Book Review: Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe aims readers toward heightened self-awareness, through both traditional and self-help approaches. She does this in order to advance our capacity for teshuva — correction of our foibles and realignment of relationships as the pathway to increased happiness.

Similarly to the approach of Rabbi Abraham Twersky, the talented addictions counselor, Brown analogizes teshuva to “recovery.” Each chapter is based on a different verse of al cheyt, the prayer where we knock on the door to our hearts in Gestalt-like fashion, in hopes of awakening awareness and heightened authentic teshuva.

More after the jump.
This delightfully portable volume includes a well-written academic introduction to teshuva, translations of traditional teshuva teachings, and Brown’s own midrashic and interpretive work woven, with quotes from contemporary Jewish scholars, along with points excerpted from her reading in the field of psychology. The book is well-worth purchasing for the powerful compilation of traditional texts. Unfortunately, the self-help component is surprisingly unsophisticated, and in some cases seems likely to backfire, as I will explain later in this review.  

The author elects to join the current trend of sweetened, mussar-like awareness raising, by incorporating within the teshuva ten topics of human development: faith, destiny, discipline, humility, compassion, gratitude, anger, joy, honesty and holiness. She uses these categories to help the reader raise  self-awareness of where they may have room to grow in regard to these attributes. This is one of the volume’s strengths.

An example I especially appreciated was her “Day Two” entry, which begins: “For the sin we have committed before you with a confused heart.” While, as Brown explains, Jewish tradition more often connects this verse on the “confused heart” to doubt of some aspect of Jewish practice or Jewish history, she adds a helpful nuance for our consideration:

How can confusion ever be a sin? It is not intentional. Confusion is not an act; it is a condition brought about by the ambiguities of a situation. But we can perpetuate confusion by not seeking clarity soon enough or not at all. And for that we confess…

Dr. Brown also includes translations of excerpts from Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah, for each topic. For example, this piece from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that ripens powerfully when discussed with a study partner, or in a community (page 143):

Great and sublime is the happiness of repentance. The consuming fire of sin’s pain in itself refines and will result in a superior and radiant purification of character, til the great wealth of repentance to be found in the treasure of life develops and unfolds before him. Humans continue to ascend through repentance, through its bitterness and its pleasantness, through its sorrow and its joy; nothing refines and purifies man, truly uplifting him to the level of man, as does the profound contemplation of repentance, “in the place were the penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Berakhot 34a)


Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell. “Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb.

Brown also cites teachings of leading scholars such as Jonathan Sachs, Adin Steinsaltz, Jonathan Levenson and Joseph Telushkin. Be sure to have a TaNaKh (Jewish translation of the full Jewish canon) at hand, because the narrative sections assume familiarity with the High Holiday season traditions and sacred stories. It would also be helpful if the publishers — OU Press and Maggid Books, a subdivision of Koren Publishers — could put the original, untranslated text segments online, to facilitate study by those of us with sufficient language skills. Hebrew transcends what translations can offer.

One section within each chapter is titled “Life Homework.” Here, unfortunately, Dr. Brown seems out of her element. She falls into what I consider to be a common mussar trap, of mistaking raised awareness and the force of one’s willpower as being sufficient to power sustainable change. The tragic ethical scandals accruing to too many revered pious Jewish (and other) business, educational and spiritual community leaders, would seem to substantially defeat this assumption. Brown cites, for justification, authors Roy Baumeister, John Tierney and Kely McGonigal to the effect that they “believe” that “willpower alone is our greatest human strength”.

Dr. Brown’s book and website bios do not clearly indicate in what subject her doctorate was undertaken. Perhaps education, given that she describes herself on the present front page of her website as learning not through professional training and supervised practice, but rather “by reading. I order a mountain of books on a subject, plow through them and try to organize my thoughts in relation to what others think.”

This approach shows distinctly and problematically in the narrative, which offers a more pop psychology, or self-help orientation, than an appreciation of the deep psycho-dynamic work and spiritual development necessary for effective healing within our relationships with ourselves, our family, our community and God.

Dr. Brown’s exercises are simple, decent things like writing gratitude letters to one’s parents, a teacher, etc. Later, when she suggests writing a letter commending an anger management strategy to one of the reader’s presumably adult children, it is hard to imagine this facilitating teshuva or intimacy as much as building resentment and resistance. In the words of Dr. Robert Anthony: “If you want to make an enemy, try to change someone.”

Support for how to directly seek out those with whom one needs to do teshuva, for meaningful dialogue, insight, cultivation of authentic empathy, and the gradual restoration of trust, is largely overlooked in this book. Almost everything happens in one’s head — rather than in the holy space of interpersonal encounter, termed by Martin Buber “the between.” Despite capably writing out traditional teshuva processes in an academic fashion, Brown seems unaware of that the self is co-constructed within relationships, much more than in one’s head, i.e. via projections onto others and thoughts about what they may feel or think, when asking directly is the only way to know.

