Mining our Political Past for Spiritual Sustenance

A few weeks ago, I completed my final assignment from my third semester of rabbinical school (which ended in January). I’m not one to put things off like that, but this was a special assignment. It involved sitting in a Brooklyn apartment with close to twenty young Jews (and maybe a couple non-Jews?) studying the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with members of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). It was an unusual and worthwhile final assignment.

I had taken a class that focused on the lives and teaching of King and Heschel. We wrestled with questions of leadership, the balance between the prophetic and the pastoral, relationships across faith and race, and being on the margins of our own communities. With half the class filled with Jews from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and local Jewish communities, and the other half filled with Christians from the Alternative Seminary, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and other local communities, the conversations were productive, challenging, and relational.

Aptly, our final assignment was designed to get us out of the seminary classroom and into the world. I decided to teach at JFREJ, my political home, but what could I teach them about social justice through the lens of King and Heschel that they did not already support? The challenge here was not a political one. It was a spiritual one. So, I looked to the spiritual wisdom of King and Heschel to see what we could learn from what sustained them in their political work. We looked at two texts. One from King, an excerpt from “Our God is Able,” and a selection from Heschel’s The Sabbath. In both, we found different ways of engaging with God, finding spiritual support, and imagining a different world.

One of the things that was so striking was how different their modes of spiritual engagement were from each other. For Heschel, it was the devotional nature of keeping Shabbat week after week, the continuous practice of marking time in celebration, relaxation, and a break from the capitalist culture and structures of our world. For King, we read a spontaneous moment of crying out to God, in desperation, in fear, and exhaustion. It reminded of the line from Pslam 130, “Out of the depths, I have called to you HaShem, Lord, Hear my voice!” We explored how our world, how our very selves, might be different if more people in the world engaged in these spiritual practices.

Recognizing that not every spiritual practice is for every person, we turned to a theory of spiritual types as laid out by Tilden Edwards in his book Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion. In it, Edwards explains that some people connect to God through devotion (e.g. praying three times a day), some through contemplation (e.g. silent meditation or chanting), some through activism (e.g. organizing against the prison industrial complex), or iconoclasm (Edwards calls this “fighting it all the way”–questioning, resisting, arguing, debating, etc.). The group, in naming what gave them spiritual sustenance, identified collective living, community, collaboration, intense conversations with individuals—so we concluded there was at least one other kind of spiritual type—relational.

Over an eclectic potluck which consisted of mostly take-out Chinese food (and a delicious pie tart for dessert), we had the opportunity to talk to others who were of similar spiritual types, share practices, think of new ones, and celebrate Shabbat together. All in all, it was a lovely evening, and I was left with a number of questions. How do we relate to Jewish practice in a society structured by Christian hegemony? What can practice look like for atheists/agnostics? How do we understand negative commandments1 which often appear to limit Choice when Choice is so highly valued in our neo-liberal, advanced capitalist society? And perhaps most pressingly for me, how do we sustain these conversations with the people who are dedicating their lives to healing the world?

I wish I had answers, and I am grateful to know that I now have twenty-some new partners in the search for spiritual meaning and justice.

1Negative commandments include things like not lighting a fire on Shabbat, not stealing, or not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.

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