What is Spiritual Direction?

The Place on Which You Stand is Holy Ground: A Jewish Understanding of Spiritual Direction

by Rabbi Zari Weiss

(reprinted with permission: Tending the Holy© 2003 Church Publishing, New York, NY 10016 https://www.churchpublishing.org/products/tendingtheholy )

One of my directees, Anna[1], had just come into my office, and after a few brief moments of silence, she confessed how frazzled she was.  She said that she longed to experience moments of calm and peacefulness in the midst of her hectic life.  I asked her if she had ever experienced such moments, and when she said she had, I asked her to describe one.  Anna had at one time been much attuned to her spiritual life and practice, but sadly, over the years, had grown distant from those things that had once given her strength and comfort.  It was her longing that had brought her to my office.  Recalling the feeling she had once had and still longed for, Anna told me that recently she had been swimming and had allowed herself just to float, letting the water hold the weight of her body.  It was a feeling of being held, a sense that in that moment, everything was okay.  Because of her estrangement from organized religion, Anna had grown allergic to God language; in our sessions, we would often refer in a lighthearted way to God as “The Great Whatever”!  Yet I knew that this image of floating and being held was a powerful and rich metaphor for this young woman—reminding her of a meaningful relationship with God that had once sustained and nourished her.  Gently, I asked if–in the midst of the hectic pace of her life now–she ever felt held by God.  My words seemed to touch something tender inside her; she shook her head sadly.  I felt her great longing, as well as her uncertainty about how to reach out to a God from whom she had turned away.  And then, I wondered aloud if there might be anything that she could build into her daily spiritual practice that might allow her to feel held in this way.  She thought quietly for a moment, and then said that perhaps she could wrap herself in her tallit, her prayer shawl, and just sit quietly.  Wearing a tallit was new to her, but it was somehow comforting.  I suggested that wrapping oneself in the tallit can indeed be like being enveloped in God’s loving embrace, and offered her the beautiful passage from the book of Psalms that often accompanies the blessing for putting on the tallit

“How precious is your love, O God,

when earthborn find the shelter of your wing! 

They’re nourished from the riches of your house. 

Give drink to them from your Edenic stream. 

For with you is the fountain of all life,

in your Light do we behold all light. 

Extend your love to those who know you,

and your justice to those honest in their hearts.” (Psalm 36:8-11).[2]   

Anna’s whole body seemed to relax with the image; a feeling of calm enveloped her, and indeed, filled the room. God’s Indwelling Presence, the Shechina, had entered our midst.

I have had other, similar sessions in my capacity as a spiritual director, or companion.   Often, many of the same images and themes arise in my work with Jewish directees—such as the need to heal a relationship with God (and with Judaism!) that has been damaged through the legacy of a patriarchal tradition, the struggle to find one’s way to a loving and comforting God, and the desire to reconnect with Jewish ritual and tradition in a way that is spiritually enriching.

For the past eight years, I have been privileged to be a guide and a companion to others as they grow in their awareness of God’s presence in their lives, and as they learn how to tend that sacred relationship through prayer, other spiritual practices, and holy conversation. 

I have worked with those who are Jews as well as those who are not, but I have most often accompanied Jews on this journey.  For most Jews, the work of spiritual direction is new and unexplored territory.   As I have watched and participated in this growing phenomenon in the Jewish world, I have come to understand some of its unique challenges as well as its many gifts.  In the following pages, I hope to share some of the insights I have gleaned along the way.  These are by no means exhaustive; those of us who are exploring this territory are learning together as we go along.  In that sense, I am grateful to my teachers and colleagues in this area from whom I have learned so much. But I am most grateful–as the Talmud teaches[3]–for my students (and in this case, my directees) from whom I have learned most of all.

