Modes of Spiritual Practice

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2004

Their are three primary forms of spiritual practice, and every religion utilizes all three in various combinations during worship. Within each religion are denominations that emphasize one or two forms of practice over the other. In fact, I believe, that the particular recipe of spiritual practice is the what defines a denomination. The three forms are:

1) Liturgical: a fixed body of chants, prayers, readings, and songs interspersed with specific rituals (standing, sitting, bowing, etc.). The liturgical approach is fixed in order to create consistency and a sense of safety for the each member of the congregation.

2) Ecstatic: an ecstatic experience of G-d is accomplished thorough a combination of movement, breath, and voice. It may contain a prolonged chant, or a chant in combination with a movement. It is unpredictable in length, and the actions of the participants are unpredictable. Some leap, somersault, circle, spin, or wave hands. But the result is the same: a sense of union with the Divine.

3) Contemplative: through one of many meditative practices (quiet chant, repetition of a syllable or word, silence, privately talking to G-d, walking, etc.) each religion uses some form of meditation in it’s approach to G-d or Reality. Sometimes the meditation uses some liturgy (I.e. chant); other times it silent and aims at emptying. In fact, the contemplative tradition itself has several categories: the emptying forms (i.e. Zen); the visualization forms (i.e. Lurianic Kabbalah and Tibetan Buddhism) and mindfulness (Tich Naht Han’s teachings, Japanese tea ceremony, putting on t’fillin, etc.)

Denominations can also be distinguished by their level of formality. Within Judaism, for example, some synagogues are casual, somewhat unpredictable, spontaneous, and informal (I.e. in hasidic and Renewal communities) even though they are following a fixed liturgy. Other groups are more formal and fixed (I.e., services begin and end at fixed times). But all our synagogues use some combo of the liturgical, contemplative, and ecstatic.

During Shabbat or any Jewish holiday, you will probably find yourself attracted to different forms of worship at different times. For example during Yom Kippor afternoon you might need more silent, contemplative time whereas the evening of Yom Kippor it is the predictability of the chanting and fixed melody of Kol Nidre that is just what your soul needs. Honor your instincts to shift and express yourself in words, chant, movement, and silence. If you are sitting in a group, for example, and you need to be alone in silence simply cover yourself in your tallis (prayer shawl) as a personal tent and mishkan (sanctuary). Or, if during the ecstatic chants or songs you are drawn to stand up and move, please do so on your own. As you are inspired by others around you, so you will inspire others as well. Measure for measure – as the congregation is an expression of many individuals, each in his/her own mode of worshop (liturgical, ecstatic, contemplative) all at the same time, so the multiplicity of the Divine’s thirteen attributes will pour down on each of us in a single and unified stream. The result of this kind of worship will be a heightened sense of the deep interconnection between self, community, nature, and G-d. May we all be blessed this year with great davvenen (prayer), deep listening, and profound personal transformation. And from these sacred personal states may each of us affect the world around us for life, health, peace, and good. Amayn!

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