Given the plural nature of the al cheyt shechatanu liturgy, the long-missing onus, of communities taking responsibility for missing ethical and mitzvah-centered behavioral marks, would also make a welcome addition within Brown’s approach to High Holiday preparation practices. While she stays within traditional Orthodox liturgy (and translations), many contemporary prayer books already add new al cheyts for the sake of things like caring for the environment, fostering better systems of healthcare, environmental preservation, education, etc.

The chosen topics in this volume are very safe. How about some mitzvah-centered risk-taking, in the way of setting communities onto chanting and reflecting upon the “sin of suppressing communal awareness of internal problems?” And “not teaching and supporting healthy boundaries between staff and students?” And “for the sin of not providing a living wage for all of our employees?” etc.

Also unfortunate is that the author does not point readers toward the array of contemporary literature and professions which offer deeper and more effective levels of teshuva and spiritual development, that are barely alluded to in Brown’s effort. To name a few, I would like to see mentioned there books such as “Sacred Therapy,” written through a Jewish lens by psychotherapist Estelle Frankel, or related articles by Rabbi Anne Brener, Mashpi’ah Carola de Vries Robles, Rabbis Abraham Twerski, Rami Shapiro, and Howard Addison and his partner Dr. Barbara Breitman.

A further problem in this first edition is that some might assume that that Brown is accurately describing Torah stories, while she is sometimes actually giving her own, often unusual and interesting, spin. (This process is known as “making midrash.”) It is also sometimes difficult to appreciate why certain texts and topics are sequenced or emphasized. It seems that parts may have been edited out at the publisher level, for the sake of greater volume brevity, with neither the insertion of alternative segue-ways, nor attention to the presentation’s conceptual flow. The absence of an index, as always, is disappointing, as indices are helpful for returning to key points and quotes.

Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe does commence with a worthy introduction to teshuva, where Dr. Brown collates a number of important primary and secondary sources for us in translation. Helpfully, she introduces the multifaceted steps of a full teshuva process, as found in the teachings of the Catalonian rabbi, Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi. He, who had abetted the burning of the works of the renowned Jewish sage, the Rambam (Maimonides), certainly came to deeply appreciate the angst and stages involved in meaningful teshuva. He even prostrated himself on the Rambam’s grave, as a component to his grief of self-awareness and yearning to achieve the joyful fullness of teshuva — in the very manner recommended in the writings of Maimonides himself!

Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell; and this is by intentional ancestral design of our tradition. While we can turn to our sense of God for support in this process, our tradition teaches that errors with humanity can only be corrected directly through contact with each person, upon their grave, and, in the case of theft, with their heirs. God cannot fix our errors for us, save for our sense of our efforts at the fullness of teshuva being “received.”

Uncovering the “Torah” of healthy relationships is a paramount issue in most lives, and Dr. Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe offers helpful frameworks, sources and accessible discussion points for communities, individuals and families desiring self-reflective practices, that may enhance their individual capacity for teshuva.  

Mussar: A Contemporary Path to a Spiritual Judaism

— by Miki Young

For many spiritual seekers, the complaint about Judaism is that it doesn’t seem like it has what it takes to be a springboard for a life of meaningful relevance. The lack of easily accessible contemporary theology seems to create a great divide between honoring the ancient and finding a way to appreciate the practice of Judaism as an integral part of everyday life. Other traditions and practices such as Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness seem to give both solace and a sense of growing personal empowerment that many Jewish practitioners seek in a harried time.

More after the jump.
Mussar, a daily spiritual practice based on an ethical concern for others does, in fact, tether that bridge between Jewish spirituality and religion.  Developed in 18th century Eastern Europe, Mussar which literally means “discipline” offers practitioners a way of looking at the world which transforms everyday actions into moments of holiness.

“I wanted to feel more spiritual about my life,” said Phyllis Jacobs, a student of Mussar Leadership, a program of Beth Zion Beth Israel in Philadelphia for the last four years. “But as a Jew I didn’t really know exactly what that meant. With Mussar, I’ve discovered a Jewish spiritual discipline with guideposts and reminders that help me to look at what’s important to me in the world, how I treat people. Mussar helps me to see something everyday that makes me feel like I am connected to something bigger than myself. In many ways, Mussar helps me to navigate my everyday life in a way that makes me more the person I really want to be.”

The pursuit of spirituality, defined as living a life that seems to offer a sense of something “bigger than oneself,” is a commonly expressed sentiment by those who attend the Mussar Leadership groups, held throughout the area and via videoconference in different parts of the country.  The tenuous connection often raised is how does practicing Judaism as an individual or even in a minyan really set the groundwork for that spiritual connection?

“Mussar is an incredible impactful practice for all of us who are living in an ethically, spiritually bankrupt society,” said Rabbi Ira Stone, who is considered one of the few contemporary Mussar theologians and authors in North America. The daily practice creates a very centered sense of mindfulness with regard to how we impact each other and the responsibility we must take for our own behavior and for each other. “Mussar is not the end but the beginning of a spiritual path,” he added. “It is a compelling reason for people to reengage in classical Jewish text and practice in a way that is often missing in the non-orthodox world.  And, I think through that engagement, we could actually save the world.”

