Nitzavim: the Observer Effect

I often write about spirituality and religion, especially when I speak with folks of all ages and backgrounds who tell me, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Often, because they see my beard and my kippah, the conversation goes like this:

Them: Rabbi, I have a question. 

Me: Go for it. 

Them: Well, before I ask, just know that I’m a spiritual but not a religious person. 

Me: *smiling, Sure. I get it.  

Them: Wait, do you? 

Me: *smiling again, Is that your question?

Them: No, well, yes, I don’t know. 

Me: *giggling now,  Neither do I. But I understand you might feel a bit uncomfortable here.  Don’t worry, there’s no judgment on my part.  I’m just here to listen.

Them: *rising skepticism. Um, okay. Never mind then. 

Me: No, please go on. I’m here for you, just ask. 

Them: Let’s talk about something else. How’s your summer?

Me: *taking a breath and letting it go. It was lovely. Thank you. 

I wish to say this type of conversation is not atypical or unusual. But more often than not, the interaction between clergy and layperson is hard to pin down. It reminds of the scientific principle called the “Observer Effect” where one can’t check or measure a thing without changing it in the process. Think, for example, of checking the air pressure in your tires. The very act of attaching a measuring valve will mean that some air will escape, thus changing the pressure.  

It seems that checking our spirituality is similar to checking your air pressure. In the conversation above, when you get close enough to it to really look at it, something inside can easily if not inevitably change. I have no judgment over anyone for this. Spirituality is deeply personal; sometimes when we try to externalize it, especially to someone like me, it feels traumatic. The best I can do is create a loving relationship that will be ready to help answer questions and give guidance at the right moments. 

The internal/external dynamic of spirituality and religion is aptly summarized by the Israeli historian and popular author Yuval Noah Harari. In his book Homo Deus: History of the Future, He writes that Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. … If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell. The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behavior….Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good?….”  For Harari, religion is external and spirituality is internal. Religion, if you can tell from his tone, is a [bad] deal, where spirituality is an [enlightening] journey. Religion is forced conformity, but the spirit is liberated exploration. If you agree with Harari, you can see how the person I speak with might feel about their spirituality being observed by another person, especially a religious one. It feels too limiting, even without judgment, to put an external eye on an internal process. 

To me, however, Harari’s framework is totally backwards. 

Judaism is a strange religion because while the focus might seem to the external, behavior centric, “deal” of the covenant between God and Israel, the truth is much deeper than that, and that is never more evident than in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim.  We read of Moses using the tropes, often found in Deuteronomy, of commandments and consequences. But then we find this shocking line, “Secret acts concern YHVH our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)  Moses, after laying out more rules of the covenant, says that what God is concerned with is what is in secret, what is concealed and in our hearts, and our religious actions, the external mitzvot, are our concern. Reversing Harari’s thesis, human religious behavior begins the spiritual relationship with the Divine and is then externalized into action. 

The eternal is what is internal. 

If we understand this, then what Moses says next makes sense, “When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which YHVH your God has banished you, and you return to YHVH your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there YHVH your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you…Then YHVH your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love YHVH your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-6)   The Torah is there as a blueprint for your life, both blessings and curses. If you allow the internal spiritual life to be subjected to the externalities of living in community, then your religious life is more than a deal, it is the journey of a lifetime. One that Moses goes on to say, “Not in heaven…Nor beyond the sea…But in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

There is no other time in the Jewish calendar when we are more cognizant of the observer effect than as the New Year approaches this week. As we gather in homes and in congregations we imagine our lives on display to be evaluated by others and by God. The Jewish observer effect, however, begins with the Torah that is within us and flows out into the world in the fullness thereof. When we allow our internal spirits to be expressed externally we unite spirit and religion, and become the artists that God intended us to be – to take this masterpiece of a life and take a step back so that we can make changes to it and transform this world into something better and more beautiful.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

Leave a Reply