Off the Shelf: Religious searching and spiritual seeking

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Searching for the true meaning of the biblical text

In 1944, at the age of 21, Segundo Villanuena sought to avenge his father’s murder. His only real inheritance was a trunk, which he hoped would hold either an inheritance or a message from his father. What he discovered changed his life: The trunk contained a Spanish Bible, something Segundo had never seen before. Although raised Catholic in Peru, the Bible had not been part of his religious education. As Graciela Mochkofsky shows in her fascinating work “The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land” (Alfred A. Knopf), reading that Bible led Segundo not only to reject vengeance, but to convert to Judaism. In fact, he led a large group of Peruvian spiritual seekers to Judaism and many of them later emigrated to Israel.

Mochkofsky shows Segundo’s spiritual journey as he sought to understand the true meaning of the biblical text. At first, he read the Catholic version of the Bible. But he was puzzled by the many contradictions that he found between the Old and New Testaments. His questions were not welcome in the different non-Catholic Christian groups he found, so he formed his own group of followers. Segundo’s path to Judaism was a meandering one, partly because he didn’t seem to realize there were still living Jews. Then, when he discovered and approached the Jews of Peru, he and his group were rejected largely because they belonged to the wrong social class. Segundo and his followers began to teach themselves Hebrew because he knew translations were also interpretations and wanted to hew to the text as closely as possible. This led him to observe the commandments as they were outlined in the Hebrew Bible.

Although Segundo and his followers were rejected by the Jews of Peru, there were Israelis interested in discovering more about this unusual group. Although religious politics intervened, many of Segundo’s group were able to convert to Orthodox Judaism and move to Israel. There they were asked to choose which of the several versions of Orthodoxy they would follow. Many settled happily in the territories and were content with their new lives. Additional members of the original community, who had not been able to convert during the first round of conversions, where later allowed to become Jewish. Many of them also moved to Israel, although by this time, the fact that many chose to live in the territories become even more controversial. However, Segundo never felt completely at home in Israel: he wanted to continue to study and interpret the Bible, while the rabbis he met there wanted him to follow their decisions about Jewish law without question. “The Prophet of the Andes” offers an intriguing look at what it means to search for the true religion of the Bible and insights into what happens if that search never stops.


Seeking a spiritual Shabbat

Numerous books have been written about Shabbat, from those discussing how to observe the day from a halachic (legalistic) point of view to others that show the psychological benefits of a weekly break from work and technology. Dr. Nehemia Polen, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew College (Newton, MA), offers a different approach in his book “Stop, Look, Listen: Celebrating Shabbos Through a Spiritual Lense” (Maggid Books). Polen believes there is an additional aspect of the Sabbath, the spiritual meaning that will allow “Shabbos to take up residence in our homes, our hearts, and our neighborhood.” He uses the term Shabbos rather than Shabbat since that was how his family pronounced the word when he was growing up. It resonates with him in a way Shabbat does not and also offers him a way to honor his parents and grandparents who used that form of the word. 

Polen assumes his readers will be familiar with the laws governing Shabbat and does not offer halachic discussions of legal issues. His focus is on how to experience Shabbat as a spiritual day, rather than one of just relaxation. That doesn’t mean that less ritually observant Jews can’t benefit from what he offers; beginners seeking the laws of Shabbat, however, should turn elsewhere first before reading this work. 

Polen divides the Shabbat experience into three stages and notes carefully how observing these stages can help increase the day’s spirituality. He also discusses how preparation for Shabbat actually begins during the week and never stops: in order to observe Shabbat, one needs to be aware that the day is coming and prepare not only for the physical aspects of Shabbat (the food, the prayers, etc.), but the emotional and psychological ones as well. Shabbat cannot reach its spiritual height if there is ill will between members of a family or the community. When all is peaceful, these stages – Stop, Look, Listen – will have their greatest impact.

  • The “Stop” phase begins on Friday evening. Observing this “involves committing to a locale, settling into place, and completely letting go of the world of work, which includes any endeavor whose focus is on earning a living, buying and selling, business decision making, finance or investments.”
  • The “Look” phase refers to the early part of Shabbat morning. This is the time to look “at the world with fresh eyes, eyes bathed in grace and gazing with benevolence.”
  • The “Listen” phase occurs in late afternoon as the day begins to wane. The focus is on hearing what the world offers, to listen “with greater presence and acuity – to ambient sounds, to the voice of loved ones and wisdom teachers, to the whispers of one’s own heard, to the silence of the infinite.”

Polen looks to Chasidic practices to help create his Shabbat. These include niggunim (songs without words whose music helps create the appropriate mood), prayer (but intensive prayer with a focus on nothing except the experience) and storytelling (which includes stories that offer parables and lessons about the world). For Polen, the themes of the Sabbath prayers reflect his divisions of the day. Everything that is done – including eating – should be part of the spiritual experience. One should not just be looking to rest: people should be seeking the true meaning of the freedom Shabbat offers. The author sees this freedom as “not needing to escape. On Shabbos, you are already home. There is no need to run; you are exactly where you want to be.” 

“Stop, Look, Listen” uses mystical interpretations that might not resonate with all readers. However, Polen seeks to create a type of Eden during the day. In fact, he suggests that if Shabbat is truly observed there would be no more war because, in order to truly experience Shabbat, people would need to make peace with each other before the day began. While not everyone will agree with this idea, they may find useful tools that will help them create a Shabbat filled with meaningful, spiritual experiences.