Arts & Culture

The JewBu’s Guide to Eat Pray Love

If not for the Dalai Lama, I wouldn’t be in rabbinical school. And if not for a decade-long affair with Buddhism, I wouldn’t be a Rabbi-in-training, and certainly not a practicing Jew. So I understand where Elizabeth Gilbert is coming … Read More

By / March 24, 2008

If not for the Dalai Lama, I wouldn’t be in rabbinical school. And if not for a decade-long affair with Buddhism, I wouldn’t be a Rabbi-in-training, and certainly not a practicing Jew.

So I understand where Elizabeth Gilbert is coming from in the “Pray” section of her wildly popular bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. In “Pray,” Gilbert—a nominal Protestant from New England—moves to an ashram in India where she becomes a devout student of a Hindu guru and has moments of pure bliss and communion with God.

Maureen Farrell at The New York Post and other critics have complained that the spiritual activity Gilbert recounts in “Pray” proves only that she’s self-absorbed, vapid, and irresponsible. Her record of her passage to India, they say, is the height of American self-help narcissism—a self-involvement distinctly at odds with ‘true’ religiosity.

This is a fast and dirty critique – and I don’t buy it. Buddhist practice, in my experience, doesn’t make us more self-involved, but less. If there’s any reason to be critical of Gilbert’s time in India, it’s not because she’s engaging with another faith —but because she doesn’t engage with the world around her. Which is why the Buddhist in me loved Eat, Pray,Love, but the Jew couldn’t get behind it.

I lost my religion at age 13. A bad cocktail of too much Holocaust literature, masculine God language in prayers, and lousy Hebrew school teachers made me, the Rabbi’s daughter, an apikores – an apostate. And so in college, when all of my high school friends were heading East to Israel for the year, I boarded an Air Lanka jet to Sri Lanka, where I would spend the next five months studying Buddhism. My last month in Sri Lanka – and the one I remember best – was spent in a mountain-top nunnery in the jungle with a group of Buddhist nuns who kept trying to convince me to renounce the world and shave my head.

My response never changed: “That sounds great, and I’m flattered that you’d ask, but I don’t think my parents would like it. Also, I’m a Jew. We don’t renounce. I’m just visiting.”

I thought a lot about what exactly I meant by “just visiting” as I read the “Pray” section of Eat, Pray, Love. I thought about how my forays into Buddhist practice and Vipassana meditation have taught me to swerve from self-regard to a concern for others’ happiness, how they have increased my compassion for others and myself. I thought about how Buddhism has shown me that an awareness of my own suffering must lead to compassion for others. But mostly, I thought about how those months “just visiting” made me a much, much better someday-Rabbi.

They also put me in tune with American religiosity. An “iPod” approach to spiritual life is par for the course in our current American cultural climate. We pick and choose the pieces we want from any religious tradition, and ignore the rest. There’s definitely something problematic about this approach to religion, but it’s not Gilbert’s problem alone.

Neither is it entirely inconsistent with the history of Judaism. Jews have a storied tradition of borrowing from religious trends in the surrounding cultures. In the 11th century, Jewish mystics began delving deeply into Sufi practices and philosophies to deepen their own experiences of God. Bahya Ibn Paquda, one of the greatest Jewish philosophical mystics of all time, was deeply shaped by Sufi ideas about God, Truth and Love. In the 13th century, Abraham Ben Maimon, the son of Maimonides, was a leader of the Sufi order in Cairo. And in the second half of the 12th century, the extreme ascetic practices of the Jewish group known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz were believed to have their provenance in Medieval Christian penitential literature.

In other words, drawing on other traditions’ spiritual successes to create a meaningful religious life is nothing new, and hardly outside the bounds of traditional Judaism. Which is why I think that it’s unfair, at least from a Jewish perspective, to dismiss Gilbert’s time in the ashram as a cop-out because she’s exploring what she wasn’t born into.