The practice of Mussar is “catching on.” Synagogues of many different denominations have lectures, workshops and ongoing classes. At Mussar Leadership those classes are offered at synagogues and independent groups that are identified as Conservative, Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and unaffiliated.  Currently there is also a group of Rabbis in LA who are studying Mussar for their personal and communal development as well as training to be facilitators of the practice.

Many group participants said that their connection to Judaism has deepened as a result of attending Mussar groups.  “As part of this group, my level of study and interest in Judaism has certainly increased,” said Carol Daniels, who is training to be a Mussar madrich or group leader.  “I now study Torah and have a daily reflection of gratitude that has allowed me to use my own religion as a guide in my life that wasn’t available to me before.”

In addition to the benefit of becoming much more mindful about the responsibility a person has to society as a whole and to the individuals around him or her, participants say that the experience has given them a much deeper connection of community.

For Martin Jacobs who participates in a Mussar Leadership group at Or Hadash in Ft. Washington, what has been most valuable is finding connections with others and opening himself up to share the experiences of day-to-day life in a very safe, supportive environment.  “The insights others are able to give me about how I choose to live and act give me a very different viewpoint than I have by myself,” he said. His fellow group member Marianne Adler agrees.  “The group is key,” she said. “When I miss it I don’t like it.  Being part of the group is essential because I get to listen to everybody else and everybody has different things to work on and everybody brings something different to the group.”

Mussar Leadership groups are held at Beth Zion Beth Israel in center city and around the area.  For more information, email [email protected] or call 215-735-5148.

Additionally, Reclaiming Judaism is offering distance-learning certification programs for Jewish Educators that incorporate training in Mussar title 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah and Mussar.  

3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar

New Skills for Jewish Educators through Distance Learning

3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar is a new distance-learning certification program for Jewish educators, tutors, counselors & youth leaders. This two-year program is designed to advance the skills of Jewish educators, camp counselors, and youth leaders yearning to effectively engage students and transmit the meaning, relevance and joy of Jewish learning and living. Training will focus on the skills of Jewish storytelling and spiritual development (hashpa’ah), coupled with depth studies in the texts, practices and methods of mussar (ethical development) and mitzvah. Core faculty are Peninnah Schram, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Arthur Strimling (and colleagues). Contact: [email protected]

Details after the jump.
Sessions will be weekly, via experiential video-conference-call learning, monthly one-to-one supervision calls, and an annual retreat. 52 mitzvot will be coupled with middot (character attributes that can be cultivated) and matched with a significant repertoire of stories drawn from midrash and folktales, as well as contemporary Jewish literature.

This is a great way to deepen learning, make new friends with colleagues and delight in the methods of experiential education that will be provided by our team of master teachers.

Option: In addition to providing Maggid Certification, those who wish Maggid Educator Ordination through the lineage of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi will remain a third year in supervised practice and study with Rabbi Goldie Milgram and other ReclaimingJudaism.org clergy members.

The first 3 Mmm training cohort will commence with an opening retreat late in the summer of 2013. For information as it becomes available e-mail: [email protected]

  • Peninnah Schram, storyteller, teacher, author and recording artist, is Professor of Speech and Drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University. She is author of twelve books of Jewish folktales, including The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, and recorded a CD, The Minstrel and the Storyteller with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery. Mitzvah Stories (Reclaiming Judaism Press) was published in her honor. Peninnah is a recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator (1995) awarded by The Covenant Foundation. She has been awarded the National Storytelling Network’s 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award “For sustained and exemplary contributions to storytelling in America.”
  • Arthur Strimling is Maggid HaMakom at Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Performer, writer, director, and author, he has appeared at venues including Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space, and across the US, Europe, and Latin America; and has been featured on NPR and the PBS series “In The Prime.” He is the Founding Artistic Director of Roots&Branches Intergenerational Theater and author of Roots & Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theater. He has been in residence at MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Jewish Museum.  
  • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founded and directs the 501(c)(3) non-profit Reclaiming Judaism. A Covenant Award Finalist for excellence as a Jewish educator, she is best known for her inspiring programs and innovative resources that prepare Jewish educators, clergy and families to guide students towards more meaningfully living and loving their Judaism. A widely published author, internationally acclaimed storyteller and workshop leader, who has served as a religious school teacher & principal, BJE director, Federation executive & faculty member of several seminaries as well as a seminary dean, NBC innovator/anchor/producer and presently as Judaism Editor for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Reclaiming Judaism offers innovative resources & programs for meaningful Jewish living world-wide. The newest book from ReclaimingJudaism.org, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning is presently being featured on the Moment Magazine Blog here: http://momentmagazine.wordpres…

To receive an application or inquire about 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar a distance-learning certification program for Jewish educators, tutors, counselors & youth leaders e-mail Rabbi Milgram at [email protected]