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.  

Book Review: The Rabbi Rami Guides

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Each of the four Rabbi Rami’s Guides from Spirituality & Health Books is a keeper. Rich in refreshing touchstones for meaningful daily living, each pocketsize volume of the Rabbi Rami’s Guide series offers a roughly 120 page essay. His contemporary theologies are liberating and inclusive and he offers us specific actions that make the world a better place in sometimes subtle and delightfully surprising ways. The first three titles are Parenting; Forgiveness; and God, and the fourth begins with a commentary on Psalm 23 which then informs the author’s understanding of two of our best know mitzvot, in fact the two cited by Jesus as most important, which Rabbi Shapiro uses as a starting point for creating a lovely interfaith learning opportunity booklet. (See Mark 12:28-34, then Deut. 6:4-5 and also Lev. 18:19)

More after the jump.
Parenting

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Why? For those who wonder, or raise children who wonder, the Rabbi Rami Parenting Guide offers lively and livable parental approaches to these five primary questions. He also offers a powerful critique of the range of stories available for reading for children:

An unhealthy story is a story that leaves your children feeling superior to others, or frightened of others who are different from themselves. An unhealthy story is one that excuses violence, exploitation, the dehumanization of people, or inhumane treatment of animals. An unhealthy story is one that places your children in a world of perpetual conflict where friendship is rare if not impossible, where love is limited, where race, religion, creed and ethnicity determine the value of a person rather than what she does, where collaboration is dismissed as starry-eyed idealism…..”

Rabbi Shapiro then contrasts two Shel Silverstein stories The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece to show how even a great author’s work bears reflection and screening.  The second half of the volume weaves his clear-eyed parenting philosophy with specific stories from a variety of traditions, as well as of his own construction, that he recommends as holy and healthy. Each is brief and affords great opportunity for meaningful family discussion.

Interfaith

Rabbi Shapiro has a long and distinguished career in the pulpit, founding innovative Jewish organizations that teach meaning, spirituality and menschlichkeit (Yiddish the state of being an honorable, ethical person), as perhaps the first rabbi to have a website when the Internet was founded, and more recently he both teaches Bible at Middle Tennessee State University and directs Wisdom House, a center for interfaith study and contemplative practice in Nashville, TN. So it is not surprising that the Rabbi Rami series also pilots a fourth, dual volume of essays, Psalm 23 & Jesus’ Two Great Commandments. While I see great interfaith study and dialogue potential in this volume, this is his expected audience for this book:

I suspect that most readers of Matthew and Mark, and most readers of this Guide, are neither rabbis nor even Jews. And because I think this is true, I fear you may overlook some of the deeper insights Jesus meant to teach when he chose these two mitzvot as the chief commandments of the Torah and his touchstone texts. It is my wish to make plain the deeper meaning of his teaching by placing it in the Jewish context in which it was spoken by Jesus and heard by his fellow Jews, and in this way enhance your understanding of Jesus’ message.

I can only begin to imagine what an eye-opener study with Rabbi Rami must be for students of all faiths. For example, his explication of a verse in Psalm 23, “I shall not want”:

…does not mean, “I shall not desire,” but rather, “I shall not lack.” The Hebrew verb echsar (Lack) is in the future tense, suggesting that freedom from want comes only when you realize that God is your shepherd. Why? Because it is then that you realize your desires, endless and endlessly satisfied, are a distraction seducing you from your true calling and trapping you in the narrow and lifeless worship of the next big thing.

With God as your shepherd, the chains of idolatry are severed. You are now free to be what God is calling you to be: a source of blessing and liberation for the world…..you will have everything you need to fulfill God’s desire-that you will have everything you need to become a blessing to others by liberating yourself and them from narrowness.

Rabbi Rami channels the Good Shepherd in ways healthy and holy; he appreciates that spiritual development is a process of awareness and personal growth. In his commentary on the Psalm 23 verse “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro takes to where we may not all have gone before: “The first step is to rest, to lie down, because the way to blessing and liberation isn’t simply an outer journey, but an inner one as well.”

For “He restoreth my soul”, Rabbi Rami transduces the text to reveal another of its infinite possibilities for the non-dogmatic reader:

What does it mean to be a breath-bearer? It means to breathe life into the world as God breathed life into you. This is what the Torah reveals when she tells us, “The ineffable One placed the earthling in the Garden of Eden to till it and protect it’ (Genesis 2:15). The garden is the original state of creation but without you, the earth grows hard and lifeless, incapable of birthing plants or herbs (Genesis 2:5)…

And in regard to “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His names sake…”:

David…is not saying that God acts for self-aggrandizement, but that God acts on behalf of all reality, for God is all reality….A path is righteous if walking it breathes life into life, if it blesses and benefits creation, and if it fosters love, justice and compassion.

Teshuvah and Forgiveness

In the Rabbi Rami Guide to Forgiveness, the term takes on an expanded meaning grounded in the author’s training in Buddhism, life experience and psychology. Pratityasamutpada is “co-origination. It means that everything is connected to everything else and happens altogether.” Although he doesn’t cite it, those who study Kabbalah recognize the related teaching of the Hebrew term for stone, ehven.  “If a soul is like a ben (ven), son/child, cleaved from the av (ehv), father/parent…can you picture that God would separate a part from God’s essence?” No, I can’t.  Can you? This is why the Budda’s conceptualization rings helpful on this topic.

Deftly wielding the language of living at the level of soul, Rabbi Rami doesn’t have us wait for others to confess how they’ve hurt us. He shows us how to heal ourselves through specific questions that restore us to living in the moment. This approach to removing toxic encounter hangovers is useful, and in my opinion, sufficiently only as a complement to the Jewish practice of teshuvah. Teshuvah, in brief, is where we return to those we’ve hurt, own up, are received with respectful listening and the necessary time is taken to process and restore relationships to good health. What do when teshuvah takes quite a long time? Rami’s volumes are subtitled “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” let him show you the way.