Tending the Holy

For many modern Jews, tending the relationship with God, or the Holy, is a new concept.   To many, the God of the Bible is a distant Deity, and the God of the medieval philosophers or mystics is elusive or inaccessible.  And though some Jews direct their prayers to God every day in the daily liturgy or every week in the prayers of the Sabbath liturgy, or may speak about doing God’s work in the world through tikkun olam (repair of the world) or gemilut chassadim (deeds of lovingkindness), in actuality, many do not have a personal relationship with God.    Many Jews find it difficult to connect their own experiences of the Holy with those of their ancestors, or they fail to recognize their own experiences reflected in the words and images of their ancient tradition.   As a result, they all too often question the legitimacy of their own experiences and discount them as inauthentic. Not surprisingly, then, few know how to tend that relationship so that it can be a source of nourishment, comfort, guidance, and understanding. 

To find a meaningful path to God, some Jews have in recent years found their way to spiritual direction—a new phenomenon in the Jewish world, a phenomenon that is quickly making inroads across the Jewish denominational spectrum.[4]          

When I first begin to work with someone in spiritual direction, I often begin by exploring some of directee’s conceptions of God.  Sometimes these conceptions need to be gently challenged and expanded.  Only then can a new, deeper, and more meaningful understanding of God/The Holy take root and begin to grow. 

One directee, Sondra, for example, had much resistance to overcome before we could even begin a conversation about cultivating a meaningful relationship with God.

A woman in her late 60’s, Sondra had grown up in a conventional Jewish family in which education was valued for men but not for women.  Not surprisingly, Sondra’s attitudes about religion were largely derived from her social and cultural experience. To Sondra, notions of God were limited to those suggested by the Bible:   God was male, powerful, wrathful, and often punishing.  This was a God to whom Sondra found it difficult to relate. She found it equally hard to be in a satisfying and meaningful relationship with such a God.

I suggested to Sondra that the God of the Bible represents only one stage in Jews’ theological evolution:  our attempts over the centuries to name that which is ultimately Unnamable.  In the last few decades, there have been a number of people—inspired by feminist and post-modern theologians—who have moved beyond the God as conceptualized in the Bible, transforming liturgy and ritual and religious experience as a result.  I pointed her to the groundbreaking work of poet and liturgist Marcia Falk,[5] for example, whose theological wrestling led her to create new blessings in which God is imaged not as a Lord, but as an Eyn HaChayyim—a Wellspring of Life—from which all life flows.  As Sondra began to consider the possibility of new conceptions of God–conceptions which are in fact rooted in her own tradition–an opening occurred that began to lead to a profound healing in Sondra’s relationship with Judaism, and equally important, to an authentic and meaningful personal relationship with God.

To help Sondra and other Jewish directees begin to tend their relationship with God, I often explain that this relationship—like all other relationships—doesn’t happen on its own.  While some people may experience moments of epiphany or transcendence, having a relationship that one can turn to and rely upon in time of need requires effort and patience.  It takes time to develop trust—trust that God will be there when we need God, trust that we will be receptive to God’s whisperings when God calls or whispers to us.

To develop this trust, one has to spend time getting to know God, and allowing God to know us.  For many Jews, this way of relating to God—in such a personal and intimate way—is foreign, and perhaps even a bit scary (since it doesn’t “feel Jewish”).  While God is absolutely central to Jewish experience, the relationship with God has historically been mediated through community.   Jews’ relationship with God is manifest in one way, for example, through the performance of mitzvot.  The mitzvot are the laws understood to have been given by God to the Jewish People.  They are recorded in the Torah and then further expanded through rabbinic interpretation.  They are incumbent upon individuals as members of a community:  the community of the Jewish People.  The blessing for the performance of a mitzvah praises God–“asher vetzivanu”–“who has commanded us to . . .” (i.e. eat matzah, light the Shabbat candles, etc.)–not “who has commanded me.” 

