One of my favorite songs is “Higher and Higher” by the Moshav Band. With only a few lyrics the song emphasizes a single point, or rather a single hope: for our songs (or praise) to get us higher and higher to God. This wonderfully evocative tune emphasizes that the upward direction of our religious and spiritual striving is embedded in our souls. It is as if our hearts (and perhaps our bodies as well) seek to be lifted from the earth upon which we stand because if we keep ascending we will eventually reach the heavens, God’s abode. Perhaps this is why, according to Jewish law, while our eyes are faced downwards towards the ground (if not in the prayer book), our “hearts should be directed upwards towards the heavens” (Orah Hayyim 95:2). It’s as if we are trained to direct our thinking higher and higher; as our inspiration arrives from above, our feet lift us off the ground to meet God halfway.
Some (or many) of you may find a historical, liturgical, and/or institutional thinking higher bias in your faith traditions as well; a bias that is based on the principle that “higher” is the direction of progress. Conflating the thinking higher bias with forward progress is not only an element in religious traditions but is also a part of our shared experience in the world. Take two of the institutions that dominate most people’s lives — the school and the workplace. Most schools structure the progression of students through the system as going “up” a grade, from 1st all the way through 12th (and beyond) and most of our institutions are based on a “hierarchy” in which power is concentrated at the top of an organizational pyramid . In each of these cases progress depends on our ability to pass the requirements to go up a grade or succeed enough to get a promotion to the next level at work. In each of these cases, the idea is that we should gain enough knowledge, experience, and/or maturity to raise ourselves to the next level, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum (or till we’re too tired to climb).
The same can be true of spiritual learning. Judaism uses the idea of a ladder to connote an upwards progression of holiness towards God. Maimonides speaks of an eight rung ladder of tzedakah (charity), in which the bottom rung accounts to giving far less than one ought to give and doing so grudgingly, while the highest level signifies teaching or giving someone the ability to be financially independent. In Jewish education there is a concept known as a “ladder of mitzvot (commandments),” in which teachers emphasize to their students that one moves higher and higher by doing more and more mitzvot. Each mitzvah you do is another step higher and closer to God.
Yet lately I’ve been wondering: is our thinking higher bias actually synonymous with progress? Or to put it spiritually, if our goal is to reach God (or however we describe the Ultimate Force and Source of Life), is God only found above us?
One of the challenges with considering progress in terms that connote a bias for “thinking higher” is that the act of moving upwards is by nature a selective act. Each step up requires the successful completion of a previous step; every class or job you take is built on the accomplishments that came before it. Some of us are very good at taking those steps, and some of us are not, and it stands to reason that the higher you go the harder it is for others to keep up. This is the process of selection, in which progress is seen by the consistent victories of the selected few over the many. This is why there are fewer students in 12th grade than in 1st grade, fewer CEOs than mail room clerks, fewer league champions than lottery pick teams. A hierarchy in which power is held at the top by a few is a natural result of a bias towards thinking higher, and as a result progress is not possible for all.
The kind of selection in which the few retain power over the many may be applicable in a competitive marketplace of limited resources, but is it applicable in describing how we connect with the Unlimited Source of All? According to Jewish mystical tradition, God is sovev kol almin u’maleh kol almin, both around the world and within the world, transcendent and immanent at the same time. God is here and there, to be found in whichever direction we seek to find God.
This last point was driven home for me when I worked with an interfaith community as a teacher where I co-taught students who identify as both Jewish and Christian. The students learned about both traditions and the various ways they could reach God. At the end of their schooling, though, there was a certain pressure to choose one religion with which to identify, as if they were choosing a major after taking their requirements. This made sense given that the thinking higher bias connects progress to selectivity; you may arrive at a restaurant with a wide selection of options, but in order to take the next step you must select only one of them.
Yet developing a spiritual and/or religious identity is not like choosing an option from a menu. My students did not want to choose one specific path because, I think, they recognized that their spiritual journeys were unique, a recognition that all of us can have about our own journeys as well. Some of us are born into single or multiple traditions, some of us are searching, some of us are happy where we are. Yet the one thing we all share is that our individual combinations of experiences, attitudes, and histories make each of our spiritual/religious journeys unique and different from one another. Because we only share uniqueness, there are no options of “higher” paths from which to select. Thus, the thinking higher bias does not apply to our spiritual journeys. The act of taking steps backwards or to the left or right is not only not wrong, it may be an essential element to the journey in the first place; it may be essential because God is both around and within the world. To play off of the philosopher Alan Watts in Wisdom of Anxiety, “Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, wherever it may turn out to be.”
Perhaps there is something innate in our desire to go higher and higher, which is why I find the Moshav Band’s music to be so inspiring. Yet “higher” is not the only direction our spiritual/religious journeys are meant to go because journeys can only be meaningful if they are unique to the ones who are taking them. If our spiritual journeys are meant to be like climbing a ladder towards God, let’s follow the biblical example in which the angels are not only moving up the ladder, they’re also moving down (Genesis 28:12) because God is all around.