By Jacob J Staub
This fall, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Wyncote, Pa., is launching an initiative to train Jewish Spiritual Directors. Over the course of two years, participants will learn the practices of discernment and contemplative listening. They will study Jewish texts, beliefs and spiritual practices, meet monthly with their own spiritual director and, under supervision, begin to serve as a spiritual director of another individual. It is open to non-rabbis and rabbis alike.
Spiritual direction is a practice that seeks to cultivate a moment-by-moment awareness of the sacred dimensions of life – discerning where the holy, the mysterious and the uplifting is in every situation: both in moments of joy and beauty, and at times of sorrow and tragedy. The operative question is “What is the invitation or the opportunity in this situation?” It is a method, a practice of thinking first and last about the mystery of existence and how we can notice and respond to it.
Who might want to be spiritual director? If you are the kind of person to whom others tend to open their hearts because you are such a warm, attentive listener, this may be for you. Spiritual directors listen nonjudgmentally, shining light on moment in one’s narrative at which the sacred or the mysterious peek through the busyness of our lives. They accompany us on our journeys without telling us what to do or trying to make suggestions or offering solutions to our dilemmas. The directee defines the terms of their journey – getting closer to God, discerning the mysterious, opening to the sacred, looking for a higher purpose. Grounded in the directee’s idiom, the director witnesses and accompanies us on our journey. A spiritual director tries to get out of the way, so that the seeker can discern their own experiences. A director is humble and always curious about what is emerging in the conversation.
Typically, you meet with a spiritual director once each month. In your director’s study, you get to sit in silence for as long as you wish, noticing what you are feeling, secure that your director will embrace you no matter what you say. Your director may ask: How did you feel when you heard the good news? In your anger, what are you yearning for? The director asks eliciting questions to which there are no right answers. In your director’s study, you get to sit in silence for as long as you wish, noticing what you are feeling, secure that your director will embrace you no matter what you say. In the safety of your director’s nonjudgmental embrace, you often find that feelings and thoughts arise, as if out of nowhere – feelings and thoughts you would not ordinarily notice. You get to experience what some call the divine by being supremely attentive to your own experience.
Thus those who join this two-year training will learn how to cultivate silence, how to listen contemplatively, paying attention to the seeker’s words and gestures to discern how the holy is poking through, how to resist our urges to offer advice or propose solutions. They will learn how to listen to their own hearts as they sit with others. And they will learn a Jewish vocabulary for the spiritual journey that is embedded in Jewish texts and practices. I find that the hour that I sit with one of my spiritual direction clients, listening for the still, small voice, is immensely healing for me. The training may also enrich and deepen the wonderful work that therapists and chaplains already do. Counselors and teachers may find it a useful approach for increasing their focus on the spiritual dimensions of their clients’ lives.
In 1998, RRC became the first program in Jewish history to offer spiritual direction to rabbinical students. The co-founders of that initiative, Dr. Barbara Eve Breitman and myself, will be the primary teachers of this new training. Both of us have served as spiritual directors over the past twenty years and have trained spiritual directors at other institutions and programs.
While the term Jewish spiritual direction is new, and this particular format has been adapted in recent decades from Christian contexts, the objective of this discipline has deep Jewish roots in the practice of the sanctification of all aspects of everyday life. Traditionally, Jewish people are supposed to utter 100 blessings each day in appreciation of life – on seeing a rainbow, on eating a particular food, on witnessing a thing of beauty, on washing one’s hands. That practice reinforces at every moment, one’s awareness of the divine presence – similar to the kippah, which reminds you of the One above.
Some of us do not find meaning in traditional worship services. Others are moved by a Sabbath service, for example, but do not know how to carry that feeling into the week. Jewish spiritual direction addresses both kinds of people, and spiritual directors perform an extraordinary service to those with whom they sit. The practices of discernment and contemplative listening make us kinder, more compassionate to ourselves and to others as we come to see them as created in the divine image. Focusing on any bit of Creation helps us to embrace all of it.
Rabbi Jacob J. Staub, Ph.D., co-directs Bekhol Derakhekha Da’ehu (Know God in All Your Ways) a two-year training for Jewish spiritual directors that is an initiative of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. For more information, check out RRC.edu/bdd or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.