The Jew’s relationship with God is also manifest through prayer.  Whether in the setting of the home or the synagogue, Jews’ blessings and prayers to God are most often phrased in the collective.  Writes Reuven Hammer, in his superb book, Entering Jewish Prayer:  

“Community prayer is also a way of strengthening the ties of the individual with the Jewish community.  It is not accidental that the most important of our formal prayers are all given in the first person plural.  We pray to “our God.” We ask that God’s blessing be “upon us.”  Even when thanking God, “we give thanks” and bless Him for “keeping us alive and allowing us to reach this time.”  It is to the events in the history of the Jewish people that we turn in prayer, and it is for the future of this people that we pray.  To pray as a Jew, as Heschel put it, is not to turn to Him “as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.”[6]

Even in the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish worship where the Jew has the opportunity to enter into a more intimate interior dialogue with God, the blessings are most commonly framed in the context of the communal experience.  In the weekday service, for example, where the middle 13 blessings include petitions for success and wellbeing, the prayers are phrased in the plural. [7]  Again, writes Hammer:

“The Amida is a collective prayer, referring in essence to the people of Israel.  When the individual recites it, he or she does so as a representative of the group.  It is also a fixed prayer, with a text or at least a pattern that cannot be changed.  In response to a felt need, the ancient custom was for a person to follow the recitation of the Amida, the prescribed prayer, with a personal prayer in which he was free to express his own feelings.  While the Amida is entirely in the plural, any personal prayer was in the singular. . . .”[8]

While historically there was an opportunity for individuals to add their own personal and spontaneous prayers, this custom has, in many traditional prayer settings, been lost.  The Reform Movement re-introduced it with the addition of “The Silent Meditation” at the end of the Amidah.  Thus, while there certainly are a few places within the worship service for an individual’s personal prayers and petitions to God,[9] most of our prayers to God are of a communal nature. 

In addition to the performance of mitzvot or prayer life, the individual’s relationship with God has been, for the most part, a private affair.  There have been groups or movements within Jewish history (such as the Wisdom Movement, the Hassidic Movement, or the MusarMovement; see below) in which the individual’s relationship with God became a more central focus.  These days, we are seeing resurgence in the desire to cultivate and tend the relationship with God among people outside of those circles.  This resurgence has pointed individual Jews toward the world of spiritual direction.   Not only are individual Jews seeking out others with whom to explore and deepen their relationship with God, so too are groups of Jews coming together in Jewish spiritual companioning groups to share their spiritual journeys and explore God’s presence in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of their lives.  A number of such groups are happening in various forms inside and outside of congregations around the country.

Carving New Territory

Being a Jewish spiritual director, or a spiritual director for Jews, is groundbreaking work. For those of us called to this work, it is both a privilege and at times a challenge, as we carve out new territory and consider the questions and issues that arise in any groundbreaking enterprise.

For Jews, the past is as important as the present and the future.  We look to the past for precedence and for guidance.  It is integral to a Jewish way of seeing the world to know if the practice is grounded in Jewish texts, history, experience, and values.  We are a text-based People.  We look to the core texts of our tradition—the Torah, the Talmud, the Codes, Jewish literature—to find precedents for practices that arise in response to developments in our current situation.  We are also a People whose identity is based in history.  We look to previous eras and movements within Jewish history to find models for new trends that are emerging.  We are a People with religious and spiritual practices that have for centuries guided our day-to-day lives and experiences.  We draw on these practices even as we shape new ones in the present and the future.  Finally, we are a People whose identity is shaped by core beliefs, values, and ideas.  As new practices emerge, we must make sure that they are congruent with these time-honored core beliefs, ideas, and values. 

As Jewish Spiritual Direction emerges in the 21st Century, then, we are compelled to ask:   Are there precedents within Jewish history, as reflected in the texts of our tradition, for this type of relationship? Are there religious and spiritual practices that inform and influence how we do Jewish spiritual direction?  With which beliefs, values, and ideas might it be helpful for a spiritual director to be familiar to better meet the needs of Jewish directees?

Precedents for the Spiritual Companion/Guide Relationship

Jewish history, as reflected in our sacred texts, does provide some examples of people who have served as spiritual companions or guides to others—though they may not always have been recognized as such.  They differ, however, from the model of Jewish spiritual direction that is now emerging.

