From One Generation to the Next


On January 31, is presenting a forum on the "next generation of Jewish spirituality" in celebration of Jay Michaelson's new book Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism. As part of that forum, we invited Michaelson to contribute an essay on how he sees his own work as a spiritual writer as building on, and differing from, a previous generation's. We also invited responses from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of last year's award-winning memoir Suprised By God, and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, one of the last (and current) century's leading popular teachers of Jewish mysticism. We encourage you to join the conversation on January 31.

perceptively raises the question of what happens to spiritual writing when it jumps from one generation to the next. I’d like to push his query farther—back to one generation before the first.

Surely it must be relevant that the father of the young man destined to initiate imageless monotheism makes his living selling fetishes! (Now there’s a mischievous way to commence a religion for you.)

This legend of Terah’s idol boutique is not some peripheral midrash either. Indeed, the story is so well known that many Jews are surprised to learn that it’s not in the Torah. But it is very old. Fragments have been found in the Dead Sea caves. The legend shows up in the Book of Jubilees (12:1-7)—one of the oldest, post-biblical texts we have. And that places it somewhere around the Second Century before the Common Era. In other words, even before the Hebrew Bible was done, Jews were talking about how Abraham’s father, Terah, worshipped idols and about how young Abe trashed his dad’s inventory of godlets.

The text is short and worth repeating.

Rabbi Hiyya, the grandson of Rabbi Ada of Yaffo, taught that Abraham’s father, Terah, worshipped idols. One day the old man had to leave town on business and left his son, Abraham, to mind the shop. A customer stopped by wanting to buy an idol.

“How old are you?” asked Abraham. “Over fifty,” he replied. “Pathetic!” said Abraham. “Fifty years old and you intend to worship an object that’s one day old?” The man was so ashamed he left.

Later a woman showed up with a plateful of flour and asked Abraham to offer it to one of the idols. But, as soon as she departed, Abraham instead took a hatchet and smashed them all—except for the biggest idol into whose hands he placed the hatchet.

When Terah returned he demanded, “Who did this!” “I cannot lie,” said Abraham, “A lady came by with a plateful of fine meal which she asked me to offer to the idols. But the idols got to fighting over it. One claimed, ‘I want to eat first!’ Then another shouted, ‘No, me first!’ Then, that real big idol over there, he grabbed that hatchet and smashed all the others!”

“Do you think I’m some kind of fool?” said Terah. “These idols aren’t sentient? I made them all myself.”  “Just listen to what you’re saying!” said Abraham. (Bereshit Rabba 38:13)

You will notice that there is no mention of God, God’s imagelessness, or God’s unity. Jews, nevertheless, insist on reading it as an account of how Abraham got his big epiphany. Strange. Our guy, Abraham, did not first comprehend the unity of all being while meditating under a tree. He did not attain it while in retreat atop a mountain. He did he deduce it while keenly observing the human condition. He was (presumably) not in a chemically altered state of consciousness. God did not come to him in a vision, a dream, or disguised as a beggar. None of the above.

Judaism begins when Abraham decided that his father’s  business, his life-work, and all his gods were bunkum. And he then communicated this to his father in an act of what can only be called adolescent, iconoclastic rebellion. Abraham doesn’t merely reject his father’s profession and faith; he ridicules it; he demonstrates its folly; he destroys it. (So much for honoring parents.)

My teacher, Arnold Jacob Wolf, z”l, used to claim that that was why Judaism didn’t have Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. It understands, he taught, that the parent-child relationship is simply too complex, contradictory, and ambivalent to celebrate. Indeed, the business of becoming autonomous, of separating from one’s parents—be they loved or hated, near or far, living or long dead—is never done. It may finally be the great, unending psycho-spiritual task of every human being. And Judaism puts it right out there from the get-go.

You want to talk or write about spirituality? You want to tell the truth about the intersection of sacred tradition and your own soul? Begin with your parents. And, if you want to write about Jewish spirituality, begin with what your parents believe is holy but you don’t. Hopefully your literary shattering will not injure their feelings (and, if it does, at least be covered by the insurance). But, one way or another, your words must somehow say: I am not them any more. And don’t feel too bad; after all, your parents already said it (or tried to say it) to theirs.

Please do not misunderstand. Directives for and examples of reverence for parents abound and are properly the majority opinion. But that other nettlesome psycho-spiritual truth rehearsed in our iconoclastic midrash ever lurks just beneath the surface: They are not you and their gods are not yours. Indeed, for my generation (I’m 67), even considering mysticism (not to mention Kabbalah) was an act of high rebellion. Who could have foreseen that it would come to be named spirituality.

And, even though most of our own spiritual discoveries turn out to be identical to those of our parents, each one of us must, nevertheless, make them for ourselves, (even as we must also be willing to shatter a few godlets on the way). As we read of Abraham’s son: “And Isaac dug anew the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father.” (Genesis 26:18) First we break ‘em; then we find ‘em on our own.

And the task of spiritual writing is to coax the reader to do the same.