Hanukkah, unlike many other Jewish holidays, is basically a one-note song. The one ritual required, aside from a few changes to the liturgy, is lighting candles. Sure, many of us exchange gifts, eat deep-fried treats and gamble chocolate coins in high-stakes dreidel stand-offs. But from the tradition‘s perspective, it‘s all about the candles; it’s the holiday of fire.
Fire is a pretty amazing phenomenon when you stop to think about it. Attached to the wick and the fuel below, the flame reaches upward. The flame defies gravity. It looks as if it yearns to float away. At the same time, however, it clings to its source, rooted. The flame always reaches above, but unless it is bounded by a wick and fuel, the flame will go out.
We are much like the Hanukkah candles. The yearning, reaching fire of spirituality burns within us. But unless that fire is rooted, it vanishes.
According to recent studies, one of the fastest growing religious identities in America is “spiritual but not religious.” A person who is “spiritual but not religious” deliberately avoids adhering to any particular set of institutions, beliefs, and practices, but intuits something greater at work in the universe and seeks connection with the transcendent aspect of reality.
I totally get where the “spiritual but not religious” folks are coming from. Spirituality – the feeling of connection to the transcendent – is, after all, the purpose of religion, so if you can cultivate that feeling without religious adherence, why bother? What’s more, religion often seems to get in the way of spiritual pursuits: Religious institutions tend to have rigid boundaries, entrenched hierarchies, and complex bureaucracies. They can be expensive, political, stagnant, and insufficiently responsive to the needs of each individual. The beliefs and practices of established or organized religions can seem too conservative, outdated, irrelevant, exclusionary, and, let’s face it, often weird. They can be demanding of time and energy and encouraging of conformity. Isn’t God everywhere, and equally accessible to us all? Isn’t God eternal and thus responsive to the needs of real people today? Doesn’t God love me the way I am and not want me to be and act just like others?
The answer to all these questions, of course, is yes, so in my view, the “spiritual but not religious” folks make some excellent points. But I wonder: How else does one learn how to connect to the transcendent – how to be spiritual – but through some particular set of texts, traditions, beliefs, or practices? How does one know how to identify a moment of connection to the transcendent as such without having, on some level, learned to do so through a particular set of texts, traditions, or beliefs? How does one hold on to a meaningful experience of connection beyond the moment without rituals and practices designed to enable just that retention? How does one transmit the insights and feelings gleaned from an encounter with the transcendent to his or her children and grandchildren but through a particular set of texts, traditions, and practices? How does one connect to or join with others who are similarly spiritual – necessary unless one chooses to live as a hermit – without agreeing upon shared language, culture, and structures?
In other words, it seems to me difficult, if not impossible, to truly be “spiritual but not religious.” Of course, spiritual experiences are one of the primary objectives of religious traditions. But that doesn’t mean those traditions are dispensable to the enterprise. Religious traditions are repositories of time-tested methods of connecting to the transcendent. They give spiritual experiences context and meaning. They foster group cohesion and enable the transmission of those practices and the experiences they enable to future generations. Put differently, spirituality might be the soul of religion, but religious traditions and institutions are like the body. A body without a soul is lifeless, but a soul without a body evaporates into nothingness.
The Hanukkah candles remind us that while the flame is the goal, it cannot be achieved without a wick and fuel. Similarly, Judaism seeks the fire of the spiritual. But it affirms that Torah and Mitzvot provide the material that make fire both possible and sustainable.