An early example of spiritual companionship is found in the beautiful book of Ruth, in which two women, bereft of their husbands and separated from their communities and familiar surroundings, form a deep and lasting spiritual bond.  According to the story, after her husband and then two sons die, Naomi entreats her daughter-in-law Ruth to return to her mother’s home, where she might be taken in and given a second chance at marriage and children.  In a moving pledge of loyalty, Ruth tells Naomi that she will not leave her side, even until death: 

“Entreat me not to leave you,

or to return from following after you: 

for wherever you go, I will go;

and where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God;

where you die, I will die,

and there will I be buried;

the Lord do so to me, and more also,

if anything but death part you and me.”  

                                                (Ruth 1:16-17)

Naomi responds in silence, and the two return to the elder woman’s homeland.

In return for Ruth’s steadfast loyalty, Naomi acts as a loving and caring companion to her daughter-in-law, as their fates become intertwined.   Naomi practices a kind of “holy listening,” as Ruth tells her what happens when she goes to the field to glean after the reapers, along with the other widows and orphans.  Clearly Naomi is aware that Something Else is at play, and gently guides Ruth as events unfold.   Though not explicitly described in the text as a spiritual guide and companion, we can well imagine that Naomi offered her young daughter-in-law spiritual guidance and companionship along her journey.

Concurrent with this story (which takes place during the period of the judges—approximately 1030 B.C.E.) and continuing for many generations, another type of relationship develops which reflects a different model of spiritual companionship or guidance.  The ancient priests provided the community with instruction in the practices of religion (Torah), and the prophets communicated to the people the Divine word or visions which they had received.  But it was the wise elders, known as the zechenim or hachamim, who imparted counsel or guidance to their students in the secular affairs of life.  The wise elders did not derive their authority from the Torah, and thus, by extension, from God.  But they taught what they believed to be true and right—those deeper spiritual truths and insights which they knew were in harmony with Torah and prophecy.   The books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, parts of the book of Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and Ecclesiasticus are all examples of what is known as Wisdom (Chochmah) literature.  According to some scholars, the books which comprise this literature were not simply anthologies of wise sayings commonly heard in ancient Israel, but rather were source books of instructional material for use in schools or in private study, for the cultivation of personal morality and practical wisdom.  In these Wisdom Schools, which existed in Israel and other countries, students would work with teachers, whom we might call today spiritual guides, to cultivate wisdom and other desirable qualities within themselves.

Many years later, the Musar movement, founded in the 1840’s by a Lithuanian rabbi named Israel Salanter, may have been an extension of the early Wisdom schools.  In orthodox yeshivot or schools in Lithuania, Musar teachers guided their students in the regular study of moral treatises, daily meditation and self-examination, in order to help them overcome preoccupation with worldly matters and move toward greater spiritual perfection.[10]  The teacher was specifically interested in helping the students to refine their middot, or character traits.  A more refined character was the vehicle for a deeper relationship with God.  The Musar movement continues to exist today, and though it has gained some popularity in non-orthodox circles, it is found primarily in the Orthodox world.  Few Jews outside of the Musar yeshivot, however, work directly with a Musarteacher as a means to deepening their relationship with God.

Like the Musar Movement, the Hassidic Movement, which was founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the mid 1700’s, attracted many followers, many of whom sought spiritual guidance of another kind from their rebbe.  The disciples of Hassidism, known as hassidim [11] would go to their particular rebbe[12] in a session known as the yehidut, or interview.  During the yehidut, the rebbe would listen to the problems of the disciple and advise him to engage in actions which were designed not only to relieve his suffering, but also to align him with God’s will.[13]  In this way, the rebbe functioned as a moreh derekh, or spiritual guide in serving God.  Writes Rabbi Zalman Meshullam Schachter-Shalomi in his book Spiritual Intimacy:

“Of all the functions ascribed to rebbes . . .  the moreh derekh was the favorite . . . .  The Besht [the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism] and his successors saw the spiritual direction of their hassidim as the central function of their work.  R[abbi] Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev described the rebbe’s work as representing a living tractate on Love and Awe before God. . . . . no book could give direction in this area; a living master was necessary. . . .”[14] 

