Judaism as a Spiritual Odyssey

December 6, 2019 in Rabbi Greg Harris

My edition of Gordis’ book

In 1995, a new book was published which I devoured.  God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism was written by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, then head of the Conservative Movement’s seminary in Los Angeles.  As I was considering rabbinical school myself, I became absorbed with his writing and ideas about Judaism’s relevance.  At the time, as I rode the metro from Bethesda to Union Station for work, the pages of my edition became highlighted, notated and dog-eared.

I periodically return to Gordis’ writing for inspiration and to remind myself of the questions which brought me to rabbinical school and Jewish communal life.

In a time of intense individuality, Judaism stresses we are part of something larger – a People, a history, a faith.  For eons, Jews have been part of an odyssey of meaning making, relevance and fulfilling religious obligations.  Throughout different time periods and communities, these characteristics were shuffled in priority.  In our busy modern lives, we continue to combine these “ingredients” in various ways.  Central to this odyssey has been the Torah.  It is our core text upon which each generation responds to, embraces, interprets and even pushes against.  Thus, as we become more familiar with the narratives of the Torah, we give ourselves the tools to be part of deep Jewish conversations across time.  From commentators like Rashi (click here for his commentary) to Avivah Zornberg (click here for an interview with Avivah about Genesis), our odyssey continues.

Consider this excerpt below from Gordis’ book.  I am interested in your thoughts so please email me or respond on this blog.

The idea of a ‘spiritual odyssey’ is not a new view of Judaism, but rather, has long been the essence of Jewish life.  Regardless of what one believes about the origins of the Torah… the Bible is undeniably the most central document that Jews have read for thousands of years.  It is the virtual definition of their origins, their mission, and their sense of who they are.

The Torah…is in many respects the ‘diary’ of the Jewish people.  Were any of us to find the diary of our great-great-grandparents, we would not only save it but would savor it.  We would read it carefully and repeatedly for what it could tell us about the places and people from which we come.  Why?  We would relish that diary because as we uncover our past, we discover parts of ourselves.  We come to understand better the shadows and images that seem to pervade our parents, our siblings, our own psyches.  We learn that no matter how hard we struggle to become unique, there are ways in which we are chillingly similar to those who came before us.  In learning about our ancestors, we learn about ourselves.” (page 40-41)

The year after I read this book, I moved to New York to begin my rabbinic studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  I continue to try to understand and experience Judaism’s spiritual odyssey in my own life.  I believe asking these types of questions together helps shape an inspiring and dynamic community.  Let’s continue to ask and learn together.