Religion & Beliefs

Jewcy Interview: Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Jews: we’re smart people.  We’ve been working the smart thing for quite some time, and have racked up more than enough impressive names.  But Jews are also naturally skeptical people.  From the treyf-eating nonbelievers to the most pious Hasids, we’ve … Read More

By / April 7, 2010

Jews: we’re smart people.  We’ve been working the smart thing for quite some time, and have racked up more than enough impressive names.  But Jews are also naturally skeptical people.  From the treyf-eating nonbelievers to the most pious Hasids, we’ve spent thousands of years being unsure of things–other people’s opinions, other culture’s rituals–because this is just the way we are. I’ll admit, when the book Gonzo Judaism came across my desk, that skepticism got the best of me.  I thought of the many plots by religious zealots to "relate" to normal people (like myself) who are uncomfortable with religion and who are adverse to the (usually) stale rhetoric.  But before I could make a final decision, I figured that since Goldstein had the good sense to make a reference to Hunter S. Thompson,  I should give the book a try.  That continued for the next few chapters, until finally I realized that I’d completed Goldstein’s blueprint for "renewing an ancient faith." While I understand that anybody working within "the system" has to take small steps in order to make change, I was drawn to Goldstein’s attempts to include both those inside his "system" and outsiders like myself, who are usually uncomfortable with literature that attempts to try and "fix" religion.  Goldstein doesn’t pretend to have all the answers in his book (recently issued in paperback for the first time), but he does seem to be somebody who genuinely wants to find a new path towards both spiritual growth and religious wisdom in the Jewish community. I talked with Rabbi Goldstein by phone; The Anarchist Cookbook, bourbon, and his spiritual guide, Hunter S. Thompson, are some topics we discussed.

Jews have a very long history with literature and the funny thing I was thinking to myself as I picked this up – Hunter S. Thompson, not a Jew. How did you put that together that he was the guy you wanted to base this philosophy on?

I guess, aside from the obvious, like playing with words "Gonzo Journalism", Gonzo Judaism, there’s something about Hunter S. Thompson that despite all of his flaws and problems and imperfections, and ultimately his self-destructiveness, he conveys in a kind of weird way, that prophetic spirit that in many ways I think we have lost.  I think, he conveys it, to my mind, more than many of our contemporary writers that are very cerebral and really wonderful but that don’t really have that same kind of audacity and boorishness that I think he did. So, ethical questions aside about his character, I was trying to capture ugh, something about attitude and approach that, let’s say an author like.. Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth really don’t have … and that I think we need

What got your gears turning in your head that he was the guy that you wanted, I mean, this is a pretty ambitious book, you cover a lot of big topics that people think are wrong with Jewish institutions.  So what was the initial thought that he was the guy you wanted to base this off of? Was it just, one day you were reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, or you just decided this is the guy that you wanted to base this entire book off of?

 

I do not know if I had a "wow!" moment. I know that at the time I was thinking about what kind of project I wanted to do next, and I was in conversation with my literary agent about it and this was, my 7th book, and I was just sort of playing around with different ideas. I was actually staying in a congregant’s cabin just outside of Hood River, Oregon and I was in the mountains, alone in a cabin reading at night, drinking bourbon to keep me company… I was by myself hiking and I guess he popped into my head in some strange way.  Oregon is not Colorado which was his stomping ground for many years, but I think the ghost of Hunter Thompson somehow found its way into my unconscious because it wasn’t anything deliberate.

It was just this kind of moment where I said, you know what? I want to write a manifesto because I’m really pissed off at a lot of things I am seeing having been in the trenches, at that point for over a decade, in the Jewish world or just over a decade as a Rabbi and nobody is publicly writing about these things, speaking about these things and whereas my previous books were general interest spirituality or general interest Judaism and they were about teachings, I wanted to say something that was more of a manifesto than kind of a quote on quote conventional book about religion. And so, I think as soon as I had it my head that I wanted this to feel like a manifesto more than a non-fiction book, he became, maybe unconsciously, kind of an obvious inspiration, that’s why I titled it Gonzo Judaism and that’s why a lot of his kind of, brash audacious spirit permeates the book and that’s why I use an epigraph at the beginning of the book from Hells Angels right above a passage from the book of Jeremiah. They were both really pissed off people because they looked at the societies in which they lived and they saw all kinds of problems and they were not afraid to call truth to power.