He continues:

“Hasidim came to the rebbe to learn how to generate religious feelings to God.  All social and economic preoccupations were only secondary to the service of God.  The spiritual life was the Jew’s main occupation in this world.  In order to justify his existence in the service of God, a Jew needs to know which acts are pleasing to God and which acts are not.  He could not discover the answer in books.  Not all commandments deal with outer behavioral actions.  Commandments requiring inner attunement and shifts of attitude and context . . . have no Talmudic treatises discussing them in detail.  The rebbe himself . . . was to be the tractate of Love and Awe.”[15] 

The rebbe, then, functioned as a kind of spiritual director, or guide, for those who came to see him.

Though we do not have extensive descriptions of the specific form these relationships took, it is assumed that the teacher of Wisdom, the Musarteacher, and the rebbe were all fairly directive with those to whom they offered guidance.   They are examples of some of the relationships of spiritual guidance that have existed in Jewish tradition. However, as we shall see, they differ from the role of the Jewish spiritual director as it is currently emerging.

At the present time, only a handful of Jews have been formally trained as spiritual directors.  Because a number have been trained in the Christian contemplative model,[16]  the kind of direction offered often reflects this training.  At the same time, however, Jewish spiritual directors are exploring what it means to craft a uniquely Jewish form of spiritual direction.  We are also experimenting with different language to describe this practice:  some refer to directors as moreh derekh, teachers of the way; some as mashpiy’ot ruchani, influencers of the spiritual; still others as Way Pointers.

The “Jewishness” of Jewish Spiritual Direction

In contrast with the examples described above, most Jewish spiritual directors are not directive in the sense that they do not tell their directees what to do or presume to know what is best for them in terms of their relationship with God or their spiritual practice.  The director may at times be directive in that she may offer specific suggestions for spiritual practice or ritual observance, but she would most likely do so in an atmosphere of holy listening: listening deeply to the directee’s deepest yearnings in order to help the directee discern how to be more responsive to God in his life.[17]  The Jewish spiritual director might gently suggest ways that the directee could draw upon Jewish tradition to enrich and deepen his spiritual life and practice. There is thus an atmosphere of spaciousness in this relationship.  The director travels patiently with the directee, offering guidance along the way, accompanying him as his religious and spiritual life unfolds.

The Jewish spiritual director (or the spiritual director offering direction to Jews) often hopes, however, to help the directee connect in a more meaningful way with Jewish tradition as she explores her relationship with God and deepens her spiritual life and practice.   Of course, among Jewish spiritual directors there is tremendous variety, and as the field evolves, we will see the various forms that this guidance, or companioning, will take.

At this point in time, the particularly Jewish form of spiritual direction that is being practiced by many Jewish spiritual directors is one which often incorporates Jewish practices and themes into the sessions.  Following are some examples. 

Central to Jewish life and religious practice is prayer—both formal (liturgical) as well as informal (spontaneous).  To begin or end a session, then, a Jewish director may offer a verse from the psalms or the daily or Shabbat liturgy–perhaps first in Hebrew and then in English, since Hebrew is a language that often resonates deeply for Jews—whether or not they speak or understand the language.  Or, the director may begin or end the session with a niggun, a wordless melody—which for many Jews often stirs the soul, for inexplicable reasons.  Likewise the director may offer a familiar song, perhaps one known from childhood or religious services—connecting the directee to Jewish community and experience.  At times, the director may invite the directee to offer his own prayer during the session—though for many Jews, this can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable.  Sometimes it may take gentle prodding and a reminder of the teaching of the Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman, for example, who taught of the importance of spontaneous and heartfelt prayer.[18] With one directee, I had to ask several times before she was able to shift from saying, “If I were to pray I’d say . . .” to speaking directly to God:  “Dear God, please help me . . .”  Teaching Jews to face God directly when praying can be one of the most healing and transformative parts of the work of Jewish spiritual direction.

