What We Talk About When We Talk About Spirituality

The book of Ezekiel has the most vivid image of God in the entire Bible. A clear picture
of real tangible noun-like things that you might rap your knuckles on to see if it’s hollow or
solid. Material. And it goes like this:

They had the figures of human beings. However, each had four faces, and each of them
had four wings; the legs of each were [fused into] a single rigid leg, and the feet of each were
like a single calf’s hoof; and their sparkle was like the luster of burnished bronze. They had
human hands below their wings. The four of them had their faces and their wings on their four

It continues on, and describes the bizarre figure. Every time I read this passage I am
puzzled by the description. Not only is it strange to have any articulation of God’s features,
especially when we so heartily insist on God not having a form, but this description, despite
having clear pieces, even human features, seems to defy the rules of our physical world. Many
artists and illustrators have tried to draw it, and no two are alike. Moses Maimonides, the
Rambam, famously said that he could not say what God is; he could only say what God is not. I
can say for certain that for me, this definitely describes what God is not. I’m not directing my
prayers to an outlandish statue when I rise for the Amidah, or close my eyes for the Sh’ma. This
simply doesn’t speak to my understanding of the Divine, but I do think it has something
profound to say about God in our lives. This description has puzzled Jews throughout our
history, and the rabbis moved the study of this text to the middle of the night on Shavuot when
our understanding of the world is off kilter, hoping that we might gain a glimpse of insight from
this, when we too are not fully aligned with the regular motion of the world. The next morning
however, it always reverts to the same inaccessible text. A vision of the experience of a strange
prophet of the Jewish people. The same that brought the valley of the dry bones. His continued
descriptions of what continue to be evasive topics.

It was exactly that however, it was the description of an experience. I am certain that
Ezekiel himself had no real knowledge of the meaning of his vision; he only knew that it was
significant and as such he wanted to share it with everyone. We know this all too well. I often
have moments in my life that I don’t understand until after the experience, if I learn to
understand them at all. In fact, Martin Buber, one of our great Jewish theologians explained that
a Godly moment, an experience in which we encounter the Divine, where we have that spiritual
connection, can’t be understood in the moment. He would insist on separating the experience
from the understanding of it. Immerse yourself in it, he might say, we’ll talk about it afterward.
I always struggle with this when I visit the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I have
had some very powerful moments in that space, ones of deep spiritual connection, and others that
are totally void, pedestrian and mundane. If I go up to that brickwork, the smooth stones of our
traditional Temple mount with no intentions, and I touch that yellow monument, maybe put my
forehead against the cool material, feeling the calming presence of those sacred stones, I am
deeply moved. And if I enter the space and deliberately walk up slowly, thoughtfully placing my
feet along the paths of that spacious plaza, thinking of all of the great experiences that I’ve had
there, and all of the meaning I want to draw from that moment, if I enter with my mind instead of
my heart, the whole thing vanishes. It’s remarkable how drab a sacred space can be when you
insist on its holiness.

I also get hung up on the language. Was that a Godly moment, or just a special moment?
Was that spiritual or emotional? The answer is: yes. It was a Godly moment, and a special
moment, and a spiritual moment, and an emotional moment. I’m not concerned with whether
something is God or not, whether something is genuine or not, I’m not even concerned about
what God is, I’m interested in what makes meaning for us, what makes us live more deeply. For
some of us that’s God, for others that’s spirituality or tradition. Each says the same thing to me:
I had the experience of something more.

I love how many different ways there are to find this experience, and how individual it is.
As Reform Jews we insist on the individual drive of every person’s relationship with Judaism.
At its core, that is a result of this experience. Holiness is deeply personal. Two people can be on
the same walk through a garden, and while one experiences a deep connection to the power of
green life and the holiness in each flower along their path, their neighbor may enjoy the same
flora but not find that deeper experience. We might have that deeper experience sitting around
the dinner table with people we love, or sitting in services. For many of us milestones and
momentous life events carry that weight. Tears come at the birth of a child, the celebration of a
Bat Mitzvah, wedding, even funerals have that intense depth that often runs alongside this
spiritual experience.

Our relationship with God has changed throughout our history. We went from calling
God Yahweh, to Adonai, to God. The Bible understands God totally differently than the rabbis
of the Talmud, the medieval thinkers saw holiness in a different way than the Talmudists, and
today by and large we don’t talk about God so much as we do the spiritual and the meaningful.
We do this because we don’t focus on the idea of God as much as we focus on the experience of
God, the experience of holiness. So when I go up to the Wall in Jerusalem I don’t walk away
saying that I had a moment with God, I might have, but instead I say that I had a spiritual
moment. So too with our personal relationship with the Divine. Different generations of Jews
throughout our faith history have understood and related to God differently.

As the experience, understanding and language changes for our relationship with God, it
gets harder and harder for us to find that place of connection. Those moments of spiritual
meaning come unexpectedly, haphazardly, and that inconsistency causes us to doubt that they
really occurred, or that they were what we thought they were. We are a scientific society after
all, one that relies on fact coming from experiments that we can replicate, from being able to
recreate the elements of a situation and always get the same effect. This doesn’t happen for us,
even though we say the same prayers Shabbat after Shabbat. We sometimes have a powerful
moment, other times we don’t. I encourage us not to worry about whether they were real or not,
not to be concerned about whether they are genuine, whether it is God or a rush of endorphins,
whether the experience is emotional, spiritual, holy.

What a blessing to have the opportunity to have these different experiences throughout
our lives, avoiding a mundane spiritual path, we are given surprises and gifts of a variety of
spiritual experiences. And when we look back on them we know, we can feel that feeling again,
but when we try to explain it, it doesn’t make sense, like a hallucination, or a strange and
inaccessible passage from the Bible.