Joy and sadness, like light and darkness, are part of a continuum, Jay Michaelson argues, and our culture’s obsessive focus on one or the other — in the feel-good teachings of pop psychology or the morbid predictions of doom-sayers — is misleading.
He makes that case in his new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path (Ben Yehuda Press) and in his widely varied roles as teacher, commentator, and activist. Whether dealing with the loss of a loved one, the looming menace of global warming, or the battle for equality and justice, Michaelson insists people live fuller and more effective lives when they open themselves to both the positive and the negative.
“‘Faith sees best in the dark,’ remarked Kierkegaard in one of his sermons,” Michaelson writes in The Gate of Tears. “Ordinary sadness, everyday melancholy, the quiet, small pains of life, as well as the more profound losses that are part of human life, are the places in which the real spiritual work takes place.”
Michaelson will discuss this approach on Thursday evening, Feb. 25, at the Birnbaum JCC in Bridgewater.
The book draws on his doctorate in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, his rabbinic training, his insights as a teacher of Buddhist meditation, and quotes from Langston Hughes and Leonard Cohen. Michaelson, a columnist for the Forward, dismisses the idea that opening oneself to sorrow — or facing grim realities like global warming — can undermine positive action.
“Everything can lead to passivity: reality television, great wealth, religious fatalism, you name it,” he told NJJN. “So I’m not worried that accepting and loving all our emotions may do so as well. Plus, in my experience, I’m extremely active politically (at least relative to the American average) and I just wrote this book — so there’s at least one counterexample.”
As for those who see Jews as prone to kvetching, he responds in broader terms. “Given Jewish history, we have a lot of ‘oy’s’ in our tradition,” he said, “but also a lot of ‘joys’ in our lives.” And Jewish teaching isn’t all dark. “As I say in the book, there are Jewish answers in every direction to every question. For me, the deepest values of the Jewish tradition are those which demand authenticity, truthfulness, and personal depth.”
While he describes the value of suffering, Michaelson is equally emphatic that things aren’t as bad as many people think.
That dark view is understandable, he said. “It’s human nature to think the world is going to end soon, because for each of us individually, it always seems to be getting worse. Our mass media culture does make it worse, as does our capacity to destroy ourselves and the planet. But it’s always been five minutes to midnight.”
This lachrymose approach to issues has undermined Jewish communal life, he argues.
“For a long time, efforts to build community and raise funds for communal causes dwelled on the tragic,” he said. “The crisis mentality worked for an earlier generation, which experienced profound crises: the Holocaust, the fragility of Israel in 1967 and 1973, and so on. What we’re seeing now is that crisis no longer motivates the way it used to. Even the real rise in anti-Semitism is undermined by Jewish leaders crying wolf when they perceive something to be anti-Semitic.
“We Jews don’t have a marketing problem,” he said. “We have a product development problem. Triggering fear responses isn’t going to help that.”