Not a Guide, but an Example: Paradoxes of Spiritual Writing


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.

As a writer of books that get filed, depressingly, under the category of “spirituality,” I at once stand on the shoulders of giants, and attempt to get beyond them. This is different from the situation most of my elders faced. When Art Green wrote a pseudonymous article on psychedelics and Kabbalah, no one had done that before. When I wrote an article two years ago on ayahuasca and Kabbalah, I had anxieties of influence. On the one hand, Art had paved the way. On the other, many of his ideas now seem naïve (indeed, Green wrote a sequel a few years later that said as much himself). On the one hand, I have a role model that he never had, and I’m grateful. On the other, the last thing I want to do is retread the 60s or follow in someone else’s footsteps. What could be more pathetic?

Now, I can point to salient features that distinguish my generation’s approaches to spirituality and spiritual writing from previous ones. We tend to be less reverent, less touchy-feely, and less afraid of technology. We don’t find it odd that we Tweet our spirituality or Text our latest insights, and we’re not trying to be “hip” either—this is how we live. Multiculturalism and pluralism fill our world, so we’re less shocked by juxtaposition and blending. Hip-hop Hasidism isn’t a gimmick; it’s 2010. We’re at once spiritual and cynical, making us suspicious of cliché but hungry for an alternative. And we recoil from anything that smells like too much peace and love. Not only is contemporary spirituality at home with irony; it’s more comfortable there than in the patchouli-scented prose of the hippies. (By the way, that includes hippies: even the long-haired, African-drum-beating hippies I know snicker when someone says something like “feel the light of love dwell within your heart.” Which spiritual folks of a certain age say all the time.)

But I want to suggest that these new forms and spiritual rebellions are actually more in tune with the previous generation’s spiritual writers than are those who follow their language more slavishly. Not because the 60s, too, were rebellious—but because this is what the art of spiritual writing demands.

Spiritual writing is a curious blend of spirituality, religion, and art. To define those terms a bit, by “religion” I mean those structures, dogmas, and practices which bind communities together, help people be a little less mean to one another, and provide pre-set ways to be a good, and even holy, person. By “spirituality” I mean almost the polar opposite. Spirituality transgresses existing structures. It doesn’t construct the self—it transforms it, even negates it entirely. And while it, too, is interested in goodness and holiness, its heroes are those who blazed their own paths, and were often deemed rebels in their day.

If these working definitions are useful, then how could one possibly follow in the footsteps of spiritual forebears? Spirituality values authenticity, and authenticity is subjective and personal. When someone mouths the words that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote 40 years ago, that’s not spirituality—it’s religion. No wonder movements like Jewish Renewal are in states of perpetual disarray. If they were really arrayed, their (spiritual, iconoclastic, occasionally quixotic) adherents would leave. Spiritual people don’t like organized religion because organized religion is someone else’s, and thus to some degree inauthentic.

In this regard, art is more like spirituality, while kitsch is more like religion. Hallmark cards, action movies, and machine-produced pop songs all tell you how to feel in a shared language of sentiment. You see the puppy, you say “aww.” This is what troubled Clement Greenberg in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—that kitsch, religion, and fascism manipulate us; they cue us how to feel and we feel it. In contrast, great literature, irony, independent film, and good singer-songwriter music (and a thousand other forms, of course), challenge what we think, cause us to question our emotional reactions, and enable us to expand the range of feeling. In other words, while art and kitsch may share certain forms, they use those forms to diametrically opposite effect.

One of the great struggles of spiritual writing is its intermediate position between these forms. In theory, spiritual writing should fly in the face of kitsch. But in practice, it’s among the kitschiest, lamest, most cliché-ridden crap on the shelves. Self-help books are often odious blends of bathos and oversimplification—and those are the honest ones. Often the genre is pure, slick salesmanship, and nothing more: verbalized snake oil.

Moreover, since so much of spirituality depends on openness of mind and heart, judgment of any kind is frequently seen as anathema to it. Think The Secret is bunk? Maybe you should open your mind more. Want to puke when you hear New Age music? Stop being so negative.

And of course, kitsch has always sold better than art. Advances for some of the best spiritual books I’ve read this decade typically hover in the $5-10,000 range—a truly pathetic figure. The highest ranking mass-market self-help books no doubt get 100 times that amount. So, even as I’d like to tilt exclusively toward art and quality, kitsch and quantity pull strongly at the pursestrings.

It’s not solely about selling out, either. As one teacher of mine pointed out, “people tend to be interested in what they’re interested in.” These books sell because they meet people’s needs and wants. And unlike a purely literary fiction writer, say, I’m interested in that. My spiritual writing helps people (or so they say) and I want to help more people, because I think the stuff I teach has the power to change the world for the better. And if couching a truly liberating insight in the context of what Reb Zalman calls “angel shit” enables that insight to be internalized by tens of thousands of people, isn’t it cruel not to do so?

So, while spiritual writing resembles art in its subjective and iconoclastic orientation, it resembles kitsch in its desire to communicate effectively with large numbers of people. Spiritual writing is half spirituality, half religion; half art, and half kitsch.

For example, it’s a truism that map is not territory; you can’t read a spiritual book and have a spiritual experience anymore than you can read a cookbook and have an alimentary one. Thus, an effective spiritual book will give instructions—rather like a cookbook—for having an experience yourself. Try this, do that, here are the steps, then see what happens—that, not profound prose, is the real recipe for spiritual experience. But of course, as writing, it sucks.

Often, the best—i.e., the highest quality—spiritual writing is ineffective as spiritual teaching, because it has more to do with an excellent poetic experience than creating an excellent spiritual one. Take Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Time is God’s gift to the world of space.” Beautiful—sounds great—not sure what it means. Heschel never tells us how to light candles, he tells us that doing so builds a cathedral in time. When I read Heschel, I feel great. When I quote him, I feel great. But when I try to follow him in my life, I’m often left without a compass.

Yet for some of us—those of us who are spiritual writers—the written word is itself the spiritual experience. Rilke here:

…and in the silent, sometimes hardly moving times
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know
secret things
or else alone.

I can’t exactly specify what Rilke means here, but the mood he evokes is majestic and resonant and beautiful, and when I read his words, I get a buzz. Another excerpt from a different poem:

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
He whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

This is my religion—the religion of well-written words, and of moods suffused by them (uh oh, I’m waxing) such that the experience of loneliness, or a winter storm, becomes numinous by dint of its association with Rilke’s words. Unlike a spiritual cookbook, Rilke doesn’t give me instructions to follow, and is perhaps less useful to large numbers of people—but in his expression of subjectivity, he inspires me to my own.

Perhaps, in the subjectivity of poetry, there is a possibility for transcending the conundrum of a heritage of iconoclasm. Because, in Rilke and Heschel and others, there is no pretension of universality—quite the contrary—there is a richer communication possible than in conventional spiritual writing. Since following someone else’s spiritual path is by definition inauthentic spirituality, then perhaps what we need is not a guide, but an example.