Monday, February 8, 2010

Physical and spiritual

Well, it took me a bit longer than I'd thought to emerge from my post-less spell. But here I am.

This is a thought from the High Holiday season that I've been meaning to share.

The contrast between "physical" and "spiritual" is probably one of the most often-heard from pulpits and elsewhere in the observant Jewish world. The underlying message is that attention to our "physical" selves is somewhere between a necessary evil and something to be avoided or minimized. On the other hand, attention to our "spiritual" selves - that is, observing the mitzvot (commandments) - is our true purpose in life as religious Jews.

Even allowing for the fact that sermons are often simplistic, the evident dichotomy between "physical" and "spiritual" is inaccurate in several ways.

To begin with, the terms themselves are not well-defined. What does "physical" mean? When used in a negative sense, it seems to refer almost exclusively to sexual desire. But that is too narrow a definition. We are, by definition, physical beings. That includes needs of many types - food, shelter, protection from the elements, sleep, healing when our bodies are not functioning properly, and, yes, sexuality. Attending to our physical needs occupies a good deal of our time, and not just when we are eating or sleeping. That is because we spend a lot of time working, in order to earn the money that allows us to meet these needs. So the "physical" side of life means all of those activities we do in order to maintain ourselves (and our families) in a healthy, comfortable state.

"Spiritual", too, I think is often understood too narrowly. Most basically, it refers to our performance of mitzvot. That is, or should be, the core of our spiritual lives. But the term should be thought of as including all aspects of life that go beyond our efforts just to function from day to day. This includes the wish to love and be loved, the wish to gain knowledge (in the broadest sense), the wish to help others - everything that makes us human beings, rather than just another species working to survive. (This last thought comes from Rabbi Moshe Berger of Cleveland).

When we talk, then, about the balance between our "physical" and "spiritual" sides, we should understand the terms properly. Even those who don't see themselves as such exemplary religious people (which is most of us) should realize that it is the spiritual aspects of life that make our lives meaningful in any real way.