, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As we begin to grapple with the ramifications of reopening of faith based/religious institutions, it is incumbent upon each of us to evaluate the pluses and minuses of the experiences of being alone or connecting through virtual means.  Basing myself on an article I recently read, The Trouble with ‘Solitude’ I would like to offer some thoughts both from the piece and from a self evaluation of being disconnected from others as it relates to communal practice.

In recent weeks, unable to be with my synagogue community, I have been thinking about James’ view of religion as inherently solitary. And I have decided that it’s total bunk. Religion, even highly personalized, idiosyncratic musings to oneself about the nature of the universe, is a highly social affair. It’s almost impossible to do alone.

I find myself in agreement with this comment if one presumes that the foil here is the word religion. Yet, in much of recent research literature, William James’ definition of religion, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude … in relation to whatever they may consider the divine,” is more connected to how we define spirituality today. As a way to frame this, I will site one image that defines the similarities and differences between religion and spirituality.


Regardless, the author’s sentiment remains critical, as solitude is often not as conducive to spiritual growth and finding a deeper sense of meaning about the universe. We need others to push us, move us, prod us. We need others to laugh with, celebrate with and cry with. And yes, we can Zoom, but we hear again and again about how zoom isn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, the efforts to keep communities connected through videoconferencing have been well received and for many have revived shrinking religious communities. Yet, as the author indicates:

In the past weeks, we have seen how bereft people are at having to bury loved ones with no funeral. Friends have postponed weddings, because that kind of covenant, commitment, or oath seems to require an audience. In Judaism, newborn boys are going without the traditional circumcision ceremony, which is not just a snip but a public snip, to which the entire community is supposed to be welcome (you don’t invite people to a bris; rather, you announce it, so anyone might come).

So much of how we connect is in physical presence. So much of how we find spirituality is from the connections with others in performing religious practice. Sure, we all desire times of solitude, but we want the solitude when we need it, not when it is forced. I would presume that the enforced nature of not being physically connected is part of the challenge.

Early on, I had posted on Facebook a question, what were my friends calling their at home prayer spaces. How did they define their synagogue away from synagogue? I must confess I never personally answered the question because I couldn’t find the right name that fit my mood. Even now, I am not sure there is one way to define the space. Yet, I think this practice was valuable as both a way to laugh a little at the forced change and also to find a way to acknowledge the reality placed before us.

Not to downplay the value of solitude, the author also describes:

Of course, “the more the merrier” is not always the best principle. Some spiritual work is best done away from the crowds. The great religions have recognized that certain people, on certain journeys, require solitude. Roman Catholics have an old tradition of hermits and the cloistered religious. In Judaism, the Hasidic master Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) taught his disciples hitbodedut, meditation as a private conversation with God, done in a quiet room or, best of all, in the woods or a field. Buddhist meditation, in its many forms, requires silence, a retreat from the cacophony of other people.

There is much to be said for the solitude. There is much to be said if one takes advantage of the quiet and is intentional. Yet, I think for most of us, neither extreme of only the communal or only the individual, is ideal. As the author concludes:

James was right to dethrone the church or the congregation as the sole approved guide to everyone’s spiritual journey. But he was wrong to say that solitude was the one true alternative. As for me, I want neither megachurch nor to be alone with my thoughts. All this enforced time with just my wife and children has reminded me that, sometimes, the family is the best unit of religious observance and reflection. To the Friday night Shabbat dinner, we have, under quarantine, added the Saturday night candle-lighting for Havdalah, or separation, the return to ordinary time after the Sabbath. The search for the divine in one’s own family, I am finding, beats the madness of crowds—and the maddening triviality of my own mind.

The idea of a smaller collective approach to spirituality, assuming the family is the collective, is appealing. Of course, if one is living alone, then there can only be solitude, which is beset with a myriad of other challenges. For me, I think I have not done well with seeing the family time in such a spiritual way, as I personally prefer being “alone” in my thoughts and in my spirituality. Yet, I continually wonder if many have found the family religious and spiritual oasis we have as a place of growth. And when we begin gathering as small groups, will the small groups be more meaningful and powerful than the large religious spaces we occupied before the pandemic.

In writing these words, I am most struck by how much this debate reminds me of the debates I have read about the founding of the Havurah movement in the late 1960s, early 1970s and the arguments presented in the 2010 book Empowered Judaism (and countless other sources). While not someone who offers predictions, I do wonder if there will be a period during the reopening of religious institutions where the ideas of creating smaller groups will be encouraged and if those groups will find ways to maintain connections even in a time when institutional life can return to “normal.”