HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Developing a Personal Relationship with G-d— A New Approach
How ironic that Jews, who brought the knowledge of G-d to the world, are willing to talk openly about anything and everything—except their relationship with G-d. I have been intensively exploring the challenges of developing a personal relationship with G-d during the last several years. The following reflects a summary of what I have learned during this endeavor. There is good news and bad news.
The Good News
It is possible to develop a personal relationship with G-d.
It is possible to deepen this relationship, and to enable it to permeate all facets of one’s daily life.
It is possible to strengthen family relationships and friendships through the process of spiritual growth.
It is possible to discover new kindred spirits and soulmates in this process.
I have both personally experienced and have witnessed in others the occurrence of all these things.
The Bad News
Judaism, as it is currently configured, has no system or venue for developing a personal relationship with G-d. Neither the synagogues nor the schools provide the mechanisms for any kind of ongoing spiritual development.
Our present systems do not work. No amount of “tweaking” will change this. The answers lie “outside of the box.”
During the last several years of my exploring the challenges of spiritual development, the frustration I have encountered in people is so widespread as to be considered normative. The dissatisfaction spans all the denominations and age ranges.
Two Ineffective Approaches
For schools, the two primary systems addressing spiritual life are organized prayer and experiential activities. Neither accomplishes the goal of developing a personal relationship with G-d.
I spent nine hours in synagogue this Yom Kippur. One might think that prayer of this length would deepen my faith. It did not. In nine hours of communal prayer there was not even one minute formally dedicated to my personal, sincere and spontaneous conversation with G-d.
To a similar but lesser degree—our everyday prayer services are no different, leaving no opportunity for us to be personally affected. How could they? They are neither our own words, nor our chosen times or settings. Everything we say is dictated to us.
I obediently submit to this order, nonetheless. In my estimation it possesses much worth. Millions of Jews all over the world are reading and singing similar words. A prayer service is a public ceremony of what we believe—a national proclamation of our values. It is our spiritual language—agreed upon by Jews throughout the world, throughout the generations. This, to me, is very inspiring.
And yet, it does not help me develop a more meaningful relationship with G-d.
After years of research and observation, it is clear that I am not alone in this.
I have taught high level courses on prayer for many years (at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem). I have even written a book on prayer (The G-dfile: 10 Approaches to Personalizing Prayer). Yet I remain firmly convinced that no amount of knowledge or expertise can succeed in transforming the prayer service into a nurturing experience of developing faith. This is simply not its purpose. The Talmudic commentators and halakhic decisors have written that even if a person prays to G-d with no kavannah or intent, he or she has still fulfilled the mitzvah of prayer. Their expectations are clear—organized prayer is a community experience. Maybe even a national experience. Organized prayer is not directed at me, the individual. It is not meant to provide a personal framework for developing my relationship with G-d.
The Talmud refers to prayer as “work of the heart.” Unfortunately, prayer has been transformed through the generations into cognitive behavior, into “work of the mind.” And we, Jewish educators, exacerbate this distortion by thinking we can “teach” people how to relate to G-d through reasoned arguments and explanations. All of which are doomed to fail because no amount of intellectual rigor will enhance “the work of the heart.”
Sadly, most educational institutions address the problem of meaningless prayer by “tweaking” the tefillah setting. But singing great melodies and words of explanation or inspiration will not cure the present malaise.
The emptiness or lack of kavannah during prayer is not the problem, rather is symptomatic of a more intrinsic problem—that the students, and many of their teachers, have never explored and/or developed their own personal relationship with G-d. They have not yet learned how to open their hearts to G-d to be “worked on.”
Failures of “Spiritual” Programming
A second failed approach to developing spiritual life is “spiritual programming”—warm and fuzzy, “touchy-feely” programs, such as a “tisch,” an evening of singing, a night-hike, etc. These kinds of programs, though entertaining and often momentarily meaningful, fail to achieve serious spiritual education. Personal change and development do not happen through “one-off,” non-contextualized experiences, no matter how powerful they may be. Successful spiritual education takes time. It takes time to personalize and internalize new ideas for spiritual growth. It demands and deserves a well thought out curriculum spanning weeks, if not months.
So what can we do? How can we succeed in educating ourselves and our students in the “work of the heart”?
A New Approach
In a program aimed at cultivating “the work of the heart” the following six elements are essential:
- A Small Group Setting: “Work of the heart” is intimate. Developing a relationship with G-d is one of the most personally vulnerable endeavors of life. It simply cannot be achieved in group settings larger than 8-12 students.
- A Safe Peer Environment: An atmosphere of “safe space” is essential for personal and spiritual growth. For people to engage with their hearts they must feel unafraid of cynicism, judgment, disagreements, or attacks by their peers. Unlike a classic educational atmosphere of discussion and debate, the setting must safeguard the sanctity and vulnerability of spiritual growth.
- Jewish Wisdom Texts: A well thought-out curriculum incorporating Jewish wisdom texts is vital. Yet the aim is not an intellectual engagement and mastery of these texts, rather a trigger for the student’s innermost exploration. The goal is to know the sources not only with our minds but also—and especially—with our hearts.
- Reflective and Experiential Exercises: Participants need private time to personalize what they learn. Reflective and experiential exercises (i.e. writing) enable the participants to fully absorb the subjects studied.
- A “Spiritual Chevruta”: Heart-to-heart conversations are essential for developing self-awareness. Students need to be given the time and structure to talk and to listen to each other in private, one-on-one “spiritual chevruta” settings. Every person with his or her own unique path and pace.
- A “Heartful” Jewish Educator: The educator must model the process of seeking and yearning for his or her own spiritual growth. In addition, the educator must consider him or herself not the “expert” providing answers. A “top-down” approach will inevitably close hearts and create expectations and judgment. Educating the heart is qualitatively different than educating the mind. A “heartful” Jewish educator must be an “enabler,” providing a framework for students to listen to the inner voices of their own hearts.
We are very good at educating the mind; we know how to produce quantifiable results. Now the time has come to develop an equally successful approach to educating the heart.
Enabling ourselves and our students to develop a personal relationship with G-d requires a new venue and approach, outside of the standard prayer service and/or experiential activities. Small groups—wrestling personally with their relationship with G-d—with personal integrity and respect, on an ongoing basis, are essential keys to developing a personal relationship with G-d.
During the last three years, in our experience at Ayeka, we have found that it can be done. That’s the good news. ♦
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David taught at the Pardes Institute for 20 years and 3 years ago founded Ayeka: Bringing G-d back to the Conversation, which offers numerous series of modules focusing on adult education for the soul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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