2016-06-30
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg is a venerable rabbi, scholar, and author. And Rabbi Hertzberg, bless him, is a highly polemical writer, with strong viewpoints, definite opinions, and some impatience for those he considers less knowledgeable than he.

Evidently he cares little for the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue or popular expositions of kabbalah. Nor does he care for what he calls the New Age, which he believes has something to do with a defunct San Francisco night club from the 1950's called the hungry i.

Though he's a lively, popular historian of religion, his discussion of contemporary spiritual movements lacks perspective or discrimination.

For instance, he lumps together a short-lived fad like EST with the thousand-year-old tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition with texts, teachings, and wisdom far more challenging to his assumptions than perhaps he'd be willing to acknowledge.

I tried to record in The Jew in the Lotus and further in Stalking Elijah the power of the issues raised in the Tibetan-Jewish dialogue. The conversation the Dalai Lama had with Rabbis Yitz Greenberg, Zalman Schachter and Jonathan Omer-man touched on profound questions: the nature of ultimate reality, the meaning of suffering, meditative practices designed to deal with afflictive states of mind, the challenge of modernity, the lessons one exiled people might share with another.

It's true such issues may be of greater concern to spiritual seekers than to someone who feels rooted in his tradition, but that doesn't mean these concerns should be met with ridicule, especially by someone with the title of rabbi.

The first great master of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, tells a story of a deaf man who comes upon a house where he sees people inside dancing. They are dancing to music he cannot hear. To the deaf man, the wild motions and gestures, the raised arms, the kicking feet are a complete puzzlement, the acts of insane people. But that is because he cannot hear the music.

Rabbi Hertzberg may not be hearing the music to which many in my generation are dancing. But for that reason, he makes a poor dance judge. Can he really say he knows exactly what is going on inside the hearts and souls of hundreds of thousands of people he's never met? Yet he offers a mass diagnosis: the whole lot of us are narcissistic, self-absorbed baby boomers.

Rabbi Hertzberg equates the rejection of established religious conventions and the search for direct experience with narcissism and solipsism. By this criterion, we would have to throw out the Book of Genesis, because it's full of stories of spiritual seekers, who reject established institutions and wander off to wise men of the East, who meditate in the fields and dream wild dreams and obey inner voices. And each of them receives a very special name of God, which means a very personal relationship to God.

It is the struggle to find such a relationship that lies behind the individual spiritual journey, whether my name is Abram, Jacob, Sarah or Hagar.

Moreover, his criticism misconstrues the goal of meditative practices, whether Buddhist or Jewish. Narcissism involves obsession with self. Meditation, Eastern or Western, aims at the opposite-- liberation from narrow conception of self.

Rabbi Hertzberg wonders why a Jew might seek spiritual wisdom from a Dalai Lama--a perfectly legitimate question. There are many reasons, but here's an important one: the Dalai Lama's demeanor and person reflect his spiritual practice and discipline. When I see a spiritual leader, whether a rabbi, or a priest, or a lama, exhibit the highest ideals of his or spiritual tradition, then I am deeply moved.

I would say the real problem is not that Jews are rejecting Judaism in favor of Buddhism. The real problem is they are rejecting Judaism in favor of nothing.

Rabbi Hertzberg advises us that we ought not waste time learning from spiritual masters of other traditions. Especially because, in his view, Judaism is very simple. All you have to do, he writes, is be a "normal mystic", which means you do the mitzvahs (the commandments), and each one you do will bring you into closer communion with God.

But Judaism is a richer and more interesting tradition than that.

The question of what is going on inside a person--which Rabbi Hertzberg equates with narcissism--is vital to keeping a religion alive. This can be seen as soon as we take a closer look at Rabbi Hertzberg's formula.

He suggests that each time we do a mitzvah we come closer to a "communion with God." Well, then, how does one do the mitzvah, for instance, of "loving God with all your heart, soul, and might"? How does one do the mitzvah of "deepening prayer"? How does one do the mitzvah of "deeds of loving-kindness"? How does one do the mitzvah of not coveting--something most of us struggle with every day? Could any of these mitzvahs be done without serious reflection?

In general, the Jewish tradition says, "To do a mitzvah you have to study. And to study you have to pray with intensity. And to pray with intensity you have to examine yourself. And to pray with real intensity and to study you have to deal with your inner life. Because otherwise the Torah you read and the prayers you pray will be contaminated by your own distortions of ego. And even when you teach Torah, or do a mitzvah, it will come out distorted by your ego.

In short: if you do not deal with your traits, which the rabbis called the middot, then the prayers you do will be useless and the study you do will be garbage. And this is why spiritual seekers consult with teachers from other traditions, especially those traditions that focus on the mental-development aspect of religious life.

It's true that the Jewish tradition, all on its own, provides us with powerful tools for self-examination and self-purification. The month of Elul leading up to the high holidays is one example. The drama of repentance and forgiveness of Yom Kippur is a second. The 50 days of counting the omer between Passover and Shavuos, is a third. The bedtime shema is a daily occasion for self-examination.

So I am baffled by Rabbi Hertzberg's reaction to this process, which seems to me embedded in the Jewish calendar. To label the quest for self-purification as narcissism is a woeful misinterpretation. The Jewish tradition is full of depth, and all of us who teach ought to have the confidence to welcome spiritual seekers, not ridicule them.

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