Reprinted with permission of Rodger Kamenetz from "Best Contemporary Jewish Writing," edited by Michael Lerner. This piece is one of several that Beliefnet will publish from the new annual anthology.

I recently taught a writer's workshop at a Jewish retreat center called Elat Chayyim in upstate New York. I was intrigued with the idea of teaching in a context where people were on retreat, praying each morning, doing yoga and Jewish meditation as well, and singing thanks after every meal.

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Most of the people who come there feel they are on a spiritual journey and I believe they are--well, partly I believe all of us are, but some of us just haven't realized it yet. People who say I'm not a spiritual person are pretty incomprehensible to me. It's a bit like saying, I don't have a soul, or I was born without a conscience, or, my life is meaningless. There are moments when we feel all of these things, but can we be so wholeheartedly sure that those moments stand for all or our truth? I much doubt it. If we doubt everything, shouldn't we also doubt our doubt, at least once in a while?

Anyway, I wanted to teach this course in writing personal autobiography and decided on the theme of the spiritual journey, in part because I view the book of Genesis--in Hebrew the book of "beginning"--as being about all kinds of individual spiritual journeys. There's Abram receiving the mysterious call "lekh lekhah"--take yourself out--abandon your home and father's house and go where I tell you. Imagine, he actually listened. There's Sarah chuckling and joking with an angel. There's their grandson Jacob wrestling with an angel and perhaps also his conscience; there's Jacob's dream-vision of angels moving down a ladder; there's also Hagar's encounter by the well of living seeing, and her unique name of God that arises from her own experience, "Atah El Roi," or "You God see me." (That's a name worth meditating on.) In fact, each of these heroes and heroines, Jewish or non-Jewish, male or female, seems to go on a journey, and encounter new and fresh names of God, "El Shaddai" the guarding one, and "pachad Yitzhak," the fear of Isaac. This is another way of saying, each of these spiritual ancestors finds through a unique journey a personal and fresh language for encounters with the unaccountable. So as a lover of fresh language, I love these terse stories and read them as the deepest non-fiction-not only did they happen, but as the kabbalists tell us, they are happening in our own lives, if we would but make the felt connection.

But how are they happening and how can we make the connection deeper and stronger? Here the practice of writing non-fiction becomes a spiritual practice as well.

For whatever reason I've always considered myself a Jewish writer, rather than just a writer. My very first book of poetry, The Missing Jew

, was pretty blunt about that. At least three of my books have the word "Jew" or "Jewish" in the title or subtitle.

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It is difficult to say, of course, what a Jewish writer or a Jewish poet is. I know one when I see one, or read one. Identifying writers as Jewish because of birth or religion, though is something I'd object to--it has very little to do with how I would define Jewish writing, which must be an inner quality to the writing-or nothing at all.

Jewish writing can also be writing about Jews or Judaism--real Jewish writing is both, Jewish inside and out-and it takes place everywhere, not just Manhattan or Brooklyn. But I would like to suggest that there's something particularly Jewish about the genre of non-fiction, especially the personal essay.

I began my life's work as a Jewish poet, a hopeless category. There are large classes of readers who hate the world "poetry" and others will never, on principle, open a book that's "Jewish"--combining the two is an audience eradicator.

I'm not complaining. I'm lucky. I wrote The Missing Jew and snagged a rare university teaching job. Perhaps the hiring committee at Louisiana State took "missing Jew" literally and decided to toss me in the bayous of Baton Rouge like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

