The victory of politics over spirituality

Today's high-volume punditry is shutting out those who are straining to hear the still small voice of God

Not long ago, I was sitting with a group of fellow rabbis when the conversation turned, as it always does, to Israel, and then Iran and anti-Semitism. We talked about the various proposals for sanctions, and one of my colleagues told us, “Look, the real issue is the centrifuges. And the level of uranium enrichments.”

And I thought, well, this is what it’s come to. Rabbis today in America have to be proficient in the language of Iranian sanctions. Our jobs call on us to understand what centrifsuges are, how fast they should spin, how much uranium enrichment matters in making bombs, what sanctions are, how they work, which are effective, which are not. Why? Partly, because our congregants are concerned with these issues. But also because they are existentially important to Israel – Iran does pose a genuine threat — and we love and support Israel.

But largely, it’s because the dominant conversation nowadays in American Judaism is about politics. Mostly it’s Middle Eastern politics: Israel and the Palestinians, the violence in Gaza or the West Bank, or the Lebanese border, or Syria, and, always, Iran. But also European anti-Semitism, and, of course, American politics, but almost only the JStreet/AIPAC issues, which is to say American politics as it effects Israel. I haven’t conducted a scientific survey, but a cursory glance at our important American-Jewish publications: Tablet, Forward, Commentary, Times of Israel, and quick run through my various social media threads shows the extraordinary dominance of politics in our discourse. We talk about little else.

So what? (Some might ask “what else is there?”) For one thing, it crowds out other conversations, other crucial topics. For instance, faith, God, spirituality. I don’t see many lively threads, or lengthy posts on the best ways to connect with God. Or, on related questions like what happens when I die? Or, why, in a crowded world filled with rewarding friendships, I often find myself feeling lonely. Or, what is that strange, still, small voice that whispers to me during prayer or meditation, hinting at mysteries, at a world beyond my grasp? We talk about centrifuges, about the coming Israeli elections, about French Jewry – important topics! But we’ve stopped talking about that still, small voice.

It wasn’t always like this. When I came of age as a rabbi, in the early 1990’s, non-Orthodox spirituality was new, daring, hip – and all the rage. The Jewish Renewal Movement, led by Reb Zalman Schachter was at the center of the American-Jewish conversation. We read books by Art Green and Lawrence Kushner and Roger Kamenetz and Judith Plaskow and of course Heschel – and they introduced us to exciting new spiritual techniques, grounded in Jewish tradition: meditation, spiritual healing, feminist prayer, Jewish Yoga, davenology (a term coined by Zalman), niggunim, drush n’ drama. Dynamic young rabbis like David Wolpe and Daniel Gordis wrote books about God, and also articles urging the Jewish community to embrace God and spirituality as the dominant modes of expression in American Judaism. Now it’s all politics. Sanctions. Centrifuges. Jewish peoplehood. Social Action. Settlements. JStreet vs. AIPAC. Charlie Hebdo.

It’s interesting, in particular, to trace the career of Rabbi Daniel Gordis as a microcosm of this phenomena. A brilliant thinker from a distinguished rabbinic family, he came to prominence with his first book God Was Not In the Fire, a moving meditation on personal spirituality, from a rabbi, the young dean of a new rabbinical school. Now he’s Daniel Gordis, a political thinker – a pundit. Still brilliant, but followed for his insights on the Israeli political scene, or his own well-reasoned political positions.

I have a theory for how this happened. The mini (and short lived) spiritual explosion I described took place in the 90’s, the era of Oslo, of Yitzhak Rabin, of what seemed like real negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel appeared to be on the path of normalization. It was becoming a strong democracy, at peace with its neighbors, still Jewish, but ordinary in every other way, and not threatened. The relative ordinariness of Israel left room for other topics – and spirituality made the most sense. After all, American Judaism seemed to be emerging from its hyper-political phase, the post-Holocaust, post-1967 era, when Israel and the Holocaust dominated our attention. At last, we said, we can turn to matters that will sustain us a spiritual tradition. Or so we thought. But then negotiation collapsed, followed by 9/11, the second intifada, a resurgent anti-Semitism. Iran.

My fear now – and it was a fear back then, expressed by others – is that all the talk about politics has chased away the spiritual seekers. Our communities are now dominated by folks whose primary interest is politics, and who, by sensibility, gravitate more toward political discussions than theological talk. Our spiritual seekers have sought and found other places: Eastern religions, or Christianity, or the inchoate “none of the above” attracting many young Americans. Synagogues have become political discussion groups. Deep religious discourse happens elsewhere.

Last week, my synagogue held an event featuring Brett Stephens and Dennis Prager, two well-known political pundits. Their conversation attracted 1000 people, and we all whooped and cheered as the two bashed Obama, praised our military interventions, and scared the hell out of us about Iran and Islamism (I’m not being cynical. I cheered along). But as I was cheering, I was wondering how many folks we would have attracted if I’d invited a topnotch Jewish theologian (and, frankly, who would that even be?). 300? 250? 100? The Prager/Stephens program was a great show for our congregation. But there’s a cost, and we’re all paying it.

About the Author
Rabbi Philip Graubart is the author of RABBIS AND GANGSTERS, SILWAN, WOMEN AND GOD, and several other novels. His new mystery HERE THERE IS NO WHY will be published this summer. He served as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla for fifteen years and before that as senior rabbi at Congregation Bnai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. He also worked in leadership positions at the National Yiddish Book Center, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the San Diego Jewish Academy. He's taught widely on Israel and Zionism, to teenagers, college students and adults.