Choosing Soul Over Mind
Tue, 08/31/2010
Special to The Jewish Week
The author will be in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, “using the prayers others are saying as the backdrop to my own meditation.”
The author will be in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah, “using the prayers others are saying as the backdrop to my own meditation.”

I am not a learned Jew. I am neither “religious” nor secular. I grew up in a religious household, and studied for a short time in a Jerusalem seminary. And though I eventually decided Orthodox Judaism was not a good fit for me, I did not entirely abandon Judaism either.

If I had to title my approach to Judaism, I might call it “Primordial Judaism.” I ask myself: what was Judaism before it was refracted through successive and subjective cultures and shaped by earthly events and personalities along the way? What are its roots and how can I connect with them? Which of the prescribed rituals and sacred texts can assist me?

For me, the connection to Judaism must generate a constant and immediate stream of spiritual feedback that so many of the customs and rules seem to obscure. But here is where I really split with traditional Judaism: I do not believe there is an external, separate god outside us or beyond us. I do not believe there is an external almighty being to direct prayers to. I do not believe in a judging god, a god with the power to grant life and death, or a god on a throne.

No. I believe god is a simple, humble word for the infinite that is in, beyond and connecting all of us.

It is we humans who are the creators of this world, of our lives, and of how they unfold. The outcome of each moment is in our collective hands. There is no outside force or god to deliver us, though most of the forces we do affect are infinitely abstract and so far beyond our grasp that they can easily seem outside us.

Not exactly what the rabbis teach. And yet I have figured out ways to maintain a strong connection to Judaism and to pass that sense along to my children.

We belong to a Conservative synagogue. We enjoy marking Shabbat each week and celebrating the cyclical holidays. We explore holiday themes and meaning in depth, sifting through some well-worn rituals to guide us. Our children attend Hebrew school twice a week, and they attend a Jewish camp every summer.

But Rosh HaShanah as it is traditionally observed — with its focus on prayer — poses a challenge. Our friends and colleagues feel the same way; none of us feels a connection to “praying.” I find praying impossibly tedious. After all, praying addresses god as an external, independent force rather than an internal, composite one. I somehow cannot discover the relevance, meaning or comfort that people of all faiths find in prayer.

Still, I cannot entirely reject the premise of Rosh HaShanah; the spiritual tenor of the day feels different. It engenders self-reflection and an opportunity to choose the priorities of soul over mind. Teshuvah, or return, on Rosh HaShanah is for me a renewed commitment to that choice. Rosh HaShanah marks the start of a new spiral of spiritual evolution. It is a unique day, full of opportunity, an inner reset.

Celebrating the New Year is an acknowledgment of a new spiral of spiritual feedback. And faith to me is the belief that our souls always and without exception will lead us (as individuals and as a collective) toward progress and toward fulfillment of their purpose.

And yet … on Rosh HaShanah I do attend synagogue — two different ones, in fact. I enjoy the teaching-focused services Simon Jacobson leads at the (Orthodox) Meaningful Life Center, and the Children’s Service led by Phil Rothman at the Brotherhood Synagogue, where we are members. Both services include questions and discussion.

I have also found it is vital to be present for the blowing of the shofar, and to share that experience together with a congregation and with my immediate family. At both services, I use the prayers others are saying as a backdrop to my own meditation. I hold the book open to the correct page, I stand up and sit down with everyone else, and I enjoy the collective intention in the room coupled with the unique new light of Rosh HaShanah. But I am not “praying.” I am embarking on the next spiral.

Hali Weiss is a Manhattan architect.