Just as prayer is central to Jewish life and religious practice, so too is study.  Study of Torah—and the many other texts which are inspired by the Torah—is one of the focal points of Jewish life.  As one well-known teaching from the Talmud says, “Upon three things does the world rest:  on Torah, on service, and upon deeds of lovingkindness.”[19]  Another teaches, “When two people sit and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.”[20]  Because of the centrality of Torah study, Jewish spiritual directors are increasingly incorporating text study into their sessions.  The study may be formal:  for example, looking closely at a passage from the Torah or elsewhere in the Bible, and using the study as the context (or pretext) for “holy conversation.”  Or it may be informal:  referring to a certain passage, for example, and exploring the meaning of this passage for the directee (One passage I have referred to a number of times in response to what a directee has shared with me comes from Deuteronomy 30:19:  “I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse:  therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.”  The passage inspires the question:   “What does it mean for the directee to “choose life”?).  Sometimes the text study extends beyond the session, as when the directee is moved to continue reflecting or journaling on the passage.  In such cases, the text can become an important marker for the directee’s unfolding journey.

In addition to study, the performance of mitzvot (often translated as “commandments,” I prefer “sacred obligations”) is also important in the life of the Jew.  The Jewish spiritual director may suggest that the directee consider taking on the observance of some of the mitzvot.  In a recent session, for example, one of my directees told me that she had just been diagnosed with a medical condition that required her to take better care of herself physically.  Seeing that this did not come easily to her, I taught her about the mitzvah derived from Deuteronomy 4:15:  “Take therefore good heed to yourselves. . .” (“V’nishmartem meod l’nafshoteychem.”)  Based on this verse, I explained, the great medieval commentator Maimonides taught that it is a sacred obligation to protect one’s general health as well as the health of one’s society.  Knowing that this woman is someone who desires to expand and deepen her Jewish practice, I wondered aloud if she might consider incorporating this mitzvah into her Jewish life, as part of her sacred obligation to God.  She enthusiastically agreed, and committed to exploring the performance of the mitzvah as part of her daily practice.

For some Jews—particularly those who don’t see themselves as “religious”–their spirituality may be expressed not through the performance of mitzvot, but rather through efforts to bring about a better world.  The director can help these Jews see such actions as reflections of core Jewish values—such as concern for the stranger (ger), working toward peace (bakesh shalom v’rodfehu), fighting for justice for all human beings (kevod ha’briot), and compassion (rachamim and chesed) for the vulnerable in society.  Through gentle exploration of the directee’s motivations to work toward a better world, the director might also invite the directee to consider his efforts as avodah—service—a way to serve God, humanity, the universe.  Such exploration is yet one more way that the director can help ground the directee’s experience in a Jewish framework, enriching his connection to his Jewish heritage along the way.

Like spiritual direction in other faith traditions, Jewish spiritual direction may draw on themes or metaphors which are found throughout our sacred texts, using them as prisms through which directees may better understand their life situations.  Wandering through the desert, receiving manna from heaven, being liberated from narrow places (mitzrayim), entering the promised land—to name just a few–are rich and evocative themes which can provide a valuable means to deeper understanding and appreciation of the spiritual journey.  All of these are possible points of connection between the directee and Jewish tradition.  The director can help facilitate these connections and thus make the direction experience a richer and more meaningful one.  The director may draw a parallel to the story of a certain character in Jewish history—conveying the sense that the directee’s story too takes its place in the unfolding chain of Jewish tradition—another important value for Jews.  

Being a Jewish Spiritual Director (or a Director for Jews)

Spiritual direction is a new and growing phenomenon in the Jewish world.  More and more Jews are being trained as spiritual directors, and more and more Jews are seeking out direction—from directors who may or may not be Jewish.  For those directors who are Jewish as well as those who are from other faith traditions, there are a number of things which may be helpful to know when called upon to serve the needs of this growing population.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is a familiarity with Jewish texts, tradition, and history.  As outlined above, the director can help provide a richer experience for the Jewish directee by drawing from the vast treasury of Jewish tradition:  citing biblical images, metaphors, or personalities, recalling a relevant passage from the Bible or the liturgy, connecting certain actions to mitzvot or Jewish values. 

