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Jewish Spirituality: When Defining Something is Harder than Discussing It

Thursday, April 12, 2012 @ 10:04 AM
posted by Roger Price
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You know, or should know, there is a problem, when you cannot define the subject that you want to discuss or analyze. Potter Stewart famously faced such a situation when he acknowledged that he could not say what hard core pornography was. That inability did not, however, preclude Justice Stewart from also declaring that he knew it when he saw it. (See, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).  Not only that, despite his lack of a definition, Justice Stewart was able to express his opinion about an allegedly obscene film and concur in a Supreme Court decision reversing the criminal conviction of a manager of a motion picture theatre.

Not to equate the two situations in any way, but the same sort of problem attaches to Jewish Spirituality.  What is that exactly? And if we cannot define it, will we at least, like Justice Stewart, know it when we see it? And be able to talk sensibly about it, measure it, and do something concerning it?

Whatever Jewish Spirituality is, it seems to be drawing a fair amount of attention. We can measure attention drawing fairly easily these days. All one needs to do is run a few Google searches. If you did that one night in early April, 2012, within less than a second, you would have learned that there are over 33,800,000 sites that Google has identified as relating to Jewish Spirituality. Is that a lot? Well, similar search results in only 2,030,000 sites for Reform Judaism, the largest of the Jewish denominations in North America, and Reform Judaism appears to elicit about twice as much interest, as measured by the Google search count, as does Orthodox Judaism, for instance, which generates only 1,070,000 sites. Searches for Conservative Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism yielded 738,000 and 459,000 sites respectively.  And for perspective, consider that the results for Justin Bieber exceeded 640,000,000, thankfully less than the number for President Barack Obama at 943,000,000.

Still, despite the number of sites, the apparent institutes, programs and literature about Jewish Spirituality, it is hard to get a grip on what Jewish Spirituality really is. That has not, however, stopped two fine and renowned scholars, award winning sociologist and Hebrew Union College professor Steven M. Cohen and prolific liturgist and HUC professor Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, from seeking to understand it. (See “How Spiritual are America’s Jews?” a S3K Report (March 2009) (the “Report” or “SR”) at

To their credit, Cohen and Hoffman do not pretend to be able to define Jewish Spirituality.  They readily (and often) acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the meaning of the phrase, attributing the “inherent ambiguity” of the subject to the fact that “we lack a native Jewish language to describe spirituality . . . .” (See, e.g., SR, at 3, 5, 12, 14.)

Nevertheless, Cohen and Hoffman accept “spirituality” as real, indeed characterizing it as a “universal phenomenon.” (SR, at 2.) What concerns them is Jewish access to this phenomenon, i.e., “spirituality among Jews.” Cohen and Hoffman distinguish “spirituality among Jews” from “Jewish Spirituality,” a form of spirituality connected to intrinsically Jewish sources (SR, at 1-2. Emphasis in original.) Here (with apologies to the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a New York Reconstructionist congregation), we will use the acronym SAJ to refer to spirituality among Jews researched by Cohen and Hoffman.

Cohen and Hoffman are not the first to have this definitional problem. Some years before they published their report, Jeffery Salkin wrote Being God’s Partner: How to Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Your Work (Jewish Lights 1994). Rabbi Salkin boldly titled his second chapter “What is Spirituality, Anyway?” Unfortunately, while he accepted the challenge to define spirituality, he never quite met the challenge. He discussed passive and active spirituality, otherworldliness, emotions and God, but at the end there was no more coherent, working definition than when he started.

Courtney Bender, a professor of religion and sociology at Columbia University, has described the predicament of those who have sought to measure religious spirituality. “As all scholars studying religion are deeply aware,” she has written, “definitions of religion and spirituality are porous, historically variable, marked by varieties of evident and implicit theological understandings, and always open to the charge that they are either too general or too specific.” (Bender, “Religion and Spirituality: History, Discourse, Measurement” at (2007, at 1).)

