Growing up in San Francisco, I’d often hear people describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” While many people who said this wanted to distance themselves from traditional religions, I also believe this statement expresses a desire to think independently and create one’s own religious path.
While I’ve always taken pride in being Jewish (my bar mitzvah speech ended with a resounding — and voluntary — vow to continue Jewish study past my confirmation), I’ve also followed this approach of pursuing a spiritual life independently.
I’ve had spiritual moments in nature that I didn’t experience in terms of my Judaism; my religious life has been informed by other religions; and, like many Jews, I’ve developed my own approach to the High Holy Days. But, more generally, I’ve simply felt that I was making decisions and forming my spiritual life by myself.
This practice of individual spirituality may seem to go against tradition, but one could say that there is a longstanding and rich history in this country of going about religion independently.
Two of the great figures of American religious life are Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the most enduring images of these two men, for me at least, are of each one alone. There’s Jefferson by himself in his study literally cutting and pasting a new version of the Bible together, and there’s Emerson alone in the woods losing himself in nature.
As someone who has had spiritual moments alone and values solitary reflection on these types of questions, part of me will always fit into this mold of going about religion alone.
And yet my individual efforts have sometimes nagged me as being a little too solitary. On a break from college five or so years ago, I returned to a place on the Sonoma County coast where I had previously felt spiritually connected, and things just didn’t mesh this time. After a day of reading and hiking, I drove away feeling mostly bored and unfulfilled.
But gradually, as I’ve grown older, I have begun to learn about and experience the more personal parts of religion with other people, and in particular, with other Jews.
During my time at Middlebury College in Vermont, I gained close friends through the campus Hillel, and I became more comfortable discussing my spirituality in terms of Judaism. From study sessions with eight or so people that went late into the night to small Havdallah services, it was empowering to be part of a group whose members were dedicated to learning about Judaism and living better Jewish lives.
Since I’ve graduated from college, I’ve found more Jewish groups with which to learn, including a new philosophy study group facilitated by Kevah, the nonprofit that organizes Jewish study groups.
Sitting around a table with a group of people focused on religious study has been energizing, and it has also offered me a reminder that collective values such as tikkun olam and a commitment to social justice are key parts of religious life.
Through it all, however, I still value the autonomous approach to religion. As Emerson once warned, one must experience religion firsthand or risk “stale” religion. But even the American tradition of religious autonomy contains an appreciation for the importance of exchanges with others. Jefferson, for example, justified freedom of religion in part by saying that it would enable debate that would in turn be good for people’s religious experiences.
Debate and engaging in conversation are of course critical components of the Jewish religious tradition, as exemplified by the Talmud and its commentaries. There are plenty of examples of Jews engaging in religious study in groups: We have yeshivas and hevrutah, the practice of studying in pairs. And for me, compiling the calendar for j. has provided a weekly window into the logistics of how Jews love to get together and exchange ideas.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbah bar bar Hannah asks why God compares his words to fire in Jeremiah 23:29. The rabbi’s answer? God does this “in order to teach you that just as a fire cannot burn alone, so too the words of Torah cannot prevail in isolation.”
Maybe I needed a minyan with me that time on the Sonoma coast.
George Altshuler lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]