Dec 1, 2009

Jay Michaelson in MomentMag: On Fire with Love and Ecstasy

MomentMag: On Fire with Love and Ecstasy
Jay Michaelson
Jeffreys cover

Your Word is Fire: Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer changed writer Jay Michaelson's life.


Why do I write Jewish books, and articles for Jewish newspapers? I never set out to be a parochialist, and I have had some success writing for wider audiences. But there's something to Jewish languages, grammars and inflections that fits in a way that more general ones don't. I don't mean the kitsch of oy vey or the particularisms of intra-tribal speech. I mean the way I am drawn, seemingly inexorably, toward Jewish ways of seeing, speaking, maybe even thinking as well.

Back when I went off to Columbia University in the late 1980s, however, I had had enough of the Jewish thing. Judaism as I understood it was a bourgeois affectation, and a set of preposterous myths. If you wanted to be a good boy, you believed the stuff they told you, wore suits to synagogue and prayed to the God who cared if you played by the rules. But I didn't want to be a good boy. I believed in "their" God about as much as I believed in their golf courses, suburbs and narrow views of the world. And I wasn't interested in the kids who hung around the kosher dining room all the time. So I left.

Nothing like the privileged angry young man, right?

Then, in junior year, I picked up an anthology edited by Arthur Green and Barry Holtz entitled Your Word is Fire: Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer. On a lark, I'd taken a seminar in Jewish mysticism (20 years ago, this was weird and unfashionable). I'd waded through Gershom Scholem's prose, marveled at the baroque theologies of the Zohar—but it was purely a literary exercise. Call it cultural archeology.

Then I read Green's introduction, about how, because everything is in flux, every moment is a point of connection to the ineffable, the inexplicable. I read translations of texts analogizing prayer to sexual intercourse, to being on fire, to unifying with God. And I read about people so on fire with love and ecstasy that they cried, danced, entered trances. Sitting in New York's Riverside Park that spring, Your Word is Fire blew my mind.

Looking back, I think there were several things about the book that had such a powerful effect. First, Green and Holtz's translations were, and remain, works of poetry. The book is worth reading for the white space alone. Green was and is a leader in the Reconstructionist and Havurah movements and currently serves as the rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. Holtz is the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Then there was the experiential, mystical element. The worldview of the Hasidim, unlike that of earlier Kabbalists, is elegantly simple, essentially pantheistic, and centered on ecstatic experiences of transcendence. As a 21-year-old college student interested in the kinds of experiences such students are usually interested in... I was interested.

But in retrospect, I think what really "got me" was that this book expressed a Judaism wholly different from the one I'd experienced growing up as a nice Conservative Jewish boy in Florida and New York.

Your Word is Fire wasn't about being a good boy—it was about breaking boundaries, even of the self. These Hasidic Masters were alive. "Be so stripped of selfhood that you have neither the awareness nor the power to say a single word of your own," one text advised. Yes! How different from the self-aggrandizement of Rosh Hashanah finery and social clubs in drag disguise.

No, these were texts about enlightenment. Ever since I'd learned about Buddhism and Hinduism (also at college, and in the sorts of books a certain kind of intellectual-spiritual kid reads at a certain age), I had been fascinated by mystical experience, enlightenment, awakening, and all that they entailed. Personally, I was tantalized. These altered states, and the truths they were said to impart—what were they? And how could I taste them for myself?

Part of this appeal, no doubt, was that I was a repressed (and closeted) college student, and conventional ecstasy was in short supply. But I was not the only one inspired by Your Word is Fire; it helped ignite an entire movement of "neo-Hasidism," which combines these old mystical forms with contemporary political, ethical and social mores. And even today, many years and many months of silent meditation later, I still open that well-thumbed volume, still use it in my own teaching, and still believe (and now know from my own experience) that spiritual awakening is both attainable and desirable. Precisely because it presented a Judaism so different from the one I had known as a child, Your Word is Fire was the first time I saw that my spiritual interests and my Jewishness could meet in a non-adversarial way. And when I saw how that felt, I saw how much was missing when the Jewish part was absent.

There are days I regard this addiction to Judaism as a predicament. Sometimes I wish I didn't feel so at home here, amid the ethnocentrism, the mediocrity, and the sheer ludicrousness that comes with this identity. Sometimes I wish I, like millions of other well-educated Western Jews, would just get over it.

But other times, of course, I'm grateful for this seemingly intuitive bond with an ancient tradition of letter and spirit. It's a gift, this access to—no, this immediacy of—generations of wisdom. And in part, I have Your Word is Fire to thank. Reading it was the first time I thought Judaism wasn't lame—and the first time I realized I couldn't live without it.—Jay Michaelson

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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