Taste It and You Will See That God Is Good


On January 31, JBooks.com 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.

What characterizes spiritual and religious discourse today? Do the people coming into Jewish life and leadership roles today "do Jewish" in a way that's markedly different than those who have long been in power or those before them? Does generation matter?

Of course, there are some differences—and those differences are nothing if not mixed blessings. The integration of technology into our lives (including our spiritual and religious lives) means that we can use email and social-networking sites to build and organize community with an ease that had been inconceivable until recently; information about events, crucial pieces of news and the like can be shared instantaneously, making it easier both for people to come together and to create change, as needed. It’s also enabled access to resources in an unprecedented way, which has had myriad impacts both individually and communally. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Twitter culture is particularly good for our spiritual growth (and I say this as someone who tweets); there’s quite the temptation to log onto our blinky screens the moment any small insight presents itself, rather than sitting with it and letting that small moment and insight bubble into something larger and deeper. And, needless to say, it’s an even greater temptation to engage our blinky screens instead of having any kind of insight or present-moment experience at all.

A tendency towards irony, too, can on the one hand be an excellent filter against meaningless pablum, but on the other hand, can prevent a person from engaging fully in whatever the activity at hand might be—particularly if that activity meaningfully challenges, as any spiritual discipline should, at some point, a person’s feelings of complacency, comfort, or illusions about him- or herself. The opposite of irreverence, after all, is reverence.

But the biggest issue, I think, with our cultural moment is in the splitting of “spirituality” from “religion.” This bifurcated language has been around since the 60s or so, but I think it's become more acute in recent years, as the schism has become more entrenched between a hyper-literalist fundamentalism and a feel-good panacea offering easy steps to enlightenment.

Michaelson wisely doesn't go there, but he does distinguish between the two concepts in a way that I'd like to challenge; he describes religion as about pre-set structures and dogmas, and spirituality as transgressive, ecstatic, "authentic"—individualized, by implication, and outside the bonds of external structure. "Spiritual people don't like organized religion," he writes, "because organized religion is someone else's, and thus to some degree inauthentic." It seems to be about the personal, individual journey of the brave individual self—one pictures Jack Kerouac setting out on the road, needing nobody and finding no use in external help.

Yet this picture belies 2,000 years of nuanced theology. The spiritual giants about whom we often talk—Heschel and Rebbe Nahman, St. Theresa and Gandhi, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, the Kabbalists of Safed, Rumi—these were people deeply embedded in a religious tradition. They were certainly brave enough to go deep into the dark, hidden corners of the soul, to meet their own naked heart and the soft murmur of Divine with an openness to hear whatever might be heard, but they did not do so as rogues beholden to no one. They did so as religious adherents, as people who prayed sometimes even if the experience was boring, or uninspired, who followed the tenets of their practice even when it was sometimes inconvenient, who took on strictures even if they weren't always even sure why they were doing so. They innovated in their thinking and actions, to be sure, but their extraordinary transformation to the people who could offer up such depth came as a result of being pushed by their practice in ways that they might not have pushed themselves.

It's fairly easy to pray when you're in the mood, when there's really nice ambiance and when it leads to a groovy experience. It's much harder to pray when you aren't feeling "spiritual," when distractions abound, or when, consciously or subconsicously, you're resisting experiencing some ooky emotional junk hovering just below the surface. And yet, it's precisely when you're forced to do the hard work that the surprises, and the transformation, come. What God tells you isn't always easy or comfortable, but you have to listen—I think on that Michaelson and I would agree. But I think we diverge in our understanding of what kind of life will foster that conversation.

The Eastern Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote,

We are so indoctrinated by our culture that we can’t trust our standards of evaluation. We can only gain wisdom that transcends time by exiting our time and entering an ancient path, and accepting it on its own terms; we only learn by submitting to something bigger than we are. The faith I was building out of my prejudices and preconceptions could never be bigger than I was. I was constructing a safe, tidy, unsurprising God who could never transform me, but would only confirm my residence in that familiar bog I called home. I had to have more than that.

It’s about learning to discern between what we want and what we need, about embedding ourselves deeply in something that can push us to go beyond a safe God, a safe prayer, a safe concept of self and relationship to the world into something that will open us up, unbend us, create us anew.

Speaking personally, most of my most profound moments of encounter with the Divine have come while I was engaged in my spiritual practice—that is to say, “doing religion.” I was engaged in daily prayer, I was observing the holiday of Shavuot, I had schlepped myself out to the ocean to do the new year’s ritual tashlich, even though that day I really would have rather done something else instead. The magic almost always happens not on the days when I feel like praying to start with, but during “naaseh v’nishma,” doing and then suddenly realizing that I’m able to hear something. It’s about the marriage of fixed form and intention, one grounding the other and giving it heft, the other allowing the form to transcend itself entirely. Spirituality is religion is spirituality. But more than that, I’d gander that, at the end of the day, it’s not about the twinkly moments at all. Time and again, the hard, painful, grueling work that has come with my religious practice has pushed me past my conventional boundaries. That has been the transgressive piece—the piece that has caused me to enter the darkest spaces and emerge transformed, to break with convention precisely because I have been led so deep into what lies within. Get pushed into your deepest fears and you’ll discover that it doesn’t really matter what happens on the other side of them. So it’s about that, to be sure, and it’s also about learning to be someone who serves, rather than who focuses on one’s own growth and impact.

It’s when we begin to see the external forms as guides to help us enter more fully the work within that we will finally stop fearing “religion,” or putting it at odds with anything else that we value. It will only break us of the things we don’t really need.