Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faithby Niles Elliot Goldstein
here is a book that is both a clarion call for a new Jewish agenda and a blueprint for an adventurous but genuine path toward spiritual growth and religious wisdom. Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, founder and Rabbi Emeritus of The New Shul in New York City, says that most conventional Jewish institutions are out of touch with modern Jews. Goldstein challenges Jews to
here is a book that is both a clarion call for a new Jewish agenda and a blueprint for an adventurous but genuine path toward spiritual growth and religious wisdom. Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, founder and Rabbi Emeritus of The New Shul in New York City, says that most conventional Jewish institutions are out of touch with modern Jews. Goldstein challenges Jews to adopt the "gonzo" spirit-the rebellious, risk-taking attitude associated with the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson-and to take bold, creative, forward-looking steps to reshape and revitalize contemporary Judaism.
Goldstein urges readers to take a fresh look at contemporary Jewish life, to become educated about its history and traditions, to discover what is authentic, yet what also feels spiritually relevant and meaningful, and to create a Jewish culture and community rooted in affirmation, joy, and celebration. He provides a wealth of information on numerous organizations, institutions, synagogues, grassroots groups, and networks as well as periodicals that can help you get started on the gonzo path.
“Goldstein backs up the title [Gonzo Judaism] with a legitimately creative and irreverent idea about how to engage with Judaism anew: Look to the old. . . . This is clearly one promising rabbi: he has equal knowledge of (and appreciation for) both ancient tradition and contemporary life.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Rabbi Goldstein has written a ‘Fear and Loathing on the Torah Trail’ that’s kick-ass but also wise and full of good ideas for what ails American Judaism. He shows that the greatest reverence can come from irreverence.”—Newsweek
"Goldstein's writing is quick and direct; he's bold enough to say things most Jews are afraid to utter."—Jewish Chronicle
- St. Martin's Press
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
Gonzo JudaismA Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith
By Goldstein, Niles
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Goldstein, Niles
All right reserved.
Get Out of Your Damn Head—
and into Your Gut
It was definitely old school. You had the tall, stained-glass windows, the vast and vaulted ceiling, long rows of fixed pews, the professional choir singing from behind a screen, the omnipresent organ, and the clergy wearing black polyester robes.
The worship service was very high church—but this place was a synagogue.
I had been invited to give a guest lecture at a large, affluent congregation in a New York suburban area. During the Sabbath service and prior to my remarks, I’d been sitting on an elevated stagelike structure, a bimah, in one of the seats reserved for clergy and other “special people,” like synagogue presidents and local politicians.
You don’t like to bite the hand that feeds you, so I sat politely and patiently through all of the liturgical “Thees” and “Thous,” the operatic, nonparticipatory music, the formal and rigid choreography of sitting and standing at the appropriate moments, and the English responsive readings performed in perfect unison.
I felt like a caged animal.
Still, I was a young rabbi with a job to do, and I was grateful for the opportunityto expose this staid, conservative community to a little Jewish mysticism. I had recently returned from a summer adventure in Central Asia, through the newly independent nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The Judaism that I was exposed to there—raw, tribal, and impassioned—had opened my eyes to a more visceral form of Jewish life than I had known here in the United States.
As I sat before the congregation, I was wearing a token of my trip through the Silk Road—an oversized, brightly colored yarmulke that was customarily worn by men in that remote, ancient region, both at services and on the street. With the exception of four or five other congregants, everyone else was bareheaded. But I didn’t think much about my yarmulke. I just liked the way it looked, as well as the way it felt as it embraced my skull.
Toward the end of the service I gave my talk, in which I examined some of the core teachings and myths of Lurianic Kabbalah, a bold (and somewhat subversive) sixteenth-century twist on classical Jewish mysticism. I presented its radical ideas about creation and redemption and explained its focus on intuition rather than reason as the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe as well as those of the soul. I discussed how, for Rabbi Isaac Luria and his circle of disciples, human beings were viewed—literally—as miniature worlds, as conveyed through the Kabbalistic aphorism Adam hu olam katan (Man is a microcosmos). What this meant was that the boundary between the finite and the Infinite was far more porous than most of us have been led to believe by mainstream Judaism.
When I finished I invited the congregation to ask me any questions they might have. The senior rabbi walked up to the lectern and whispered, “We don’t do that here.”
After the service I spent a few minutes with the senior rabbi in his lavish office, with its dark wood paneling, huge desk and high chair, bay windows, and walls dotted with photographs of the rabbi shaking hands with a few former vice presidents and foreign ministers. Save for the religious texts on one of the walls, I could just as easily have been in the office of the CEO of Merrill Lynch or Smith Barney.
“Quite an interesting talk,” said the senior rabbi, an impeccably groomed man in his sixties who is a respected figure in the Jewish establishment. But his intonation of the word “interesting” made it sound like what he really meant was, “Not bad for an upstart punk, but you’ve got a lot to learn about being a rabbi in today’s world.”
