Religion & Beliefs

Judaism: It’s Amazing!

This week we're lucky enough to have guest blogger Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, author of The Art of Amazement. Rabbi Seinfeld has degrees in Classics and Anthropology from Stanford University, and also studied Buddhism before he was ordained as a rabbi. … Read More

By / June 4, 2007

This week we're lucky enough to have guest blogger Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, author of The Art of Amazement. Rabbi Seinfeld has degrees in Classics and Anthropology from Stanford University, and also studied Buddhism before he was ordained as a rabbi. His book explains how Judaism should lead to a transcendental life full of amazement, and is full of exercises and tips for a fulfilling spiritual life. Faith Hacker Tamar Fox interviewed him on some of the concepts he covers in his book.

TF: What was the impetus for writing this book? It sounds like you see a real lack of amazement and appreciation in contemporary culture and life, but was there a specific incident that lead you towards this understanding on Judaism and fulfilling transcendent thought?

AS: When I started life as an adult, I had read a lot of Plato-to-Nato philosophers, and had you asked me, I would have called myself a Buddhist. So I was tuned-in to the concept and practice of meditation and transcendent awareness. But I was still exploring. I did not think that I had found the ultimate path, only one that was working for me at the present time.

So my explorations took me to many corners, including Paris.

Eventually I found myself in Israel, trying to reconcile who I was at the time with 3,300 years of Jewish tradition. I honestly had no idea what I was doing or where I was heading, both geographically and emotionally. I was a wandering Jew par excellence.

One day I wandered into a class on a youth hostel rooftop in the Old City of Jerusalem. The rabbi teaching the class was young and clean-shaven, and the minute he opened his mouth, a thousand and one preconceptions were shattered in my mind. He sounded like a Bodhisattva but looked like me and everything he said was…Jewish.

The amazing thing is that the more I learned Hebrew and was able to crack open the ancient books, the more I learned that Judaism has all the tools anyone needs for a completely transcendent spirituality, and that before arriving to Jerusalem, I had never met a Jew who "got it". That's when I started to think about writing a book.

TF: In your book you define Judaism as a system for cultivating pleasure. If that's the case, why don't we see more pleasure in the day to day life of most Jewish communities? I know many observant Jews who don't seem to be enjoying much pleasure these days. If observing the mitzvot isn't enough to achieve transcendence, are the lives of observant but not transcendent people meaningless?

AS: The key to the transcendent approach to Jewish thought and practice is not in being Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Recontructionist, Jewish Renewal, Ju-Bu (listed in chronological order), nor is it in NOT being one or more of those Jewish labels. I've met Jews affiliated with all of the above who get it, and those who don't.

So what's the secret?

In my opinion, the secret to a great sense of connectedness and pleasure in your life is learning how to do one single mitzvah with what we call kavana – focus or attentiveness. It's all about kavana. This is similar to the Buddhist idea of mindfulness, but has specific meaning in each practice. Kavana is not merely being mindful of what I'm doing, it's also being mindful of the specific transcendent value (as defined by Judaism) of what I'm doing.

Surprisingly (even to myself) I don't talk about the concept of mitzvah in the book. I was intending to save this for the next book. I will blog about this topic this week (and perhaps doing so will help me get that next volume out!)

TF: The Art of Amazement struck me as a book for people who are just beginning a journey with Judaism. What about those of us with a strong background in Judaism who are familiar with the meditations of the Shma and the Amidah, who even say them daily? I found it harder to integrate your ideas about the Infinite and amazement into my davening because my habits are so firmly formed already. How can we teach ourselves to turn off the autopilot?

AS: This is an interesting question because many traditionally-trained readers have told me that the book has helped their kavana in their prayers and davvening. If you make a bracha without pausing to think about what you are doing, or without concentrating on the meaning of each and every word, then you're saying it wrong. And if you think that "Baruch atah" means "Blessed are you" (or "Blessed art Thou" then you're saying it wrong. I've just described 95 percent of the brachot of 85 percent of people who make daily brachot.

Now, our sages advise that if you make a bracha with the bare minimum of kavana, then that's good enough, even though it's not ideal. What about the Sh'ma?

Answer: If you say the first line of the Sh'ma without 100 percent kavana, it's as if you didn't say anything, and you are supposed to say it again. According to one sage, this rule applies to Baruch Shaym K'vod etc. as well!

