Challenge of the Soul

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein on the qualities we need to nourish in order to face the challenges of our life with less fear and more courage.

Niles Elliot Goldstein
7 May 2009
Photo by Cristian Newman

When I speak with artists, writers, and composers, they frequently describe their work, not as something that they achieve, but rather that they receive. While it is common for religious mystics to describe experiences of having their souls possessed by the divine spirit, even atheists in the creative fields often talk about the role of the Muse as the mysterious source that inspires their craft. This shouldn’t surprise us. The etymological root of the word “inspiration” means the internalization of spirit—for that to occur, though, we must be open and receptive to it. The borderlines between creative inspiration and spiritual revelation are much more porous than most of us usually think.

The Sabbath highlights this point. Erich Fromm, the important countercultural psychoanalyst, discusses in his book You Shall Be As Gods how the Sabbath embodies that same synthesis of the material and the spiritual. The Sabbath—arguably the key observance in biblical religion—is an expression of freedom in its fullest form. Yet it is a freedom anchored firmly in the ideas of giving up and of giving over.

The Sabbath, in traditional Judaism and Christianity, is a day when we are supposed to refrain from work. Why? By not working, Fromm observes, we are no longer participants in, nor are we bound by, the process of natural and social change. This “frees” us from the limitations of time—for just one day a week. The Sabbath represents messianic time, providing us, if we choose to accept it, with a taste of eternity.

It is not work or production that are paramount values for Fromm, but “rest.” In the context of the Sabbath, it is this state of rest that sets us free, that humanizes us, that allows us to experience life in its purist manifestation. It has no other purpose, nor does it strive for one. As a humanist and a clinician, the Sabbath must have seemed to Fromm a very effective vehicle for both character development and self-actualization.

Yet there are other, more metaphysical (and even mystical) ways to view the Sabbath, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential modern rabbi and activist, offers us one in his own book, The Sabbath. For him, unlike Fromm, the Sabbath synthesizes the psycho-spiritual and the aesthetic. On that holy day, each one of us is given the opportunity to act as an artisan of the soul, to participate in the creation of what he calls “a palace in time.” That spiritual architecture, however, is contingent on our working to construct it: without its builders doing their job, the palace cannot come into existence. The paradox of the Sabbath is that our “work” and our freedom are the consequence of merely being. When we take up residence in the palace, and when we allow the palace to dwell inside us, we create a harmony of mind and spirit, of human and divine.

We live fully in the moment, in the eternal now.

Some religious thinkers, such as Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century existentialist, argue that authentic faith (and the inner rewards that flow from it) requires that we make a leap into a world of uncertainty, that we embrace an attitude of absolute resignation about our capacity to grasp the transcendent mystery of God: “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith,” he writes in Fear and Trembling, “for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.” This act of “surrender” is active rather than passive, an expression of courage and strength rather than fear and weakness. What it represents is an affirmation of our fundamental, though finite, humanity.

Fromm, a staunch non-mystic, refers to this as possessing the “x attitude.” He claims that, whether or not there is a God, cultivating this kind of an attitude toward life and the world can be of immense benefit to us as human beings, for it results in “a letting go of one’s ‘ego,’ one’s greed, and with it, one’s fears; a giving up the wish to hold onto the ‘ego’ as if it were an indestructible, separate entity; a making oneself empty in order to be able to fill oneself with the world, to respond to it, to become one with it, to love it. To make oneself empty does not express passivity but openness.”

It is only when we empty ourselves and give over, when our dreams and desires become intertwined with those of the divine, that our lives can take on a freer and more fulfilling dimension. Relinquishing our preoccupation with self and accepting the constraints of our “mortal coil” (to cite Shakespeare) are not easy tasks, but what we receive in return is a renewed, deeper, and more meaningful existence.

The paradox of being a spiritual warrior is that the channels for our strength originate in places we don’t ordinarily expect them to. Yet it is precisely in these areas—emptiness, openness, and receptivity—that we can discover tremendous reservoirs of power. The Hebrew word Kabbalah, for instance, one of the great (and probably best known) of the Jewish mystical movements, translates as “that which is received.” To put it another way, genuine mystical experience is something that comes to us, not something that we can go out and “get.” It is the result of giving over, not of giving up.

