But I was too optimistic. The search for spirituality has become broad enough so that it now includes visits to the Dalai Lama, and more recently, a growing breed of self-appointed kabalistic masters who promise to open the doors of ancient Jewish esoteric knowledge in a few hours. Sometimes when I read accounts by those who have visited with the Dalai Lama in his headquarters in North India or who have read some pages of the kabalah--and are thus able to enlighten the lesser breed who seek inner peace--I find myself humming a song of my youth. The call went out some fifty years ago that one could learn the new, exotic, and sexy South American dances by taking "six lessons from Madame La Zonga." It is that easy.
So what is the new hunger for "spirituality" really about? What does it represent? At the very root of modern sensibility is the quest for nourishment for the "hungry I." That is the name that was given, prophetically, to a nightclub in Haight Ashbury, the swinging neighborhood of San Francisco in the 1960s. It defined the contemporary illness: men and women wanted to realize themselves by feeding the deep hunger that they felt in their lives.
The adult generation of those days thought that it had found the answer. This generation had grown up in the era of the Great Depression and of the Second World War. It was sure that happiness meant material achievements. Those were the days when the larger house, or the larger car, was proof that you had arrived and that you were happy. In a decade or two, their children realized that the larger kitchen or the house with the swimming pool was not enough to make them content, and so they looked for other ways of feeding their hunger. The focus moved to the soul, to the inner self. Possessions could not make you happy if the soul was empty.
The new generation was convinced that it had rejected the shallow materialism of its parents and exchanged it for the much more honorific "spirituality." It is not so. The obsession with the self has remained the same.
Jews have known for many centuries that "spirituality" is none of the above. We were taught in the Bible itself that the essence of the religious experience is in obedience to the commandments that are recorded in the Five Books of Moses. Two thousand years ago, when this definition of biblical rule was challenged by various sectarians--and especially by the early Christians, who asserted that the laws of the Bible had now been superseded by "the law of the heart"--the rabbis of that day reacted with great vehemence. They insisted that no attention was to be paid to "heavenly voices," even if you were sure that you were hearing them loud and clear. The followers of Moses had committed themselves to follow the Law of God as defined in the Bible and in rabbinic commentaries.
Late in the nineteenth century, two great Jewish teachers faced the question of "spirituality" and answered in the name of classic and time-honored Jewish values. Rabbi Israel of Salant, the most important Jewish moralist in the nineteenth century, defined spirituality as the teachings that impel us to make life more bearable for others. He insisted: if you want to save your own soul, spend your time saving other people's bodies. This doctrine is, of course, the absolute antithesis of self-involvement. Men and women can find happiness only in forgetting the self and working at making the world better for others. Happiness will always elude the self-involved.
But the question remains: the soul does yearn for union with God. How can this connection be found? Solomon Schechter said one hundred years ago that the whole system of commandments defines the "normal mysticism" that Jews experience. Every mitzvah, every commandment that Jews observe, brings them into communion with God. We are one with Him, as we, his children, do the will of our Heavenly Father.
Jewish spirituality is about following after God and trying to help perfect the world. As the Book of Psalms says in its very first verse, blessed is the person who does not follow the counsels of the wicked and avoids the companionship of the irreverent. This caution by the Psalmist does not lead us toward self-involvement, not in our bodies and not in our souls. It leads us outward toward the world that we must help perfect.