Religious AND Spiritual

I read with great interest Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s piece on the Huffington Post titled “Religious But Not Spiritual.” In his capacity as President of the Union for Reform Judaism and, especially, after four years of working under his leadership in this organization, I am among those who have had occasion to revel in his intellectual and moral rigor, his passionate voice for justice and his vision for our people – for all people – and of what can and should be expected of us. In the truest spirit of prophetic Judaism, Rabbi Yoffie always presents us with a challenge to which he invites us to rise.

He has done so once again in this recent posting. Citing Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” Rabbi Yoffie rejects the trap of wholesale disposal of baby with bathwater into which many critics fall. Inasmuch as blogs are intended to be provocative, Bethke and Rabbi Yoffie are both successful. When I read my teacher’s words, “I hate spirituality,” I was definitely provoked. Reading his words, though, I am compelled by much of what he has to say, particularly in his statement that so much of spiritual seeking and fulfillment is fluffy and mood-driven. There is truth to these thoughts, but I think the truth is more nuanced than the article indicates.

I would suggest that spirituality – which I will, perhaps arbitrarily, define as the thirst for meaning and connection to that which is greater than oneself – is neither fluffy nor transitory. Viktor Frankl derived his conviction of our desperate need for meaning from surviving the most horrific of human circumstances – the Holocaust. Frankl’s entire therapeutic system, logotherapy, is grounded in that conviction and in the commitment to help people slake that thirst.  What is fluffy and transitory is our own commitment to the search, and our comfort  (or lack there of) with engaging in it. That commitment and the effort to dig for meaning and connection are difficult, and we – both individuals and institutions – often flag in fulfilling them.

Rabbi Yoffie is right – the behaviorism of religion – what I have been taught to think of as “spiritual practice” – is a discipline which helps me to continue seeking that connection even when my energy or drive is waning. This is religion at its best. The bathwater which Bethke and others of his ilk mistake for the bath is religious institutionalism, which can indeed become self-serving and lacking in depth of meaning. Instead, we often adjust the cosmetics of our worship and/or our buildings and/or our spiritual and lay leadership, thinking that addressing the externals will take care of the internals. Then our religious institutions end up serving neither religion nor spirituality, but themselves.

At our best, we need to be religious and spiritual. We need the discipline of practice, but we also need the integrity of delving into that practice for meaning. We need the consistency, community and commitment required by institutions, but we need as well for those institutions to have souls and evince a serious, questing influence in the development of our own. We can have it both ways. We must have it both ways.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email
Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

About Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1985 and went on to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Miami and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. After serving on staff at the Union for Reform Judaism for five years, he has gone on to found the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey, a practice dedicated to supporting all engaged in "seeking Oneness in body, heart, mind and soul."

One Response to “Religious AND Spiritual”

  1. avatar


    As a non-theist (not surprisingly) I disagree with what I think is your premise. While I see the potential for a cohesive, supportive, and evolving understanding of what it means to live religiously through the immersion in a community of believers, this hardly needs be the case for personal search and veneration of the “sacred” in our lives. The need for answers (or to better understand the questions) that confront us as both challenge and opportunity is a deeply person process for many and need not be dependent upon communal dynamic or doctrine.
    While I understand the Rabbi’s personal regard for “spirituality” as a “weasel word,” this is more a matter of context, not validity. What we regard as the compelling mysteries of life, what we find awakens in us a sense of awe (in the must beautiful sense of that word), can (and for me does) operate free of a religious community’s interpretation. True, they may provide fresh insight or reassurance but, inevitably, cannot take my steps of discovery for me.

    Wishing you the best,

Leave a Reply