Consequently, the attempt to report on SAJ seems suspect at the outset on several levels. The reporters cannot define the phenomenon to be studied, yet they not only assume that the undefined phenomenon exists, they also seem convinced that they know how to measure their elusive subject. To be clear, the objection here is not to the hypothesis that some people, maybe many, many people, have profound experiences, some of which are associated with feelings of connection to something beyond themselves. The opening question is why those experiences should be characterized as “spiritual” as opposed to “beyond understanding” or “non-rational” or simply “wonderful.”

On many a fall Saturday, for instance, scores of thousands gather together, often donned in particularly symbolic colors and clothing, to share food, sing special songs, stand and sit and move in unison, and shout words that have echoed across generations. During those gatherings, the participants often experience a wide range of intense emotions, including anticipation, confidence and fear, triumph and resignation. Sometimes those gatherings conclude with joyous exaltation. Sometimes there is great disbelief and sadness. There is little doubt that whether those gatherings occur in the Big House in Ann Arbor, the Swamp in Gainesville, or the Sea of Red in Lincoln, they are transcendent moments, ones which will not only stay with the participants, but be shared by them and with others over the years. Are those experiences spiritual moments? Intensity of feeling, connection with something greater than one’s self, even prayer—they are all there. And, if not, why not? Because these peak experiences involve a football?

Cohen and Hoffman do not address these kinds of spiritual experiences, even to distinguish or dismiss them. Nor do they discuss any of the kinds of measurements that could be made by a neuroscientist who might conduct an experiment designed to determine what, if anything, is unique about alleged spiritual responses. Nevertheless, Cohen and Hoffman undertake what they acknowledge to be an “analytic challenge” (SR, at 3) and set about to measure whatever SAJ is (or may be).

Their attempt is consistent with Bender’s experience with similar scholarly efforts. “For numerous generations,” she reports, “scholars have started their studies with warnings about the impossibility of the enterprise, throwing up their hands in the face of so many divergent definitions and measures, before providing their own . . . .” (Bender, above, at 1.) So the literature provides us with numerous measures of spirituality, many with names that connote not only the seriousness of the exercise, but also some accuracy and reliability. These include, for instance, the Inclusive Spirituality Index, the Intrinsic Spirituality Scale, the Expressions of Spirituality Inventory, the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale, the Spiritual Assessment Inventory, and the Spiritual Well-Being Questionnaire, among many others.

Cohen and Hoffman utilize no less than five scales for their survey of spiritual activity, one each for what they call Spiritual Inclination, Spiritual Mentorship, Involvement with God, Religion and Prayer and Spiritual Experience (See SR, at 3-4.) The components of the scales only serve to underscore the problems inherent in measuring something not independently defined. For instance, the factors which make up the Spiritual Inclination Scale are a recent significant spiritual experience, commitment and devotion to spirituality, importance of spiritual growth, interest in learning about spiritual exploration, interest in learning about sacred texts, and the importance of clergy ability to talk about spiritual issues. Clearly some circular definitions are swirling about here. If we cannot define “spirituality,” how can we ask about a “spiritual experience” or “spiritual growth” or “spiritual exploration”?

Similarly, Cohen and Hoffman also seem to accept a distinction between spirituality and religiosity. (See SR, at 1.) But the Involvement with God and the Religion and Prayer scales deal with saying prayers, attending religious services and reading religious literature. It is not at all apparent why those activities are necessarily indicative of spirituality as opposed to religiosity. For that matter, they may be indicative of neither. Some people may attend services out of a desire for community or read religious literature for intellectual stimulation or out of curiosity.

In its discussion of “New Measurement Strategies for Religion,” the Public Religion Research Institute (“PRRI”) separated religious practices, religious beliefs and spirituality from each other. For purposes of its analysis, PRRI put such activities as participation in prayer groups and reading scripture under religious practices, belief in a personal God and miracles under religious beliefs, and a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being, a deep sense of wonder about the universe, and meditation under spirituality.  (See at 12/25.) The Spirituality Report, by comparison, barely touches on mediation and does not appear to have inquired specifically about emotional peace or wonder.

