Discovering Meaning in Jewish Observance
by Barbara Shuman
Ever since I was a young adult, I have felt called to wrestle with Jewish texts and ideas. I yearned to understand how to live a good life in relation to others, to experience the transcendent mystery we call God, and know the profound joy of “aha moments.” I believed that meaning could be found not only in my college psychology textbooks, but in the sacred texts of Judaism. I also believed these answers would be found outside of myself, in the hundreds of books that lined the shelves of my home library, in the numerous classes and lectures I attended, in the dozens of study kallot or retreats I participated in. If only I read enough and listened to enough teachers, I would acquire the right information. I would know the Truth.
I began to learn in response to simple but profound questions: “What’s it all about?” “What is my place in the world?” and “Why was I created?” My study became keva – fixed, or habitual. As I responded to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the obligation to involve myself in Jewish learning, this became my primary Jewish observance.
A few years ago I began to practice mindfulness meditation, and participated in several silent retreats. Out of this came a desire to deepen my spiritual life and to support others in their search for sacred connections. I entered a Jewish Spiritual Direction program and almost immediately noticed a profound shift. I began to experience a knowing that went beyond words and thought.
After many years of study, I came to recognize two things: 1. that my desire to learn comes from the kavanah “Shiviti YHVH l’negdi tamid,” the intention to always keep God before me, to be forever aware of Divine Presence. And 2. that one does not acquire knowledge of what is ultimately mystery by merely learning facts, filling notebooks with the words of others, and storing knowledge in one’s head. There is a deeper knowing that we sense in our bodies and feel in our heart. I still read books and attend classes, but a significant part of my learning now involves asking questions of myself and finding the answers within.
During the two years that I trained to become a Jewish Spiritual Director, a partner and I studied Mussar. We wrestled with middot,character traits that have the potential to develop one’s inner life and transform the soul; and we shared our struggles to develop such virtues as trust in God, humility, patience, and forgiveness, to enable us to experience our potential goodness.
Another friend and I study Hasidic commentaries on Torah every week.In addition to the core text and commentary, there are a series of reflection questions for discussion and personal inquiry, as well as suggestions for personal practice and application. We challenge each other to meet God on a deeper level. I confront my personal behavior and realize that knowledge of Torah is not enough; I must be Torah. As I move from reading, thinking, and talking about Torah to doing it, I am transformed.
This past Yom Kippur, I committed myself to reading the parasha each week in a new way – with the intent of finding myself in the narrative, of hearing a personal call as well as a communal history. I am reading the Bible realizing not only what it says about the nature of God, but about my own nature. My study has grown from the acquisition of facts to a learning that refines my soul. As I learn, I ascend, growing in wisdom and understanding. I experience study as a holy act, one that connects me with Divine Oneness. And through it, I am blessed.
Barbara K. Shuman, is a member of Temple Sinai, Pittsburgh, PA, and a URJ national board member.