I thanked him for the opportunity to speak from his pulpit and I wished him well.
“There’s just one thing,” he added.
“Oh?” I asked.
A dramatic pause. I instinctively—almost protectively—reached for the top of my head. “This? What about it?”
“It’s just—it’s just not in the spirit of the Sabbath. Its striking size, all those vivid colors . . . The Sabbath is about sober reflection and contemplation. That yarmulke is not dignified or decorous. It’s primitive. It conveys too much emotion.”
Is this guy for real? I wondered. Not in the spirit of the Sabbath? Too much emotion? What does this overripe, trapped-in-his-brain cleric think a Sabbath ceremony should feel like—a funeral?
I remember musing to myself, I’ll be sure to stay very sober and calm the next time. You’re absolutely right—this yarmulke represents a dangerous and slippery slope. The harder stuff is right around the corner. Before you know it, I’ll be drinking rat poison, playing with snakes, and speaking in tongues.
Though this episode occurred several years ago, it is emblematic of one of the great pathologies of modern Jewry and of Westerners in general—our inability to get out of our heads, and our incapacity to trust our hearts. This is partly the residue of the Enlightenment, a complex historical event that opened humanity’s eyes and minds, but in some ways closed its soul. While its emphasis on reason and scientific method led to great advances in industry, technology, social structure, medicine, and our knowledge about ourselves and the universe, its inherent triumphalism—and dogmatism—dismissed most forms of faith as mere superstition, and gradually reshaped organized religion in its own image.
Religious institutions were gutted of any deep emotionality and instead became seats of cerebralism: Liturgies became statements of creed rather than expressions of yearning; sermons became rarefied and highly intellectual, often referring to God in a distanced, detached way, as “the Deity” rather than by one of the many personal names found in the Bible; the clergy, dressed in academic-looking gowns, led services and preached from lofty platforms far removed from their congregants below; and religious rituals, unless they were compatible with rational explanation, took a backseat to words or disappeared entirely.
In defiance of this phenomenon, there were voices of protest. Nietzsche, though not religious in a formal sense, declared that he lived in the age of the death of God—and he didn’t declare it with glee. Kierkegaard, who argued that faith was an act of the will, not of the mind, castigated his bourgeois Copenhagen community for killing off Christianity. And even in the less cosmopolitan, more rural environment of Eastern European Jewry, a brash and populist mystical movement—Hasidism—emerged, largely in opposition to the overly rationalistic and legalistic Judaism of the time. Hasidism claimed that the lifeblood of Judaism was its spirituality, its genius for uncovering sanctity and mystery in seemingly commonplace activities like eating, drinking, and sex. Making love on the Sabbath, for instance, was viewed as one of the highest levels of spiritual expression.
Enlightenment ideas formed the bedrock of our own society and bestowed authority to the powers that ran it, and though changes are certainly afoot today, for most of us the head still trumps the heart. That’s why my colorful, distinctly unsober yarmulke bothered that rabbi so much. He saw it, probably unconsciously, as a threat—to his worldview, to his take on religion, even to his ecclesiastical position. Why else would an intelligent, well-educated man make as stupid a statement as he did?
The Jewish Sabbath—Shabbat—isn’t simply about “sober reflection and contemplation.” Shabbat is about many things, including quiet rumination, but fundamentally it is about the affirmation and celebration of life itself. It is our coat of many colors, the beautiful garment Jews get to wrap ourselves in every seventh day. Shabbat is the quintessence of oneg, of joyfulness.
So is Judaism.
When we lose sight of that fact, when we take the joy out of Judaism, we begin to destroy the very thing we supposedly love.
In the movie Jerry Maguire Tom Cruise plays a sports agent whose client wants Cruise’s character to demonstrate, not just talk about, his allegiance and commitment to the player’s football career and family. With the famous phrase “Show me the money!” the wide receiver tosses out a challenge and a charge. He is asking his agent to do his job—but he is also asking him to prove his love.
How deeply passionate are our religious leaders, our agents of Jewish life and practice? If we really, truly loved our Judaism, wouldn’t we want to share it with—and demonstrate it to—others in an emotional, heartfelt way? Maybe we rabbis need a good kick in the butt from the Jewish community in order to get our blood flowing, to feel rather than just talk. Maybe we need you to shout, “Show me the passion!”
Jews have been voting with their feet, and those feet have been walking in places other than the aisles of synagogues. The majority of contemporary Jews do not belong to congregations. According to the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey, only 46 percent of the 5.2 million Jews in America belong to congregations. That percentage is by all accounts dramatically lower for those under the age of thirty-five, a crucial demographic that the NJPS didn’t even bother to poll. Modern Judaism, so heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, is not speaking to people. Yet that’s not just the fault of the synagogue; it’s also the fault of Jews ourselves for not getting over our baggage from the lousy Hebrew school experiences we had as children, or, perhaps on a subconscious level, for not being able to relinquish some of our own reliance on reason and to begin to trust our hearts and our guts to lead us down the right path.
