Friday, April 20, 2012

The Power of lowness

Came across an article asking an interesting (and, to some, provocative) question: why did the Jewish Renewal Movement, a movement founded with the serious mission of reinvigorating the spiritual life of Judaism, become so shallow? I'm not sure that the article is really being fair to the movement, but I'll leave that to others to debate. What I find most interesting is an underlying assertion which the author makes:

One of the ultimate concerns of that tradition is to actualize the image of God latent in human beings—women and men, Jews and non-Jews alike. And one of the ways the tradition does this is by constantly putting before us the commanding heights of perfection by which we should strive to evaluate and order our own lives. If, in the light of those heights, I know that mine is a "low" life, at least I know where I stand—and also that, if I so will it, and if I put in the effort, I can rise upward. In Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, by contrast, everyone's life is understood to be already suffused with the "always-flowing force of light and energy," thus neatly reversing the poles of judgment. Now the measure of all things is "I," and all "I's" are equal.  

It expresses very well a reason that I'm uncomfortable with what's often labelled as "New Age" spirituality. There are some forms of spirituality which focus almost exclusively on making people feel good about themselves. It may seem strange to critique that approach -- what could be better than feeling good about ourselves? But, the potential downside of feeling good about ourselves is that it makes it much less likely that we'll improve.

Change almost always begins with dissatisfaction.

That's a big part of why sin and chastisement has always been a big part of Judaism, and of most religions. It's not to make us feel bad, per se. It's to make us feel bad as a motivational tool for growth. We hold up God as an ideal source of holiness, and we look to others (even if only through mythology) as humans who have reached a higher level than we have. And so, we give ourselves a goal, and a feeling of urgency in reaching that goal.

Of course, it has to be balanced with a sense of satisfaction (if we're always miserable, we're likely to give up) and joy. We don't spend all day, every day, beating ourselves up, literally or metaphorically. But, if we begin with the assertion that everyone is equally holy, and everyone is equally good, then it makes one wonder why we need to worry about religion or spirituality at all - just go about your merry way, satisfied with who and where you are in life.

Rabbi Simcha Bunum teaches us that we should always carry two slips of paper with us, one in each pocket. When we feel too low, we read to ourselves the one which reads, "The whole world was created only for my sake." But, when we feel too proud, we read the one which says, "I am nothing but dust an ashes."

And, the truth, as always, is found in the balance between those extremes.

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