This involves a lot of hard work. When we learn (and train) to inculcate these mindsets and attitudes within ourselves, we will gain freedom, power, and the confidence to confront new situations and challenges, however daunting they may seem.
As a well-traveled rabbi who had visited Jews and Jewish communities from Fairbanks, Alaska to Port Douglas, Australia, I thought I’d seen it all. I’d witnessed religious customs and traditions from all over the world, some of them familiar (like lighting Sabbath candles at a home in Rio de Janeiro) and some of them new and a bit disconcerting (like being served the decapitated head of a carp for dinner on a Friday night by a Yemenite family). But officiating at a Bukharan wedding ceremony in Kew Gardens, Queens—of all places—beat out all of them by a pretty good margin. And it taught me that among the customs of at least one Jewish ethnic group, a symbolic expression of openness and vulnerability is one of the very first acts that a new couple must make before they embark on their journey together through life.

Right before my fifth and final year of rabbinical school, I spent the summer traveling through Central Asia, a remote and exotic region of nomads, horsemen, and the ancient Silk Road. It was 1993. All three of the countries that I visited—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan—hadn’t even existed until a year earlier, having been republics in the former Soviet Union. My mission was to bring Judaism to Jews, Jews who had been prevented from openly practicing their religion under Soviet rule. I led services, went with mourners to say prayers at the graves of family members, and lectured on Jewish history, among other activities. It was all so fascinating and fulfilling to me. It felt like religion in the raw. There I was, feeding the hungry souls of men and women who had been denied their spiritual sustenance for decades.

I met with Jews of all different ethnic backgrounds since, under Stalin, they’d been sent to Central Asia from places as far away as East Germany, Poland, the Ukraine, and elsewhere, in his efforts to “Sovietize” every citizen by whitewashing their geographical, cultural, and religious distinctions. In Uzbekistan, though, I visited one community of Jews who seemed to have successfully thwarted Stalin’s efforts.

The Bukharan Jews (their name derives from the ancient town of Bukhara) trace their ancestry to the Babylonian exile, over 2,500 years ago. While their history is a matter of scholarly dispute, the Bukharans have lived in the region of modern Uzbekistan for many centuries. They are a small community when compared to Ashkenazi Jews like myself, for example, who have family roots in large swaths of Eastern Europe, but they are very proud of their traditions, many of which are unique to them.

Today, most of the Bukharan Jews I met in Uzbekistan have moved either to Israel or to the United States, and there is a strong, tightly-knit population of them in New York City (particularly in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens).

So when I received a call several years ago from Misha, a Bukharan friend who’d immigrated to Kew Gardens not long after my visit to Samarkand (his birthplace and the religious and cultural center of the Bukharan community the world over), I wasn’t that surprised to hear from him. And I was extremely honored when he asked if I would officiate at the wedding ceremony of his oldest daughter in their new apartment.

“But I’m not Bukharan,” I said, knowing how unusual it was for an outsider to play such an important role in the insular Bukharan community.

“You are still rabbi,” he replied in heavily-accented English.

The ceremony was beautiful. Misha had set up the chuppa, or marriage canopy, in the middle of their living room, and the young couple and I were surrounded by family and friends. I went through the standard set of blessings and prayers. About halfway through the ritual, however, something quite unfamiliar started to take place.

Out of the blue, the bridegroom began to unzip his pants. I tried not to notice and continued reading. But then, he opened his fly completely, letting the flaps of his dress pants dangle over his thighs and exposing his underwear to the entire room. Nobody seemed to pay attention or care. It was if he were merely clearing his throat.

Okay, I thought to myself, this guy is a new immigrant, and it is pretty hot in here with all these people around. Maybe he’s just nervous and trying to ventilate.

As I neared the conclusion of the ceremony, the bridegroom zipped his pants back up as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Then it dawned on me. Nothing unusual had occurred—at least not in a Bukharan wedding. I’d witnessed a new (but probably very ancient) Jewish religious tradition I’d never seen before, and as I reflected on its symbolism and most likely meaning, the whole thing eventually made sense.

In the very last moments before a spiritual union between this couple could take place, the bridegroom had to show, in a public way, that he had absolutely nothing to hide or to fear, that he was exposed, vulnerable, but ready to face their future.
By allowing himself to be truly open, through an overt (as well as metaphorical) act, this young man was following the way of the warrior, whether he knew it or not.

We should never underestimate the elemental power that inheres within our openness, within the dynamic way that “emptying” ourselves (of ego, greed, and fear) allows us to become more receptive to the rewards of the spirit—and the flesh.