We’ve created a catch-22 situation—we don’t practice Judaism because it seems too intellectualized and doesn’t touch our souls, yet we’re afraid of genuinely letting go, of exposing ourselves, of the uncertainties of faith.
There are some Jewish groups out there willing to take risks, to experiment with more emotional modes of Jewish expression and identity. That’s a start. But, sadly, all too often these groups fall into the trap of anti-intellectualism, opening up one of our God-given capacities while shutting off the other. We see this in much of the Jewish Renewal movement, in its communities and teachers. Their warm and fuzzy brand of Judaism may wash down easily, and it may focus more on emotionality, but like any kind of comfort food it will ultimately make us sleepy and lethargic. My personal experiences in Renewal communities have usually felt like therapy sessions—a lot of talking, a lot of self-expression, a lot of outpouring of feelings.
My brain, however, felt underused and flabby. And I’m not looking for Twinkies to nourish my soul.
But I don’t want gruel, either. Though they stand at opposite ends of the religious spectrum, ultra-Orthodox Judaism has much in common with the Renewal movement. In its rejection of most of the major ideas of the Enlightenment, ultra-Orthodoxy has adopted a shtetl mentality and structure, closing itself off from the modern world by living in insular enclaves either carved out of urban areas (such as Brooklyn) or far removed in the country (as in the Catskills). While not necessarily as emotionally open as the Renewal crowd, ultra-Orthodox Jews can be just as anti-intellectual, yet in a radically different way. Their literalist, black-and-white approach to Judaism leaves no room, in any meaningful sense, for critical thought and mindful exploration. As religious fundamentalists, they don’t think—they absorb.
Both of these groups, regardless of denomination, offer responses to the problems of contemporary Judaism.
Both responses stink.
The Renewal movement gives us more heart, but at the expense of our head; ultra-Orthodoxy lets us keep our head, but limits it to serving as a sponge for the infallible truths it dictates. Yet our brain is not, and never has been, the enemy. The enemy is the way in which, for the last couple of centuries, we’ve granted reason and rationality absolute primacy over all of the other elements that constitute the whole human being. Our era now cries out for something different and new, something far more difficult to achieve—a balance of head and heart.
We need “hybrid” models of Jewish life, models that allow for the healthy coexistence and creative interplay of intellect and emotion. And by emotion I’m not talking about superficial, vapid exuberance, but authentic, real feeling—deep, complex, and heartfelt.
That’s not as easy as it sounds. As much as I love my own congregation, The New Shul, getting our members to simply put their hands together and clap during worship services (forget about dancing in the aisles) is often like extracting molars—and I’m the rabbi of a congregation in Greenwich Village, New York, a neighborhood that serves as a symbol (or at least used to) of free, open, uninhibited expression. It’s frustrated the hell out of me. I’ve actually stopped services on occasion and, lovingly, chastised our community, urging them to get out of their skulls and into their guts, their kishkes, if they ever expect the prayers to do anything for them.
Religion is something you have to experience concretely and directly. It isn’t an abstract, ethereal idea, nor is it a “thing” that you gaze at from a distance with wonderment or incredulity, like you would the Grand Canyon or a bearded lady. At its best, religion is not only accessible, but a force that flows through your entire body, from your nerve endings to your cerebellum.
It is something that you live.
One of the hybrid models that my community and others have adopted successfully, a model that is both experiential and alive, is the Hasidic tish. In the Yiddish language, tish translates simply as “table,” but in the spiritual context it means much more. The origin of the tish ritual is murky (it goes back at least two centuries), yet even now, modern-day Hasidic men still gather around long tables to drink, eat, sing, and listen to words of wisdom and inspiration from their rebbes, their rabbinic gurus. These joyous—and sometimes rowdy—occasions are usually held on festivals or on Saturdays near dusk, at the end of Shabbat.
But you don’t have to be Hasidic, or male, to hold a tish. You don’t even need a synagogue (though they can serve as boilerplates to build from). All you need is a group of friends, a knowledgeable leader, and a chilled bottle of vodka.
Since my fiercely independent congregation is not affiliated with any established denomination or ideology, we feel absolutely free to draw from both progressive innovations as well as from earlier, even discarded or arcane, Jewish practices. Some of our religious events and observances are more traditional than you’d find in a typical liberal synagogue, while others are avant-garde and experimental (more on some of those, both in my shul and in others, later). Through both our name and our approach to Judaism, we’ve strived hard to create a community that harmonizes not only the head and the heart but the old and the new.
