Defining Spirituality: Ode to a Bat Mitzvah

My lifelong friend, whose daughter eloquently performed her bat mitzvah ceremony yesterday, remarked that her daughter enjoyed leading the service more than participating in it from the audience.

Such poise from a young girl. And such truth.

It occurs to me that the way we have created our religious institutions leaves a gaping hole in the true definition of spirituality. For a spiritual connection is a very personal, individual state – not something that can be achieved en masse.

And yet. We live in community, we believe our prayers are strengthened by being offered up in community, and we are beings who crave routine and structure: we need a memorable and easy path to retain order and focus in our religion.

Of course, the result is that so many people are unaffiliated. Many people who affiliate only attend church or synagogue on major holidays and for special occasions. It is the rare person who finds spiritual home by sitting in the audience and watching the show on stage.

For that’s what our religious institutions have become. Most of them, anyway. Officials perform from on high, they hold all the knowledge and even in religions where we don’t proscribe an intermediary between person and God, we still don’t feel empowered enough to communicate directly ourselves.

We defer to the leaders. We let them do our spirituality for us.

It is a fine line, this dance between individual and community. Yes, spirituality is a very individual thing. And yet we need to be a community of individuals to come together to hear the sweet honey of our voices in collective prayerful song. We comfort one another in a communal setting, in good times and in bad ones.

We need both. But we can’t sacrifice one (the individual) for the other (community).

The beauty of my friend’s simcha yesterday was that it had the structure and ritual of the organized service. But it included the creativity of the celebrating family – special moments of significance and ritual and performance and talent that personalized the service.

It was truly a service of this one family. And we in the audience were there to receive the gift of sharing it, of reaching a momentous occasion and knowing we had a part, even a small one, in supporting the meaning of our friends.

I dare each and every one of us to look for the personal in the universal. Make meaning out of structure and routine and the program proscribed in the prayerbook. Find your way in.

Many years ago, I wrote a book of poems about the central Jewish prayer, the Amidah. I wrote one poem for each verse of this fundamental prayer, writing about the personal meaning I found in those lines. What it meant to me. What I saw when I closed my eyes and muttered the words from the prayerbook that millions of others have held in their open palms.

I was newly married and nervous about my standing in the religious Jewish world. I believed I didn’t have enough knowledge to truly “get it.”

But I knew enough about myself to see clearly my own open door into millennia of tradition.

We traveled to Chicago for a bar mitzvah, and I brought the manuscript with me, eager to share with those who supported my poetry. A relative of a former in-law overheard the conversation and asked to look at the poems. I was honored so I shared the manuscript with her.

She came back a while later, shaking her head. “That’s not what the prayers mean to me,” she said, dropped the manuscript on the table, wrinkled her nose and walked off.

Oh well. It’s the meaning I derive from those words, the connections I make between age-old proscriptions and the generations before me that brought me to today.

Spirituality is our very own personal way in to the tradition, whatever tradition we choose. It can’t be packaged neatly and tied with a bow.

It has to have nuance and dip and turns and twists. It has to wreak of the personal. It has to mean something – otherwise, I promise, it will be lost forever.

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