As a Jewish writer, I benefited immensely from the geographical isolation, living in a town where the Jewish population, at approximately one in a thousand, reflected precisely the proportion on the planet. I could never take being a Jew for granted. I think I understood better why Bernard Malamud, for instance, spent so much of his writing career teaching in a small town in Oregon. Writing about Jews and Jewish texts and Judaism in a place where you are a rare bird can be a great help. I could never write about Jews living in Brooklyn or Manhattan: too much input from the surrounding environment would crowd out my quiet inner voices. The Russian revolutionary poet Mayakovsky talks about this: if you want to write a sonnet about pineapples in the tropics, there's no use living in Hawaii--far better to be in Siberia with the ink freezing in your pen--then you will have true desire for your subject. In the same way, in a town where corned beef was a rare commodity, I spent my first three years in Baton Rouge reconstructing the Jewish Baltimore of my childhood, and even more immense, my Jewish mother--an inner reality undisturbed by even a vibration from the outer world of crawfish, Mardi Gras, and zydeco.

I was also in those years learning how to write prose non-fiction, the un-cola of literary categories, as Buddhism is the un-cola of religions. Just as Buddhists are non-theists and speak about reality as an open space--so non-fiction, beautifully ill-defined, encompasses a vast landscape of possibilities, and subsumes within its exquisite descriptive writing, poetic riffs, story telling, and idea mongering.

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I also happen to think non-fiction is a quintessentially Jewish form of writing. First because the personal essay, or essai

, was in fact invented by the 16th century author Michel de Montaigne, who was Jewish on his mother's side. Is it any wonder that this mater created an entirely new form of writing, intensely personal and rooted in the facts of his life, while capable of the fullest range of meaning and association?

But there's another reason non-fiction is Jewish. It's because we are the people of the book-and our book, the Torah, considered as literary genre, happens to be a work of non-fiction.

Sure, some poets might want to claim the Torah for poetry, citing the Psalms and the Book of Job. Some fiction writers would argue it's pure narrative. But I have on my side not only all non-fiction writers, but the ranks of the faithful, who have always read the Torah as though it were fact and truth.

I moved from poetry to non-fiction out of necessity when I wrote a personal account of my mother's death, and her life, and mine within hers. I felt profoundly that my writing existed to bear witness. In my case, bearing witness required an allegiance to the facts and poetry.

I was inspired in this task by a great Jewish writer, Primo Levi, especially his autobiography, The Periodic Table, Levi was a chemist and might never have become a writer were it not that he'd endured the immense suffering we call Auschwitz. Ever after, he was sworn by his life to be a certain kind of writer-in his case, a witness. So he brought to his non-fiction writing the precision of the trained scientist and the eye and ear of a poet; the strange blend of faculties created an unforgettably powerful writing, immensely moving and deeply restrained-and above all, true.

Primo Levi lived through the worst of the Holocaust; he witnessed its effects on himself and others. Because the truth he bore witness to was so immensely important not just personally but for all the world, he took the task of writing very seriously. The precision of his writing was a kind of guarantee, a seal of truth. So one finds in his work a tremendous humility. I don't mean necessarily that he was personally humble, but rather that he knew that his writing was more important than he was. Writers often forget that.

One of my questions for the writing students at Elat Chayyim was, Who writes? I meant it very much as a meditation. Who writes? Does "I" write? The grammar of the act can be misleading. I write poetry. I write non-fiction. The grammar suggests that some well defined being, an "I" usually identified with the ego, performed an act with complete conscious control. The truth is much more complex and immensely more interesting. True, I write, but only if the writing lets me. It's much more of a collaborative relationship with language and also with soul. (For the so-called non-spiritual person, I'd define soul as all experiences of life I carry with me in deep memory.) Because listening to language and listening to the soul are so vital, I've come to think that at one level writing is, basically, listening.

Writing is also a kind of wrestling. One translation of Israel, the new name granted to Jacob after his encounter with an angel, is "one who wrestles with El," one who struggles with God. It's said in midrash that the angel had the face of Jacob's enemy brother, Esau, so the wrestle was in part with the darker forces of the self. Robert Duncan, an American visionary poet deeply influenced by his reading of the Zohar, added another twist: he imagined the poet as Jacob wrestling with the angel syntax.