The Hasidic tish has given us one such opportunity. Yet we have taken this traditional structure and given it a downtown edge. A tish at The New Shul may still take place around a table, and it may still occur at dusk on the eve of a festival or on a Saturday night, but it is far different in nature from a tish you’d find in Brooklyn or Bnei Brak (an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Israel). Though, as our shul’s rabbi, I usually lead the tish, I’m no guru, and I am not treated like one. Rather than sitting passively and listening to my self-indulgent ramblings, my community actively engages me in dialogue—and it can get raucous and heated. My reaction? Bring it on. I’ll toss out a provocative idea (such as whether Judaism can exist without a belief in God) or pass out a controversial text (on, for example, the various and sometimes conflicting Jewish views on evil), and then we’ll mix it up. Our own version of the tish is egalitarian, interactive, nonhierarchical, passionate.
It’s a kind of dance. At times it’s more of a brawl.
But it is always as soulful as it is intellectual. Our discussion may function as the centerpiece of the tish, but it is circumscribed by singing. Ellen Gould, our musical soloist and cofounder, generally leads the table in a variety of niggunim, or wordless melodies—Hasidic creations that are highly accessible and participatory. Some of the niggunim that Ellen chooses are warm and uplifting; some convey blues and longing. And when you add booze and food to this mystical concoction, you get a powerful ritual that feeds the heart and mind simultaneously. The tish isn’t a formal service, and it isn’t a campfire sing-along. Yet it is always life affirming and spirit moving, always an experience.
It’s just that experiential component that is the key to resuscitating contemporary Jewish life. Men and women in today’s society, including Jews, want to do and experience things for themselves—take a look at the enormous commercial success of companies like Home Depot and Ikea, or the explosive growth of the exotic and adventure travel industries. The same is true in the realm of religion. We’re tired of being “Jews in the Pews,” of being talked at as if we were an audience in an academic lecture hall. Many of us are tired of sitting in the pews altogether.
So let’s examine another hands-on, hybrid example of Jewish practice, but one that is far more individualistic in form and focus. I find myself yet again turning to the classical Hasidic mystical tradition, to a ritual developed and refined two centuries ago by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a spiritual master who knew firsthand the inner poles of light and dark, as well as the shadowy regions in between, of the human psyche. The practice is called hitbodedut, and it is best translated as “self-seclusion” or “self-isolation.”
The basic idea behind this ritual, which originated as a solitary practice, is very simple: In a private, preferably natural setting, we address God directly. Removed from the formal context and liturgy of the synagogue, and from the company of other people, we express to our Creator—using our own thoughts or words—whatever it is that is going on inside us. We can “converse,” pray, plead, confess, repent, cry, meditate. For this practice to work, all we really need are open minds and open hearts. Any emotional expression or feeling will do—whether it be joy, gratitude, serenity, or frustration, doubt, even anger. Reb Nachman says that during hitbodedut, we can even pray for the ability to pray. This highly personal practice is a totally unique experience for everyone, and it depends entirely on what an individual is going through as well as how vulnerable and honest that person is willing to be.
I’ve led hitbodedut exercises for synagogues, universities, and retreat centers, and I never know what to expect. Age doesn’t matter. Geography doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to matter but the state of a person’s soul.
When we all return from the practice at a predetermined time, from our nooks and crannies in the woods and fields—our private sanctuaries where, as Reb Nachman says, “the grass will awaken your heart”—I ask those who have participated to share what their experience was like with the rest of the group. Sometimes they say it was life changing, and that it allowed them to access and reveal secret places of struggle and pain that had been festering in their hearts; other times participants have just sat on tree stumps and watched the clouds go by. I’ve seen some weep, while others smirked.
One of my like-minded colleagues and somebody not afraid to push boundaries is Rabbi Mordecai Finley, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles and a former marine. Finley has incorporated hitbodedut into his personal observance with a regularity that makes me jealous. Maybe it’s because of his challenging experiences “out in the field” back when he was a jarhead that Finley grasps, probably better than most, the raw, elemental power of this Hasidic ritual, a ritual that blends self-reflection with self-expression. Finley—like other rabbis I know—is convinced that hitbodedut makes him a better religious teacher, but that it also takes him out of the world of mainstream Judaism. And he couldn’t give a damn.
What on earth could be more gonzo than standing toe-to-toe with God and laying it all on the line—or wandering through the woods talking, crying, shouting, laughing, and swearing? Best of all, we can practice hitbodedut spontaneously and independently, anytime, anywhere, and with absolutely no prerequisites.
Copyright © 2006 by Niles Elliot Goldstein. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Gonzo Judaism by Goldstein, Niles Copyright © 2006 by Goldstein, Niles. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the founder and Rabbi Emeritus of The New Shul in New York City. His essays and poetry have appeared in various publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and the Forward. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Real Simple, and the Jewish Week, as well as on television and radio.
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