The director can also affirm for the Jewish directee the importance and the validity of the spiritual direction experience.  For some Jews, the experience of spiritual direction is at first so unfamiliar that they may wonder if it is “acceptable” to be talking about their spiritual lives in such intimate and personal terms.  The director can help alleviate some of these concerns by pointing to other models within Judaism of spiritual companionship and guidance, such as those cited above, as well as by pointing to those Jews (in this generation as well as past generations) who might be role models for living the “devotional life.”  The director can also be familiar with some of the resources in this new field (i.e. books and articles[21] as well as the new training programs which are emerging, and the opportunities for spiritual direction being offered at the rabbinical seminaries).

Similarly, one who provides direction for Jews might become familiar with other modes within Jewish experience—i.e. the contemplative mode, as reflected in some of the medieval writings (such as Moshe Chayim Luzzato’s, The Path of the Just or Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart) or the devotional mode reflected in the Hassidic writings (such as those of The Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yaaokov Yosef of Polennoye, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav—etc.[22]). 

Finally, it may be helpful for the director to remember–and when appropriate, to remind the directee–that Jewish spiritual direction is indeed a new and growing phenomenon. Part of the price of being pioneers in a new field is living through the period of transition that will necessarily take place until spiritual direction becomes more firmly rooted in Jewish life and culture.  Those Jews who have encountered the uncertainty or skepticism of their rabbis or members of their Jewish communities when they talk about their experiences in spiritual direction already know this; they also know that the gifts that spiritual direction brings far outweigh the discomfort or awkwardness of the transition period in which we currently find ourselves.  They know that spiritual direction offers the possibility of having a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God, and that it offers the possibility of an even richer experience of Jewish religious life and practice.  A number of Jews who have been in spiritual direction are now training as spiritual directors.  Slowly but surely, as the practice of spiritual direction in its various forms[23] spreads throughout the Jewish community, Jewish life and experience will be transformed:  as Jews speak more openly and honestly of their own experiences of God’s presence in their lives, as they share with one another moments of transcendence as well as moments of spiritual emptiness, they will support and walk with one another on the spiritual path, the path of life. 

Those of us who are called to be companions to Jews in this sacred work know this; we know that the place on which we stand is indeed holy ground.  Many of us also have come to trust that the new and growing phenomenon of Jewish spiritual direction is a part of God’s mysterious unfolding in the world.  And for that, we can only offer our heartfelt and humble prayers of thanksgiving and praise.


Addison, Howard A., Show Me Your Way:  The Complete Guide to Exploring Interfaith Spiritual Direction, SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2000.

Buber, Martin, The Way of Man According to the Teaching of Hasidism, Carol Publishing Group, New York 1990.

Buxbaum, Yitzhak, Jewish Spiritual Practices, Jason Aronson, Northvale, New Jersey, 1990.

Green, Arthur and Holtz, Barry W., Your Word is Fire:  The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont 1993.

Hammer, Reuven, Entering Jewish Prayer:  A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service, Schocken Books, New York 1994.

Ibn Pakuda, Bachya, Duties of the Heart, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem—New York, 1962.

Lamm, Norman, The Religious Thought of Hasidism:  Text and Commentary, The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University Press, 1999.

Luzzato, Moshe Chayim, The Path of the Just, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem—New York 1974.

Ochs, Carol and Olitzky, Kerry M., Jewish Spiritual Guidance: Finding Our Way to God, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1997.

Ochs, Carol, Our Lives as Torah; Finding God in Our Own Stories, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA , 2001.

Schacter-Shalomi, Zalman Meshullam, Spiritual Intimacy, A Study of Counseling in Hasidism, Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, 1991.

