world, there are many contemporary guides to marriage. If you look at the guides from a hundred years ago, they instruct men to avoid getting drunk and yelling at their wives. That’s not what those guidebooks look like today; they’ve been adjusted. The same thing needs to happen with the classical spiritual guidebooks; they need to be adjusted to make sense to the contemporary reader. So, the job of the teacher is to make these adjustments, which brings us back to the beginning of our conversation about the role of teachers in cultivating a healthy spirituality in the 21st century.

There was a time when classic mussar, like the kind practiced in Novardok, was very popular. That just doesn’t resonate today, with all of the negativity and self-negation involved. Breslov, however, is very popular today. Some people want to see the Divine in the natural world; others are not so interested. Lots of things are changing, and it’s important to find the kind of spirituality which will resonate with contemporary culture.

I’d like to follow up on your last point. In the cognitive realm, we speak of different kinds of learners—visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. Are there different gateways to spirituality for different people?

Twenty years ago the literature spoke about four basic types of spiritual learners. Some connect through music-emotion. Some find it through intellectual pursuits—finding God’s game plan, a master system, perhaps through the study of kabbalah. A third group achieves spirituality through direct contemplation about God and about life. And a fourth group engages in spirituality through action—outreach, communal service, and helping people. These four are very different from each other, and what works for one group will not work for another. It’s important for institutions to try to cultivate as many types of spirituality as possible. An introduction to spirituality will help people to find what kind of spirituality they are attracted to, and what will work for them. And, of course, there are the capabilities of the teacher—teachers also have their individual natural leanings in spiritual practice, so that different teachers in schools can be leading various groups of students on unique spiritual paths.

Personally, I am drawn to the visualizations of light and divine names as presented in the Kabbalah, yet, not everyone is capable or comfortable in visualizing kavvanot. I am also comfortable with the contemplative directives found in early Hasidism of serving God in everything you do, to offer all of your actions up to God as worship, “Shiviti – I have set God before me at all times” (Psalms 16:8). The Tzava’at Harivash, attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, but actually contains the sayings of the Magid of Mezritch, entreated the reader to always serve God in any way possible:

When on the road, and thus unable to pray and study as usual, you must serve [God] in other ways. Do not be disturbed by this. For God wishes to be served in all possible ways, sometimes in one manner and sometimes in another. That is why it happened that you had to go on a journey or talk to people, i.e., in order that you serve Him in that alternate way.

Is there anything else about spirituality that you think educators should know about?

Back in the 1950s, there was this notion that spirituality was an “otherworldly” pursuit. The notion should be retired. This was popularized by Rav Soloveitchik and in the broader world by Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. That rejection of all spirituality was a generational thing and is not where we are at today.

I happen to love the Hasidic metaphor of gadlut (greatness) and katnut (smallness)—that there are periods of life in which we live in a state of small-mindedness, not seeking deeper meaning, and that’s OK because there will be other periods in which we seek the greatness of God, of the universe, of noble ideas. There are ups and downs in the spiritual life. It’s good for people to know that in their lives it is normal to cycle through these waves and not feel down on themselves because, at a particular moment, they are not engaged in profound spiritual pursuits. That is an important thing to understand for the long haul. That is one of the challenges of spirituality, the down periods.

In terms of education, I think that it’s important that even if schools don’t actively engage in spiritual teaching, their students should at least know that it is there. There should be some basic familiarity with what some of the texts and passages that address this are. That’s part of basic Jewish literacy so if they want to pursue it further, they can. We should at the very least be softening the souls of our students so that they can think about pursuing spiritual paths. They should know that the Jewish canon and tradition includes the search for the Creator, for seeking a connection with the Divine, and some kind of deeper appreciation of reality—they should know that this isn’t foreign to Judaism.

Another challenge is the fact that most of our communal institutions, including the synagogue, are not really built for spiritual pursuits. In one city that I lived in, there was an early morning class in mussar on Shabbat mornings. It was attended by professionals—lawyers, judges, doctors, businessmen—who knew that they needed something spiritual in their lives and were not getting it in the normal synagogue space. There are lots of reasons for picking synagogues, and spirituality is often not one of the top criteria. But there are opportunities to seek spirituality outside of the family synagogue, and seeking those opportunities is something that we can cultivate.

Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair in the Jewish-Christian Studies Graduate Program in the Department of Religion at Seton Hall University. Rabbi Dr. Brill specializes in interfaith theology, mysticism, and comparative theology. Brill is the author of several books including Rabbi on the Ganges:A Jewish-Hindu Encounter based on his time as a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award at Banaras Hindu University (Varanasi, India). He is currently working on a book on a Jewish view of religious diversity and was a keynote speaker at the recent R20 summit in Bali.

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