Among the ideas found within medieval Jewish thought, and particularly highlighted by early Hasidic thinkers, is that our approach to serving God is divided between the corporeal world (gashmiyyut) and the spiritual (ruhaniyyut). That is, we engage with the Divine not only through pursuits of the heart and mind, like tefillah (prayer), but also through physical activities: how we eat, how we behave with respect to others, how we move our bodies during prayer, and so forth.
I recall being taught over and over when I was in Hebrew School that Judaism is not a “religion,” but rather a way of life. The distinction is as follows: “religion” is something you do on weekends at your synagogue or church or mosque, but Judaism in its ideal form infuses every aspect of our life; it gives us a framework for living and a sense of holiness that does not evaporate when you leave through the synagogue doors.
Synagogue membership has the potential to suggest “religion” – that is, it’s associated with the gashmiyyut of a place, a building (and a building fund), and once you assign a religious tradition to a particular place it leaves open the question of connection when you are not in that place. But membership in a kehilla kedosha, a holy community, includes not only a place to come for services and to send the kids to Religious School, but also opportunities for growth in our engagement with God, in our relationships with Judaism, with our family and friends, and with ourselves. At the center of all of these relationships is, of course, the Torah.
To connect the ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut here, to draw together the physical and spiritual as we move onward in our Jewish journeys, the Membership Community of Temple Israel, along with the clergy and the Executive Committee, recently hosted a special welcoming ceremony for new members of our kehilla kedosha, the second time we have performed such a ritual. These new members were people who had joined within the past year, and we invited them into our community by singing together, by chanting tehillim / Psalms, by sharing stories of our Jewish journeys with each other, and concluded by gathering on the bimah in the sanctuary and giving to each new member a sefer Torah to hold, literally, as Cantor Frieder chanted a special berakha for setting out on the path of deepening spiritual relationship with our tradition.
The idea is to lessen the association of membership with the details of forms, bills, and lengthy emails, but rather to connect joining a community with personal growth. By actually taking hold of the Torah, we were physically demonstrating the power of the line that we sing every time we put the Torah away: Etz hayyim hee lamahazikim bah – “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it.” We brought together the ruhaniyyut of our ancient, holy texts and the gashmiyyut of feeling the literal weightiness of those words.
The power of this ceremony, a recent innovation at Temple Israel, lies in its ability to bring people together for a holy purpose, to forge new relationships, and to guide these new members of our kehilla kedosha in beginning a new chapter in their Jewish journeys. And isn’t that what the ideal Jewish ritual should do?
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, October 25, 2013.)