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Anyone who has struggled with an unruly sentence, the stubborn resistance of words that refuse to obey, will find Duncan's image powerful. So the wrestling with language is one kind of spiritual encounter that every writer faces word by word, sentence by sentence.

But there's also a level of soul wrestling involved. There's the effort to be true to experience, to bear true witness and not false witness to one's vision and shame one's soul.

This is particularly true in writing non-fiction, where there is a constant struggle between the truth as one remembers it and the truth as it actually was. Friedrich Nietzsche put the struggle nicely: Pride and Memory had an argument. Memory said, It was this way. Pride said, It couldn't be. And Pride won.

Throwing the match to pride is a kind of fake wrestling move that might win temporary applause from an audience that does not want to be disturbed by the truth, but in the long term faking cheapens the game. It's an issue that's particularly important when I am a witness not only to my own life story, as in simple autobiography, but also to experiences that belong to history. A very important example is the Holocaust, a difficult truth the Jewish people are trying to record and remember, at the same moment others are actively seeking to deny and erase. Every writer who tries to bear witness to the truth-which I think at core is what non-fiction is about-must enter the ring and wrestle with language and with soul.

That is why I asked my students "who writes?" I wonder if there's a paradox between the necessary egotism of the writer and the ability to be open to a true spiritual encounter. When I read the story of lekh lekhah, I wonder what the openness was to inner voices that allowed Avram to respond and act. If he had been ego bound, he might have dismissed those voices as inner nonsense. A person whose mind is always made up, who "knows what he thinks," could never be open to transformation. Nor could such a person be much of a writer.

Likewise, when I read the story of Hagar's vision at the well, I see that a person who is rejected, humiliated, utterly humbled may be granted a vision denied to a person who is secure in her ego. In short: if having an ego gets in the way of true spiritual encounter, and yet having an ego is necessary to be a writer, as it seems to be in our marketplace society, can one be both a writer and open to spiritual experience at the same time?

Being a writer is a tough racket. Out of the thousands of people who write, very few make a living from it alone. Most people feel that writers must have immense egos to survive and I think that's true.

One summer I studied in Jerusalem with a teacher named Colette Albouker-Muscat. I always called her Madame. Her students visited her in the cool of Jerusalem mornings, and she taught us how to dream while we were awake, and how to heal ourselves and others through our dreams. We spoke in French, which she enjoyed because she was born in Algeria and descended from a noble Jewish family. She claimed linage to the royal advisors of Charlemagne, those Jews who were made nobility at the beginning of Europe's history-and even more royally, from a family, like King Solomon, descended from King David himself.

Madame had a student who wished to write a memoir. One morning, in her Jerusalem apartment, she told this student she had to choose between the spiritual life or the life of a writer because a writer at bottom needs to have a sturdy ego and that is precisely what the person on a spiritual path would have to do without.

The student cried. Madame pulled out her handkerchief clinically and handed it over-she was quite used to producing such effects on her students, which she called donnant les petes chocs, giving little shocks.

The question struggles within me though I'm hardly far along enough to think I have no ego, the question struggles, at least abstractly and sometimes more concretely in my life. Was Madame correct?

One thinks immediately of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time-Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus-they never wrote a word. Or in the Jewish scheme of things, of the great ARI, Rabbi Isaac Luria, that master of the abstruse and complex, beautiful kabbalah of Safed, who raised up many students, but who himself could not write, complaining that the moment he set pen to page, so many ideas rushed to the tip at once he could scarcely write a sentence for all the confusion.

He said, "I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea had burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received, and how can I put it down in a book?"

So yes, it can be that there are certain great oral masters like the Baal Shem Tov, who are always inspired in the moment of encounter, inspired by immediate contact with a student's need for wisdom. Such masters could no more write down in advance what they have to teach than they could later recollect that wisdom in tranquility. And this may be the deepest purest wisdom-the wisdom that cannot be written down but an only be told, face to face.

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