It’s hard to sell a lot of skeptics on books about or dealing with religion.  Did you consider that when writing this book, giving it the title you used, etc.?

I knew that this was a book I wanted to write. I had a track record as an author so I was able to sell it to a major publisher, all I really cared about was getting the word out, literally and figuratively and kind of preaching my gospel, the Gonzo gospel. I think a lot of books, and I include myself in authors of this camp, a lot of books written by let’s say believing Jews or Jewish professionals, Rabbis, often talk about Judaism or about Jewish history or Jewish text, etc but very few, in my opinion express what is happening in a meta-sense, you know what is happening out there in the Jewish world. We aren’t talking about fiction, were talking about non-fiction now and I wanted to fill what I thought was a really gaping hole.  It’s gotten good play and I’ve done a lot of speaking about it and talking about it it was just released in paperback and you know some people were ticked off by some of the things I had to say in it but I have to say that by in large whether it was someone who worked in the Jewish professional world or just someone who was rummaging through the Judaica section of Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy.  I have gotten really great feedback. A lot of people have thanked me for saying, for writing publicly what they themselves have felt for so long. They were happy that a Rabbi was kind of going out there and saying what they wanted to say and either weren’t able to because they weren’t writers or too, because they felt too worried about their careers. I do name names, and I do name organizations and I really don’t care, not because Im reckless but because I think I have enough credibility that I, I can do this. And like Hunter Thompson, not to compare myself with him,  but I want to call truth to power because I think that a lot of Jewish leadership, the people that are in positions of power are making a lot of bone-headed decisions. And if I’m not going to say anything as a Rabbi and a writer… who is?

I think that’s a very valid point. One thing I noticed you said was there were people who were ticked off with things you said. Were there people whose response to your book in a positive way surprised you?

I think I was feeling some some colleagues of mine who were serving some main, conventional synagogues, and working very hard ad there were a lot of people out there who have boards that they have to answer to and you have to be sensitive of whats been around for 100 years and has its own culture and its way of doing things. Sometimes you have to approach things gradually.  I am all for acting in bold ways, but on the other hand if there’s someone whose in their 80s or 90s whose committed their whole life to Jewish causes you have to honor that and be respectful of that so I think you have to strike the right balance and its hard.  I was a little surprised by some of my colleagues who, let’s say, have followed pretty conventional career paths who were really grateful to me for writing this and who kind of acknowledged that they weren’t doing enough in their own communities and while this has lead to me getting invited to speaking gigs and consulting work, a lot of them said that this really was kind of a kick in the butt, to them to kind of… and it helped inspire them a little bit to do more. And it gave them little bit more courage to sort of push their leadership, to try to take risks and to do new things and to think out of the box and so that was a little surprising to me because I thought these people might feel I was dissing them… and I wasn’t.  I was trying to let them know they were not alone.

 

So now the paperback is out. Obviously when a book goes into paperback it means its been, by a publisher’s standpoint, somewhat successful. You’ve had a good response. Where do you go now? Where do these ideas go now? What’s the next step?

I’m not sure, because I’ve written another book since then that came out in the Fall called Challenge the Soul, a more general spirituality book, which interweaves my fifteen years of being in the rabbinate with my fifteen years of martial arts. So in terms of Gonzo Judaism, I hope this will have legs.  I am not sure what I want to do in terms of my next book, and I’m not 100% sure what I want to do as I move forward in my career as of August, as of this summer, I became the Rabbi Emeritus of the synagogue I helped to found in 1999, the New Shul in Greenwich Village, so Im really in mid-career and doing a lot of different things. I am about to go to New Zealand for five weeks to, y hike the Milford Track and to speak at different congregations there, so I’m really not sure but the whole brand, so to speak, the whole idea of Gonzo Judaism and how it applies to my career as a Rabbi and how it might have impact on the larger Jewish scene, I guess I’m not sure, to be quite frank. I think I need to still let those ideas marinate a little bit longer.

