Ruth, Friendship, and Spirituality– Thoughts on Shavuot (on Shavuot)

 

Apologies for the pseudo-Shakespearian translation but here’s a familiar passage from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth:

16 And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; 17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.’

I have a confession to make. It’s Shavuot, and I didn’t go to Shul today.  Even though it’s Shavuot– one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals. Instead, I met with and interviewed a recent alum of The Davis Academy as part of my doctoral research on adolescent spirituality. (Incidentally this is the 2nd year in a row that I didn’t go to shul. Last year I spent Shavuot at K’far Yehezkel, a moshav in the Southern Galilee. It was an incredible experience and you can read about it here.)

Though I didn’t go to shul, it turns out that I learned an incredible lesson about at least one aspect of Shavuot during my interview today…

My doctoral research is on the topic of adolescent spirituality. My goal is to advance both the academic and colloquial understanding of the phenomenon of spirituality as it is experienced by adolescents. I come to this topic not as an “objective” researcher, but as a rabbi and educator who works with adolescents and cares deeply about this aspect of their lives and their development. I also believe that this is a largely neglected area and that most educational contexts fail to protect, nurture and celebrate adolescent spirituality. Rather than circulating a questionnaire or survey I’ve chosen to conduct in depth interviews with a small cohort of recent Davis Academy alumni. Today I conducted an interview with one of my research participants. And yet again I was blown away by the depth of thought, the depth of caring, and the depth of insight that I witnessed in the adolescent sitting across from me.

As the interview unfolded both the participant and I developed a deeper understanding of what spirituality meant to him. Toward the end of the interview I attempted to summarize his definition of spirituality as he understands it:

Spirituality is about realizing our potential as human beings. It starts with self-knowledge and self-awareness but quickly extends to our relationships with other people. We realize our potential when we connect with other human beings in meaningful and socially redemptive ways. Spirituality is the foundation of the connection that we make with others, particularly when this connection is deep and true. All true friendships have a spiritual component. 

I’ve conducted several interviews, and the theme of “connection” has been present in each. But no other research participant has more emphatically emphasized that his/her definition of spirituality is so firmly rooted in the act of connecting with other people, in forging relationships of various kinds, and friendship in particular. When I asked him directly whether all of his friendships had a spiritual component he thoughtfully and unabashedly said yes.

On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth. Ruth is all about relationships, human connection, and friendship. The connection between the name Ruth and the Hebrew word for friendship/companionship Reut has been noted by others. Ruth chooses to cast her lot not only with Naomi, her mother in law, but with Naomi’s people– the Jewish people. At the beginning of this post you’ll find the most famous passage from the book of Ruth. Ruth’s words to Naomi when Naomi implores her to return to the Moabites.

While I didn’t go to shul today I do feel that I encountered holiness. I’m motivated to do my doctoral research because I believe in the importance of the topic. I think we all need to develop a more nuanced and respectful vocabulary for thinking about and discussing adolescent spirituality. I’ve conducted 4 in depth interviews and, while each participant has experienced spirituality slightly (or very) differently, if at all, they’ve all been incredibly reflective, generous in sharing their experiences, and appreciative to have been given a voice. Collectively and individually, they’ve reaffirmed my belief that JFK got it right when he said, “Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all.”

 

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