Nor is her ashram experience evidence of laziness. As anyone who’s ever spent time on a meditation cushion will tell you, there’s nothing easy about it. You try waking up at 3:30 every morning, sitting perfectly still for six hours, observing and quieting your mind, and then engaging in hard physical labor for a few more hours. Easy? Not quite. Fun? I don’t think so. Good for the world, and the Indian people living in hunger and poverty in the town where the ashram is located? Well, not necessarily, and from a Jewish perspective, that’s the question that ultimately matters.

The theistic and of-this-world Judaism I was raised with answers to a God and prophets who demand unremitting engagement with the world, insisting on the moral imperative to try to help fix everything broken, and help those who are in need. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. In Judaism, you only get one day a week off from engaging fully with the world (Shabbat, for those of you who weren’t paying attention in Hebrew School), and even then, you’re still bound to provide Shabbat meals for the needy and visit the sick.

Biblical and Rabbinic texts are shot through with the moral and ethical imperative to do more than navel-gazing (however transformative and healing said gazing may be for you personally). So are 19th century Hasidic parables and the 20th century thought of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Emmanuel Levinas. To be a truly religious person, all these texts, stories and thinkers tell us, is to be a person engaged with others, and responsible for them. (Judaism does have intensely contemplative strains – both philosophical and mystical – but they have been less emphasized in my Rabbi school education, and in the Reform movement I was raised in.)

I have no doubt that Gilbert’s guru would advocate for this as well. And many—if not most—folks meditating in ashrams and Buddhist retreats believe that they are cultivating compassion for self and others. For them, meditation is engaged. But for Christians and Jews raised in less contemplative, activist traditions, that can be dissatisfying and incomplete, and is, I think, what lies behind the many of the critiques of "Pray."

Here’s a personal story, offered up as illustration: My best friend has spent the last three years in a silent Tibetan Buddhist retreat in the mountains of Northern California. When I say silent, I mean silent. Once every four or five months I get a nice long letter from her, but in the interim: nada. She started her retreat about the same time that I started Rabbinical School, and when she called to tell me what she was about to do, I was living in Jerusalem, in an apartment facing the Knesset. It was just after Arafat’s death and just before the withdrawal from Gaza. My roommates were student-soldiers. And one afternoon the phone rang and she told me she was going into silent retreat for three years and that I wasn’t allowed to call her or email anymore. She told me that when I wrote letters, I couldn’t write anything at all about current events.

And you know how I felt? Pissed off. Angry that she didn’t feel more responsible for the world. Then sad, of course, because I was about to lose my best friend for three years. But on the deepest level, jealous. I was jealous because I knew I could never do what she is doing, as much as I might want to. The Jewish values I was raised with tell me so, as does my chosen vocation. A few months of silent retreat? Maybe. A few weeks? Sure. But Judaism is not world-renouncing, even when I wish that it were otherwise, even when the world feels too much to bear. I can have my contemplative time, of course, and I do, every day, when I meditate on my own (and every Tuesday, when I meditate with Sharon Salzberg in downtown Manhattan), but it’s not the same.

And sometimes I still get angry, and jealous, and I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not. And this May, when she comes down the mountain from her retreat, she will live in my apartment in Brooklyn for a few days, and we will talk and eat and catch up and I will tell her what she has missed of the world in the three years she has been on the mountain-top. I will tell her what it has been like down here. I will tell her everything.

And maybe I will even decide that she’s been in a different kind of seminary for the past three years, and that’s OK – that’s as it should be. And maybe I won’t.

Because recently I’ve begun to realize that it’s a lot easier to take pot-shots at other people’s spiritual lives than to do your own inner work. It’s easier still if that person is Elizabeth Gilbert and she has a sweet book deal and the bravery or freedom to do things you won’t or can’t. As Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote: “To paraphrase a parable of Brother Kierkegaard’s, if you put a bunch of people in a lobby and give them two doors to choose between – one that says ‘transformation’ and another that says ‘lecture on transformation’, then most of them are going to line up for the lecture.”