It seems to me that just knowing this importance of kavana should help the more observant person get off auto-pilot.

There are other tricks for the observant person that I'll blog about this week.

TF: The Art of Amazement is so sophisticated and involves such careful examination of self and the Infinite that I wondered about how these ideas can be successfully transmitted to kids. Many of us are dedicated to Jewish education, but I can't imagine how these ideas could be taught to a second grader, or even an eighth grader. Are there ways of conveying the Art of Amazement to kids? What are they? Or is this something you have to come to as an adult?

AS: It's easy to teach the Art of Amazement to children. We use the wonders of creation to instill awe in them. We teach them to eat slowly and with kavana. See the Appendix in my book, there is a section called "The Seven Minute Orange" which is an exercise that works great with kids. My five year old daughter occasionally corrects me while I'm eating: "Abba, you forgot to close your eyes!" So I hope that means we're doing something right for her.

TF: What of a non-Jew who reads your book? Should he or she pursue the guidelines of the Torah? How does a non-Jew achieve transcendence?

AS: It is not unusual for non-Jews to ask about incorporating Jewish wisdom and practice into their lives. According to the Torah, they have fewer mitzvas but can certainly achieve transcendence through their seven mitzvahs and even through some of ours if they elect to do them. I will comment further on this topic when I blog about mitzvahs. But the short answer is that the simple practices that I teach in Chapters 4, 5 and 7 are certainly open to Jew and Gentile alike. The other chapters require more discussion.

TF: I applaud your discussion of the importance of self-respect before consideration of looking good. But what do you make of all of the programs, specifically fitness programs, that try to synthesize self-respect and good looks? The message is often that you can't achieve self respect without a hearty fitness regimen. Do you think this a lie, a half-truth, a manipulation…? How much should physical well-being complement self-respect?

AS: The mitzvah of taking care of your body goes at least as far back as the Talmud. But it has nothing to do with how you look, only your health. The only spiritual justification I can think of for paying attention to one's physical appearance is to please one's spouse. I'm not talking about basic grooming and hygiene. I mean appearance for its own sake. If that's part of your self-respect, then you are thinking like a body and not like a soul.

That said, I think there is an ulterior spiritual benefit to a fitness regimen. It takes a tremendous amount of will power to get onto such a regimen. Doing so requires overcoming the body's laziness. Overcoming laziness is a key to self-control, which is a primary spiritual value. So even if there were no health or beauty benefits, a fitness program might be recommended.

TF: You talk about men and women not being equal, but being perfect complements of one another. What kind of implications do you think this should have in terms of day to day life for men and women? If women are better suited for home life, cooking, cleaning, and raising children, what of women who work outside the home? Are they throwing off the balance of the complementary structure? And what of men who stay home with their children?

AS: I don't think that I ever said women are better suited for home life than men. They are definitely better – on average – at nurturing young children. I think we all know both women who have balanced children with a career and women who have not balanced them so well. It seems to me that each woman (and man) should examine themselves honestly and make a decision based on who they are.

I like to point to my own mother as a great role model. She waited until her youngest child was able to dress herself and in school before going to graduate school herself. She then proceeded to have a very successful and fulfilling career. Is this the only way to do it? Of course not. But it worked for her. She was able to do both. But she decided at a young age that she would be most successful as a mother if she started that "career" early and I don't think she ever regretted her decision, not for a moment. What percentage of women who put off family until their 40s can say the same?

Now, for the substance of your question, the complimentary nature of the yin-yang does not require that one partner be at home while the other is out, but it seems to work out that way often. There is nothing in Jewish thought that I have ever seen that relegates the woman to the home and the man to the outside, or vice-versa. It often works out that way because of the mother's unique abilities with young children. But most fundamentally, I hope that this yin-yang idea will help people appreciate rather than rue the differences with their spouses. We are two halves of a whole rather than two partners in a joint venture.

The fact that we are so different in certain ways forces me to get out of my own narrow perspective and see life from a radically different perspective. Doing so requires humility and detachment from ego, both of which are the most basic building blocks of a spiritual life.

This week, I would like each day to explore a topic that does not get enough treatment in my book. These will include:

God as an anthropomorphism v. Man as a deomorphism (I invented that word). Mitzvah – what is it and what difference does it make Shabbat – if it's not a day of rest, what is it? The nature of evil

Comments are welcome, questions even more!