Humanistic Judaism Journal, “North American Federation Conference Highlights” Spring 1990
Recently I was visiting in the hospital a woman who had just given birth to a child. She was holding her baby. Since she was a feminist and a female liberationist, she had never thought that having a child would be the greatest moment in her life. But it was. And the words she used to describe her ecstasy were that holding this child was “like a spiritual experience”.
I know people who go up to Northern Michigan in the autumn to see the leaves changing. They walk through the woods and have extraordinary responses. And I find that more and more of them feel comfortable with saying that these experiences are spiritual happenings for them.
I know people who for the past 20 years have been into yoga and meditation. Many of them are secular humanists. One woman said to me that she had an experience where she saw an extraordinary light. She did not think she was bumping into God (she’s not quite sure what he looks like), but she said it was an extremely intense spiritual experience for her.
You cannot deny reality. If people who regard themselves as secular humanists are going around saying that they are having spiritual experiences, then you cannot sit around with some old secular dictionary and say the word spiritual is treyf.
Given the history of secular humanism and Secular Humanistic Judaism, spirituality may seem to be something alien. The word spiritual conjures up certain non-humanist words and ideas; “supernatural”, “God”, a meaning that comes from “out there” for my life, withdrawal from everyday concerns, a sense that everything in the world constitutes some kind of harmonious whole.
But when humanists talk about a spiritual experience, they may be talking about being at the symphony concert and hearing the Beethoven Ninth and being absolutely overwhelmed by the power, the beauty, the grandeur of the event. Or they are walking in the woods, or a child is born, or they have some special moment with a friend, or they are looking at the stars and observing the order of the universe.
What does the secular humanistic version of spirituality have in common with the traditional kind? The experience of beauty. Both the traditionalist and the humanist acknowledge that the spiritual experience is one of intense beauty.
Now beauty poses a problem. It is something that many people regard as trivial. It is also subjective. What one person regards this beautiful another may regard as ugly. How do you get a handle on beauty?
Beauty is subjective but not trivial. The things that we perceive as beautiful in our lives are those things that give meaning to us, those things that are related to our survival and our happiness. What a human being would regard as beautiful would be different from what an insect would regard as beautiful if it had the power to think and feel. Since there are degrees of meaning, there are degrees of beauty. Objects, people, and events that are very meaningful and very beautiful are also very spiritual.
One of the most beautiful things that we experience, which is part of every religion and every culture is light. Why do virtually all cultures light candles? The answer is quite clear. Without light, there is no life. When human beings first discovered fire, that discovery was the beginning of human civilization. Thus light and fire are understandably sacred and beautiful.
Water is beautiful. Why does everyone want to live by the water? What is there about water that makes it so attractive and compelling? Well, where does life start? We start in water and some of us never want to leave!
Vistas are beautiful. Why do people want to climb hilltops and enjoy the view? Remember, we started out as primates. For primates, the primary sense is vision. If they did not have good vision and they were jumping from one tree to the other and they missed, they were through. When they came down from the trees onto the Savannah grass and we’re looking apprehensively for danger, they needed vista and perspective.
Symmetry is beautiful. Most people like symmetry; we ourselves are symmetrical. There are art forms that are asymmetrical, but we can get very disoriented when things are too asymmetrical.
Order is beautiful. Why are people always turned on by the stars? I have a feeling that if you are out there next to Jupiter, it is not so orderly. But from a distance, from our perspective, it is different. Obviously, human beings cannot survive in chaos. There is something about order, predictability, that is related to our own sense of survival.
Power is beautiful. Why are we into mountains? One of the ways to develop perspective on life is to feel insignificant. You get caught up in everyday problems and then you have what we call “experiences of something greater than yourself”, and all of a sudden the concerns that seemed so big become trivial. In fact, the sense of not feeling so important or feeling small against the universe, is an absolutely relaxing experience that enables you to prepare for the next chapter in your life.
Grace is beautiful. Grace is doing the most difficult task with almost no apparent effort. ( there may be great effort involved, but it appears effortless. ) The most popular art form in our society is sports. For some people, watching participants in the Olympic games is like watching dancers. To them, athletic mastery is an affirmation that it is possible to establish perfect control over one’s body. It is the embodiment of an ideal.
Solidarity is beautiful. Someone told me that the greatest spiritual experience in her life was back in the early 1960s, when she came to Washington and stood on the Mall and heard Martin Luther King Jr speak. She felt united with all those people, and for her that sense of unity was an ultimate experience.
Even evil can be beautiful, when it imitates elements of good. One of the things that was very troublesome to many people was that Hitler understood how to integrate beauty with evil. He created torch light parades – masses of people carrying torches in the night. He knew how to exploit the power of beauty. Someone who was at Yellowstone Park during the terrible fire last year told me that the raging fire paragraph ( which certainly wasn’t productive of human good ) was in itself something beautiful
What are the implications of what I am saying? The first is that beauty or spirituality is an act of creation. It does not exist in the object out there. It is an interplay between the object and the human being. On Sukkot I heard a performance of Yiddish music. I was in Israel, and this performance really grabbed me, to the point where I had a spiritual experience. An Irishman listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. Chinese people listening to that music would not have had a spiritual experience. It is not related to the affirmation of their roots.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I performed a wedding recently in which the man was in his early eighties and the bride was seventy-nine. He was standing there holding the bride’s hand and saying, “she’s beautiful, beautiful”. The guests were puzzled because she appeared old and decrepit. But in the eyes of this man she was extremely beautiful. She was, for him, a spiritual experience.
Not everything is beautiful. I find it annoying when people say, “All is Love”. In the middle of an earthquake, they say, “All is love”. As people are dying of cancer, they say, “All is Love”. They keep affirming that behind all this turmoil and evil there is some good force that unites all things.
One of the most refreshing things for me, when finally I was confirmed as a secular humanist was that I could be honest, that I could call evil “evil”, rotten “rotten”, good “good”, and beautiful “beautiful”. In fact, beauty would have no meaning if everything were beautiful. The difference between a humanistic spirituality and a theistic spirituality is our assertion that ugliness is as basic as beauty. The universe does not always serve the human agenda.
For me spirituality is an experience of intense beauty, and beauty is no trivial value. It is not simply art it is not simply nice faces in the living room. Beauty can be part of the most profound experiences of life.
I do not want to argue about a label. Some old-time secularists are uncomfortable with the word spiritual. So let them simply say “beautiful” or “meaningful” or “inspiring” or whatever word they choose. But for people who are not uncomfortable with the word ( because they were less engaged in the old battle against organized religion ), experiences of intense beauty can be appropriately “spiritual”.
The challenge to us is how to increase these experiences in our lives, especially the kinds of experiences we can share as a community: the music we use, The poetry we choose, the experiences that go beyond the intellectual. Beauty is not an explanation of what is valuable in the universe. It is the experience of what is valuable in the universe. How do we arrange this experience?
Aesthetics is not a trivial concern for us Secular Humanistic Jews if all we can do is to articulate our ideology, we will lose. If we can create for ourselves and others experiences of intense beauty, then we will be able to reach out to the people who need us.