The Practices of a Spiritual Leader

I have been a teacher for as long as I remember. It started with becoming a martial arts instructor beginning in my early teens, and, as my spiritual journey led me to Judaism, serving as a teacher of Jewish texts and tradition since before my twentieth birthday. For the past four years I have been teaching at a yeshivah, a Jewish seminary, in Jerusalem. Teaching in this environment is quite different than university instruction. Yeshivah teachers do not simply impart information. In fact, this is only a small part of our job. Here, our religious personalities and our own devotional lives are our most powerful teaching tools. This gives rise to a complex dynamic, however, because it means that we must constantly be checking to make sure that we are not simply putting on a show for our students. Authentic religious expression inspires and educates, not sham piety or performances.

In thinking about questions of the spirit, I often turn to the literature of the Hasidic mystical tradition. Let us examine a teaching from a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi that, although it does not explicitly refer to being a religious educator, will shed some light on these issues. We read:

The rabbis of the Talmud taught, “Anyone who studies laws (halakhot) each day will earn a place in the World to Come” (b. Niddah 73a). Rabbi Isaac of Varke explained it as follows: this refers to a person who has attained the Torah and is connected to the blessed One. He does nothing lightly, not even moving one of his limbs, for all of his actions are performed for the sake of God. Everything that he does is called halakhah, for he walks in the path of the One (holekh be-darkhei ha-shem). This is the meaning of the sages’ teaching, “Anyone who studies halakhot each day…”—each of this person’s deeds throughout the entire day is halakhah. This is the meaning of the verse, “worldly ways (halikhot olam) are his” (Habakkuk 3:6)—the entire world (olam) was created for the sake of people like this, for they bring great pleasure to the Divine.

If one achieves this level, in which all of his deeds, his actions, and his feelings are devoted to God alone and not for any ulterior reason, he will always be connected to the Torah. Every one of his actions are God’s Torah. The ultimate goal of Torah is to become connected to God, and the six hundred and thirteen commandments are prescriptions for achieving this rung…

But this type of path is extremely difficult. He must keep his eyes trained on the target and never miss. None of his actions should seem trivial. It is as if he is ascending a rope above a stormy sea. He must take care and focus all of his attention not to lean to one side or the other. If he inclines even a hairsbreadth, he will plunge into the sea…[1]

Many aspects of this text bear further investigation. One is the fascinating definition of halakhah, which is often translated as “Jewish law.” This rendering is not entirely incorrect, but it does fall short of the mark. Halakhah is a complex and sophisticated structure that includes rules governing rituals like the Sabbath, prayer services, and the definitions of kosher food. Halakhah also addresses monetary issues like torts, inheritance, and the rules of commerce. But it is flexible, dynamic, and no single rule (or ruling) can apply universally and to all cases. Jewish conceptions of halakhah thus share much in common with Islamic understandings of sharia. Halakhah and sharia may share many elements in common with Western conceptions of jurisprudence, but these systems of religious practice do not fit into all definitions of law. Indeed, this text links halakhah to the word halikhah, walking along a path. It is a spiritual praxis in which every action along the journey leads one back to the Divine.

This passage describes a person who has refined himself to the utmost degree as an embodiment of Torah. Thus it offers an important insight for the spiritual educator or teacher who seeks to impart a love and knowledge of Torah in his students. All the deeds of such a teacher can become halakhah and indeed Torah, sacred actions of great significance, because each of them brings him closer to the Divine. This does not mean that he breaks traditional patterns of Jewish practice or founds his own version of halakhah. Rather, the teacher’s rich inner spiritual world, his connection and commitment to the Infinite, transforms each one of his deeds into a holy action. This includes performing the commandments, but this permanent attachment to the Divine means that all of his deeds—no matter how seemingly mundane—become significant.

Focusing entirely on this connection with God also ensures that the teacher is authentic. It is his concentration on serving the Divine that makes his actions holy. It would not be enough if he were doing them for his own gratification, or even just to model good behavior for his students. These actions are sacred because of his uncompromising life of devotion and service.

We should also consider this passage from a second perspective, that of the students who might be learning from their master’s deeds. Just mimicking a leader’s actions would lead to passivity and empty imitation. The student is not meant to copy the teacher’s deeds, but to absorb his master’s approach to the spiritual life. The disciple must also learn to perform all of his deeds for the sake of heaven, coming to realize that no action is trivial or meaningless. There are no mundane actions when your life is rendered to God alone.

Jewish sources are among those of many faith traditions that recognize the pedagogical importance in the actions of their spiritual educators, often recording them with great attention to detail. The hadith literature, which recalls the deeds of the Prophet, holds tremendous authority for Islamic scholars. The Christian community retells the lives of the Saints and draws upon them for inspiration. The Talmud includes a large number of stories about the early rabbis and their deeds, many of which are meant to articulate points of halakhah in addition to moral and spiritual guidance. The significance of a spiritual master’s deeds, however, takes on special importance in the Hasidic tradition. This is visible in the famous story of a young Hasid who first went to visit a renowned Hasidic sage not in order to learn how to pray or to study, but to watch how the master tied his shoelaces.

Can this type of personal spiritual education survive in modernity? I believe that the answer is yes. Perhaps we are in need of it most in the contemporary world, where education—both religious and secular—has become a technologized commodity. The great twentieth-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel understood the importance of this type of leadership. In his words:

What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.[2]

This is equally true of seminary faculty, pulpit clergy, and communal leaders. It applies to all types of spiritual education. Students can immediately sense when their teachers love the subject of lessons and when they feel passionately about it; surely this is all the more true when the subject is God. This model of charismatic leadership comes with very real dangers. These are amplified if they are ignored, or we refuse to deal with teachers who abuse them. But these risks should not overshadow the great power of leading by example and teaching from the very heart of one’s inner world.

[1] R. Yerahmi’el Yitshak Yisra’el of Aleksander, Yismah Yisra’el, va-yiggash, fol. 102a-b.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966, p. 237.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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