People seem to be into it.  You must be doing something right that readers can relate to…

Well I appreciate that, I mean you know as well as I do how greedy and difficult the publishing market is these days, so finding breathing room is hard enough. So I hope that through word of mouth and exposure and interviews like this, it will get into the hands of more and more people, primarily disaffected and younger people, because not only do I want to sell books, I really want to get the word out and really have people feel that they can actually affect change, and, what was that famous book in either the 1960’s and 70’s it was like a guidebook to sort of ferment revolution, political revolution… I’m not sure…Something cookbook…

Oh, The Anarchist Cookbook

Exactly. So in a way I hope that this will be true to sort of be like an Anarchist Cookbook to the Judaism of the 21st century and every Jewish man and woman under the age of 40 will have a copy of this in their home and will use it as a manual to… stir up trouble because I think that’s exactly what we need now.

I’ve never heard of somebody saying that they wanted to be compared to The Anarchist Cookbook.   That would be good for sales I’d assume.

Well I think, what do they say? You have to break eggs before you make an omelet and I think as we sort of claw our way into this next millennium, the Jewish community has to wander through the wilderness a little bit more and figure out where its headed next because the directions we’ve been headed have not lead to places most of us find meaningful.  That’s my hope and prayer obviously with this, I mean its my testament, its my manifesto, its my cookbook, and maybe its just a matter of time before more and more people get exposed to it. You know we don’t have a history of missionizing, but in a way, I’ve been able, in my small way because I’m an author was well as a Rabbi, to missionize internally to the Jewish people, and I just hope that as the years unfold I’ll be able to do more and more of that.

What are some other fiction writers that you like?

Jewish or non-Jewish

Just all across the board.

Well, Jewish – I’m a big lover of Kafka, I like a little known writer from Poland, who was killed in the war, named Bruno Schultz.

I love Bruno Schultz.

He’s developed a little bit of a cult following.  I would say I’m a huge fan of writers like, pretty much like the classics, William Faulkner, I do like Hemingway, I like Steinbeck. I am a fan of, even though if I met him in the street I’d want to kick his ass cause he was such a rabid anti-semite of Dostoevsky… ugh I love William Blake and Dante, if were going into Theater I like Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, I’m a big lover of Tennessee Williams and the French playwright Antonin Artaud and actually there’s a Japanese novelist I love, Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku in the early 70’s Spielberg did a movie on him.  He was a candidate for a Nobel Prize and he left that to a different Japanese author, so that’s a lot. I’m not as well read in contemporary, because honestly I don’t find it as compelling as some of the modernist writers but I have such a long backlist of books I need to read. I kind of feel like I need to read more of the classics, Joseph Conrad is another one of course and Sam Shepard and I have to catch up on all of these great books that were written decades ago before I feel its right for me to read fiction that’s been written in the last year or so.

In your opinion, how has Judaism and literature worked so well with each other all these years?

 We’re called the people of the book for a reason. [King] David was a poet, traditionally whether its true or not, from a metaphorical standpoint it’s a very powerful notion. Tradition says that David wrote all 150 psalms and if you go back to the Torah and look at the stories if you look at some of the personalities and what they say or do, if you look at the midrashic tradition you have an evocative and creative, basically rifts on the Torah, its commentary but its commentary couched in a very literary style. If you look at mystical writing, you have beautiful evocative writing that is theological but not philosophical in the sort of conventional way of thinking about philosophy, its much more poetic. Once you move on to more conventional genres like the novel or drama or poetry, we have some of the greats. So I think literature, broadly defined, has always been a fundamental part of Jewish life, Jewish culture, Jewish civilization. And I think that its been one of our anchors — whether its been religious or as we’ve moved on more secular in nature and I have no doubt that that’s going to continue.