The overall results of Cohen and Hoffman’s five scales were internally consistent.  They report that “whatever our scale means, Jews score lower than Christians on it” and “that Jews as a group are less spiritual than non-Jews.” (SR, at 4, 13.) This overall result should not be surprising. Recall that the reporters chose to search for spirituality among Jews and not Jewish Spirituality. Consequently, and for instance, they did not ask specifically about Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. Instead, they looked at not particularly Jewish indicia of spirituality and found that Jews were not particularly spiritual based on those indicia.

Yet, if the results are not surprising, the phrasing in the Spirituality Report is sure interesting. What Cohen and Hoffman apparently found is that fewer Jews than non-Jews reported engaging in conduct which the reporters identified as spiritual. Instead of consistently using neutral language of “more” or “less,” however, Cohen and Hoffman sometimes tend to describe the results as “lower” or “higher,” or even “elevated,” suggesting that they think that more of such conduct is better. At one point, they describe a sub-group with a relatively high spirituality score as “leading the way.” (SR, at 13.) Leading the way to where or what? With what consequences?

More specifically, of the first six activities in the Spiritual Inclination scale, only 10-25% of Jews reported participating.  Jews also talk less with clergy and non-clergy about spiritual concerns. Again, only about 15% of Jews reported talking with clergy about such matters. Jews believe in God less and with less certainty than do non-Jews, and they spend less time thinking about or relating to God than do non-Jews. While about 70% of Jews claimed to believe in God, less than 40% were certain about that belief and less than 20% spent a lot of time thinking about it. Religion and faith generally, and services, prayers and religious literature more specifically are less important to Jews than non-Jews, as is talking to a clergy person.  Almost 40% of Jews reported reading religious or inspirational literature on their own in the preceding year. But less than 30% saw religion as important in their life. Finally, when asked about whether a variety of experiences including meditation, music, reading and volunteering were “very important to your religious or spiritual life,” with two exceptions a smaller percentage of Jews Jews than non-Jews thought so. The two exceptions related to group celebrations and to Israel. (See SR, at 5-9.)

These results are consistent with those of the extensive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007. For that effort, Pew surveyed eleven distinct religious groups, as well as those who were unaffiliated and others. Pew asked numerous questions about religious beliefs and practices, as well as on demographic, educational, economic and political issues.

Apparently, PRRI subsequently analyzed the Pew data and generated a spirituality score by religious affiliation for its New Measurement Strategies mentioned above. The data for each group for each of the three components of the spirituality score (sense of peace and well-being, wonder and meditation) can be seen at  (At 62, 67-68; see also, Post March 14, 2012.)  Of the eleven identified religious groups, six had positive mean spirituality scores, while five had negative scores. Jews scored lower on this measurement than any other religious group. The only group that was ranked as less spiritual was “Unaffiliated.” Ranking highest were Jehovah’s Witnesses, then Buddhists, then Mormons, followed by Muslims, Evangelical Protestants and Black Protestants.  Those groups receiving negative scores were Mainline Protestants, then Hindus, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and, finally, Jews.  (See New Measurement Strategies, above, at 14/15.) Consequently, it seems that even if Cohen and Hoffman had considered inner peace and a sense of wonder in their search for SAJ, the results of their effort would have been the same.

Cohen and Hoffman also compared different segments of the Jewish population with each other. Having confirmed other studies that show the low interest of Jews, relatively and on an absolute basis, in religiosity and spirituality, the scholars reported new and perhaps surprising results for three Jewish sub-groups.  They found, for instance, that Orthodox Jews outscored other Jews on every measure they tested, including but, significantly, extending beyond religion and prayer. The scholars therefore characterize Orthodox Jews as “Highly Spiritual.” (SR, at 10-11.) This result will come as a surprise to devotees of the Failed Messiah website,, but even if the events reported on that site are quite unrepresentative of the Orthodox population generally, the conclusion reached in the Spirituality Report about the Orthodox community seems to be a suspect conclusion based on the kinds of measurements made and not made.