Weiss, Zari, “Jewish Spiritual Direction,” in Presence:  The Journal of Spiritual Directors International, Volume 5, No. 2, May 1999.

[1] All of the names of directees have been changed, as have some of the key details, in order to protect confidentiality.

[2] This translation of the psalm is found in Kol HaNeshamah, Daily Prayerbook, The Reconstructionist Press, Wyncote, Pennsylvania, 1996.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7.

[4] Currently, there are opportunities to learn about or experience Spiritual Direction in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Movements’ seminaries; there are several new programs to train Jews in Spiritual Direction from a Jewish perspective—including Lev Shomea, offered at Elat Chayyim—the Jewish Renewal Retreat Center and the Way Pointers Institute of Metivta in Los Angeles.  Those interested in Lev Shomea can contact Elat Chayyim at 1-800-398-2630 or http://www.elatchayyim.org. [No longer operating]

[5] One of her earliest articles on this idea is found in Marcia Falk, “What About God?” Moment Magazine, March 1985.  See also The Book of Blessings, Harper San Francisco, 1996.

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, New York, 1954, p. 45, as quoted in Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer, Schocken Books, New York, 1994, p. 17.

[7] For example, “Forgive us, our Creator, for we have done wrong . . .” ( the sixth blessing of the weekday Amidah), or “Behold our need, and plead our cause, and speedily redeem us . . .,” (the seventh blessing).  An exception to this occurs in the eighth blessing, Refuah, for Healing, in which the person praying can add the name or names of those for whom they are praying.

[8] Berachot 16b-17a, as recorded in Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer, p. 188.

[9] One example is the Birchot Hashachar, the Morning Blessings, where the individual offers praises to God for the many ways human beings are able to function every day:  “Praised are You, God . . . . who acts for all my needs,” “who has made me free,” etc.  In addition, the Psalms, woven throughout the liturgy, are sometimes written in the first person singular and thus give expression to the experience of the individual.

[10] Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought, MacMillan Publishing Col, Inc., NY, NY 1980.

[11] There have been women who have functioned in a similar capacity, particularly for women, though usually in a more informal way, such as the Meidl of Lublin, or various rebbetzin—wives of rebbes.

[12] Besides the rebbe, there was also someone known as the mashpiy’a, whose job it was to spiritually prepare the hassid for the interview with the rebbe.  In Schacter-Shalomi, Zalman Meshullam, Spiritual Intimacy, A Study of Counseling in Hasidism, Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, 1991, p. 73.

[13] Ibid, p. 4.

[14] Ibid, p. 70.

[15] Ibid, p. 58.

[16] A number of Jewish spiritual directors today have received training through Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA, or the Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C.  A second generation of Jewish spiritual directors is being trained by those who have been trained through these institutions, and who are making efforts to craft a Jewish model of spiritual direction.

[17]This may at times present the Jewish director (particularly those who are rabbis) with a challenge, as she may feel a responsibility to help the directee more fully embrace Jewish Tradition.  The director may feel compelled to admit that she may not always be able to be a neutral companion, if the directee’s spiritual journey takes him farther away from Judaism.  Both the director and the directee may have to discern the effectiveness of the relationship under these circumstances.  In most cases, I believe, the directee welcomes the director’s commitment to Judaism, as well as her gentle guidance (as opposed to the overtly directive approach of the rebbe) to embrace Judaism in a more meaningful way.

[18] “Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass, among all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.  May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field, all grasses, trees and plants, may they all awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source.” (Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav).

[19] Pirke Avot 1:2.

[20] Pirke Avot 3:3.

[21] See bibliography at end.

[22] An excellent resource for these writings is Norman Lamm’s book, The Religious Thought of Hasidism, text and commentary, The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of Yeshiva University Press, 1999.

[23] Spiritual Direction can take different forms in the life of the Jewish community.  For example, I have offered individual spiritual direction, group spiritual direction both in and outside of a synagogue setting; workshops for the entire congregation; and classes, which draw on the themes or concepts which are part of the spiritual direction experience.