To my dismay and chagrin, over the past 50 years and spanning all the movements – from the most liberal Jewish communities to ultra-Orthodox ones both in Israel and in other countries – Jewish talk, for the most part, has ceased to include God talk. Even as far back as 1935, a Warsaw hassidic leader, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, commonly referred to as the Piaseczner Rebbe, observed a terrible and unfortunate condition among the Jewish population.
Although he acknowledged that many Warsaw Jews practiced Jewish observance with devotion and care, dedicated significant time to learning the Torah and attended the daily required communal prayer services in the synagogues, he was still deeply concerned.
The Piaseczner Rebbe observed among his followers a serious lack of the awareness of the Divine Spirit within themselves. The sense of vitality that we emotionally experience with our Judaism appeared absent. A person may intellectually believe in the existence of the omnipotent creator; however, it is our emotional landscape that provides the way to experience this Divine force, within and without.
What the Piaseczner observed resembled, if we can imagine, people moving about but without a soul, as if they stopped breathing. In fact, the breath of life that the Creator first breathed into Adam and Eve continues throughout the millennia until today. The breathing cycle that we partake in – receiving and returning breath as we inhale and exhale – invites us to become aware of the Creator’s presence within us.
We then begin to sense our soul, our spirit and the life force that continues to keep us alive. This immanent experience brings us closer to the Divine presence within each of us.
The power of the Jewish people comes from within
While the external acts of observance, study and prayer play a major role in the sustainability of the Jewish people, the internal experience of a personal and unique encounter with the Divine becomes the Jew’s spiritual umbilical cord with their Creator. The Piaseczner Rebbe saw that, at best, this crucial component of traditional Judaism took a back seat in the consciousness of many of his contemporaries in Warsaw.
For most, however, it simply did not exist at all. This left the Jewish population bereft of experiencing their Judaism as a spiritual practice. Regretfully, this state of spiritual impoverishment that the Piaseczner addressed in Warsaw existed far beyond the city. The lack of God consciousness and sensitivity to the spiritual plagued Jewish communities all over the globe, both then and now.
Thirty years after the Piaseczner Rebbe’s observation and across an ocean, the renowned Leonard Cohen similarly noticed in Canada in 1964 that “We no longer believe we are holy... there is an absence of God in our midst.
“It is interesting that in the two symposia I recently went to within the Jewish community in the past few months no one has mentioned the word God.”
THE BIBLICAL narratives in Genesis describe the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as people who directly encountered God in their midst. In fact, Abraham’s call to leave a culture steeped in idol worship was a call to leave all that was familiar to him.
This pivotal point in Abraham’s life defined him as the progenitor of a new people who not only possess faith in an all-encompassing one God, but is in a relationship with this God, and who teaches this spiritual experience to the next generation. “For I [God] have loved him [Abraham], because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Eternal, being righteous and just.” (Genesis18:19)
I echo both the Piaseczner and Leonard Cohen’s sentiments. Ironically, it was a Divine whisper within, a sort of gentle tugging, that brought me to Israel and then to traditional Judaism, in 1971. And little by little, hardly noticeable at first, that whisper became inaudible. Or perhaps, the loud never-ending competing voice to behaviorally conform drowned out the “still small voice” (1 Kings, 19:12) within. Yes, in fact, “...there was an absence of God in our midst.” Where did God go?
The Piaseczner Rebbe compares this painful experience of feeling distant from God to that of a child who misses one of their parents and yearns for their return from being away. Spiritually, this remoteness leads to a closed mind and a dulled heart – a limited and restricted consciousness. A person may even feel estranged and exiled from the deeper part of themselves, without even knowing why.
On the other hand, an encounter with the Divine brings a sense of closeness and connection. This manifests an expanded consciousness with clear, crisp and creative thinking and an open heart to experience the many diverse and fluid feelings the human condition produces. Quite organically, without force or manipulation, one then begins sensing the Divine presence in each other.
Becoming sensitive to this presence allows us to sense this creative force in one’s interactions with other people, and equally so in animals, birds, fish, vegetation, trees, herbs, flowers and plants. This process continues to evolve into sensing a Divine spark in soil, water, metals, gems and other inanimate creations.
The world we live in today, both in the Jewish world in particular and in the global community of humanity – is suffering acutely from a growing crisis of loneliness, alienation from self and hence other people, low self-esteem and many other spiritual maladies. It behooves us to at least inquire how the Jewish tradition responds to this.
And in fact, it does. We must develop the tools and resources – a sort of spiritual toolbox – that will help us, support us and encourage us to discover our individual inner terrain. This is where the Divine resides and waits to be encountered.
The writer teaches Jewish contemplative practice and spiritual texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and at Applied Jewish Spirituality. She is the founder and the director of Conscious Community Nachlaot, an organization in Jerusalem that hosts Shabbat in-person spiritual gatherings, virtual guided meditation and spiritual text classes.