In addition, Cohen and Hoffman found that “younger Jews were more spiritual and more religious than their elders,” even as they report lesser levels of association, affiliation and ritual practices. (SR, at 10. Emphasis in original.) They attribute this result to spirituality being a “privatized enterprise.” (Id.)That may be so, but how does the private nature of spirituality square with the more communal aspects of Orthodox life, which, they also think contributes to greater spirituality? Is this an inconsistency or are their multiple paths?

Further, Cohen and Hoffman found that Jews with only one Jewish parent or none (who they call Extended Jews-by-Choice) scored higher on all measures of spirituality and religiosity than did Jews with two Jewish parents. (See SR, at 11.) They attribute this result to the comfort that non-Jews bring to the idea and language of spirituality.  What Cohen and Hoffman do not address is the extent to which the children of Extended Jews-by-Choice remain Jewish.

The study by Cohen and Hoffman was written for and published by the Synagogue 3000 organization, an entity that recognizes the challenges of contemporary Jewish life and seeks to revitalize Jewish congregations.  Part of the mission of Synagogue 3000 is to promote spirituality, whatever it is, and to make synagogues spiritual centers. Naturally, Cohen and Hoffman have some comments, which they call recommendations, for synagogues based on their study. In essence, they seek recognition that spirituality is a valid gateway into “meaningful Jewish life,” another undefined concept, and one which is “growing in importance.” Therefore, they encourage synagogues to become “spiritual communities,” though they do not in the Spirituality Report describe the components of such communities other than that it would be desirable for rabbis to talk about certain spiritual issues. (See SR, at 14.)

Such a conclusion seems foregone, however, and somewhat contrary to where the statistics are pointing. That synagogues should be safe for spirituality (again, with concerns about definitions or lack of them) is hardly objectionable. Rather, the Spirituality Report fails to come to grips with the greater statistical confirmation in the study.

If it is important for synagogues to respond affirmatively and supportively to the 15-25% of Jews who are interested in learning about spiritual exploration or believe it important to grow spirituality, why is it not at least as important to reach out to the much larger percentage of Jews who do not believe in a personal God, who do not pray frequently, if at all, or who stay away from or are less participatory in the synagogue perhaps because of the traditional God language used there?

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has described this group as follows: “The vast majority of Jews I meet are bored to death by the Judaism they are asked to practice. They simply do not believe in God as presented to them in the siddur and Torah (prayer book and Bible), and cannot pretend that this God they do not believe in wants them to engage in religious rituals they cannot relate to.” (See Shapiro may keep company with a skewed population of Jews, but the results of significant surveys conducted over the last decade confirm that there is a sizeable group of non-Orthodox Jews who he is describing and that they outnumber the spirituality seekers.

Of course, even with limited resources, synagogues need not act as if they were in a zero sum game.  The group that Shapiro discusses and the group identified by Cohen and Hoffman both share, perhaps to a significant degree, a certain discomfort with Judaism as currently practiced and a common interest in seeking a new path, replete with new language and new metaphors, new prayers and new modes of conduct. Why not reach out to both groups?

And even if the interests of these two groups do not overlap greatly, a good case can be made for synagogues becoming true centers for the exploration of all aspects of the Jewish civilization and places where Jews of all beliefs and disbeliefs can come together. The recently published Jewish Values Survey, issued by PRRI, confirms that slightly more than one-third of North American Jews belong to a synagogue and only about one in four believe in a personal God with whom a relationship is possible. But over 70% think that it is very to somewhat important to pursue justice, care for the widow and orphan and repair the world. (See James and Cox, “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012” (at 6, 27, 40),  That should keep everyone busy for a while.

Roger Price

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One Response to “Jewish Spirituality: When Defining Something is Harder than Discussing It”

  1. Rabbi Rami Shapiro says:

    I wonder if new metaphors are enough. I suspect we will have to come up with a new paradigm for understanding TaNaCH as well. Something akin to Joseph Campbell. But can Judaism survive if we do this? We cling to a God who chose us as His favorites makes growing beyond such a god very difficult. And even Reconstructionists who dropped this notion decades ago can’t seem to free themselves from such an anthropomorphic god. The radicalism of Kaplan is lost, or so it seems to me. We need a rebirth of Kaplan’s theology and transvaluation methodology.

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