By Niles Elliot Goldstein
Bell Tower, 224 pp.
What's a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like this? Adventuring rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein must ask himself that over and over as he's thrown from his dogsled face-down in an Alaskan snow-bank, strip-searched in the New York City prison system, or soaked by the pouring rain in the war-torn eastern reaches of the Former Soviet Union. It's this antic quality--nebbishe rabbinical student takes on the elements--that makes Goldstein's new book, "God at the Edge," a fun read.
Repeatedly unable to "experience God within the confines of the American Jewish establishment," Goldstein is determined to "fuse the call of the wild with the call of [his] faith." Having entered the rabbinate, he found the Jewish community "a cult of woe ... obsessed with its own degeneration, with intermarriage, assimilation, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust." He also found the typical opportunities for spiritual exploration stultifying: he is bored by suburban synagogues and turned off by trendy guidance to help us get in touch with "serenity, sensitivity and self-love." So he schlepps himself off to the far-reaches of Alaska, fasts for three days in New Hampshire's White Mountains, and goes undercover as a drug enforcement agent to see what that life is really like. His book shines during the narratives of his journeys, capturing not only his exhilaration but also the real, heart-thumping fear that often grips in him when he's chased by a bear or interrogated by Samarkand military men in the Russian state of Uzbekistan. When an NYPD officer puts on rubber gloves and unzips Goldstein jeans as part of his strip-search, the prisoner starts to sweat. So do we.
Having replaced "'warm and fuzzy' spirituality" in his own life, Goldstein makes the case for us all to adopt a sort of religious tough love. He challenges us readers to widen the parameters of our spiritual lives, to experience God in the "darkness, at the edge." The edge to Goldstein can be anything from jail to cyberspace (where he currently makes his pulpit as the voice behind MSN's "Ask the Rabbi"). Goldstein's premise is that fear, awe, desperation, hunger, geographic isolation, and other emotional and physical extremes can mark the path to "the point where we experience God: in the cloud of unknowing."
To buttress his search for God in extremis, Goldstein offers stories from Jewish and Christian tradition: Julian of Norwich, who locked herself in a tiny cell in 14th Century England to find God's passion; Rabbi Judah Loew, who according to tradition used esoteric Kabbalistic chants and rituals to create a living creature, the Golem, out of clay; the Essenes, a band of messianic Jews who in biblical times took to the Judean caves to prepare for the end of days; the Desert Fathers, Christian ascetics who made a life fasting in the desert and resisting trials by the devil.
To Goldstein, the lives of the Jewish and Christian mystics, who found spiritual fulfillment outside formal religious structures, are the role models for his own religious journeys. So it's surprising and a little disappointing that Goldstein isn't equally open to the quests of non-Western traditions. Indeed, he seems downright biased against them. He issues warnings against modern paganism and Wicca, adding that "the border between miracles [good] and magic [bad] is murky, especially in many of the non-Western spiritual traditions." On a trip to Nepal, he witnesses animal sacrifices and Buddhist religious iconography, including elephants, god-figures and women in sexual positions. "Walking among what at first blush seemed like graven images, false gods, idols ... I was torn between wanting to enjoy my visit to a remote country and wanting to shatter its statues with a baseball bat." It is surprising that a man urging us to the spiritual edge would be so squeamish about alternative traditions. Let yourself roam free, he seems to say, but not there, or there, or there.
This conservatism, or timidity, is the most disappointing element of Goldstein's generally lively narrative. He is unwilling to explore outside his familiar field of reference. He is also unwilling, or unable, to probe deeply into his own hard-gained epiphanies. He himself seems to know it: "I have ... witnessed an imbalance in my own life," he writes at the end of his book, "an inclination to favor raw experience over human interactions, dramatic epiphanies over subtle moments of insight." In the aurora borealis he sees something that "made my soul tremble with new life." Caught among the agitated, angry men in prison, he "no longer wanted just to get out of the prison. I wanted to get the prison out of me." These are pithy phrases that mark the end of his journeys, not the beginning. It's a shame that Goldstein's response to spiritual transcendence, once he has worked so hard to find it, is not to go deeper but to remain--well--at the edge.