Thursday, April 22, 2010

Like me, only more spiritual

I’m going to start with a disclaimer – I’m not quite saying what I want here, I think. Or, at least, a topic like this deserves more thought, more organization than this. But, I’ve been trying to get this down for a while, without any success, so I’m going to just do it, and trust that, as inadequate as it might be, it will be an honest stab at something. Maybe it will turn into something more, later. But, in the spirit of blogging, I’m just going to put it out there, as it comes out, without trying to get it “just right.” That being said…


A little while ago, I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert*. I’ll admit two things: first of all, I was hoping to not like it. I knew just enough about it to know that it was the memoir of one woman’s spiritual journey, and that it had gained a lot of popularity in the pop-spirituality world. Those who know me know that I’m, shall we say, a little bit cynical about that world. My religious life tends to be a bit more – well, I’m not sure what the right word is here. Centered? Rational? Sarcastic? Any of my friends want to help me out here?

* Thanks to F.M. for convincing me to read it

The other thing I’ll admit then is that, despite my best efforts, I really did like the book. I could complain about this or that – legitimately – but if nothing else, it was a well written, honest, enjoyable account of an important time in someone's life. Well worth reading, if you like this sort of memoir.

But, I’m not writing this as a book review. I’m writing it because of one specific moment in the book. Lizzie, who is (by her own admission) something of a flake, spends several months in an Ashram (an Indian spiritual retreat center). There, this chatty, bubbly, social butterfly tries to find a spiritual center. She tries to become more serious, in the hopes of finding greater truth and serenity. She tries to change, for the better.

Then, one day, she is asked to become the social greeter for the Ashram. Kind of like Julie, the Cruise Director on Love Boat, she is to greet all of the new guests, make them feel welcome, and help them get oriented. She is given this job because she is so chatty, bubbly and social. She is being asked to use exactly those parts of her personality which she felt were at odds with her spiritual growth. She’s frustrated beyond belief – not even her spiritual guides can see past this breezy exterior to the more serious, profound person trying to get out.

Then, it dawns on her. Her guides are seeing something which she can’t:

If there is one holy truth in this Yoga, [it is that] God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are. God isn’t interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person looks or behaves. We all seem to get this idea that, in order to be sacred, we have to make some massive, dramatic change of character, that we have to renounce our individuality…To know God, you need only to renounce one thing—your sense of division from God. Otherwise, just stay as you were made, within your natural character.


When I entered Rabbinic school, I was fairly well known to my friends and classmates to be a non-spiritual type. That may sound strange coming from a Rabbi, but in a world where people occasionally led services while swaying in ecstasy (which, fairly or not, I always experienced as mock ecstasy), and where some people tried to talk like a living embodiment of a spiritual self-help book – well, let’s just say that I wanted none of that. Like I said, I’m slightly sarcastic. Moderately irreverent. And, apparently, somewhat given to (sarcastic) understatement, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to become “God’s Little Instruction Book” on feet. I didn’t want to walk around, telling people that I loved their auras, or that I could see into their souls. I still don’t. I don’t like it. I don’t trust it.

But, a funny thing has been happening to me: I find myself, more and more, drawn to questions of spirituality. I’m not even sure exactly what the word means, but “an awareness of the presence of God” is a pretty close definition. I’m going to avoid trying to define, for now, what that pursuit has looked like, because it’s hard to describe with anything approaching conciseness. Maybe in another posting, some day. My reason for talking about it is, I’ve been nervous.

I’ve been nervous that I’m going to start, slowly, turning into someone else. I’ve been at least as nervous (probably more so) that people will think I’ve been turning into something else. One of those ethereal spiritualists who walk around on a cloud of worshipful eminence. Some people might not agree with me, but I kind of like the sarcastic, irreverent me. Maybe a more sincere, reverent version would be better, or would be a better Rabbi*. But, it wouldn’t be me. It took me more than a few years to be comfortable with who I am. I don’t want to change, at least not fundamentally, now.

* please don’t comment with a “oh no – we love you the way you are!” I’m really not fishing for complements with this!

That’s why I loved that section of Eat, Pray, Love so much. It encapsulated, perfectly, the tension I was feeling. The desire to be more spiritual, while still being me. To grow, but not to change, at least, not fundamentally. To be able to be profoundly spiritual – or, more likely, to profoundly search for the spiritual in the world – without having to create or embody a new persona to do it.

Or as Sextus, the ancient Pythagorian philosopher, said, “The wise man is always similar to himself.”

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