Published on March 30th, 2011 | by Ledger Online0
Q & A with… Jay Michaelson
For some Jewish families, the serenity of the Passover seder can seem as elusive as the well-hidden afikomen. With all the physical preparation for the holiday, the spiritual experience can get lost, and the outcome can be more stressful than joyful. But balance is achievable, says Jay Michaelson, and in fact, it is necessary in order to meet the true experience of Passover.
Michaelson will be scholar-in-residence on Friday and Saturday, Apr. 15 and 16, at Temple Beth El in Stamford.
Michaelson is a writer, scholar, educator, and activist whose work focuses on the intersections of spirituality, Judaism, sexuality, and law. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, an M.A. in religious studies from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a B.A. Magna Cum Laude from Columbia University. He is currently completing a Ph.D. in Jewish thought at Hebrew University. He is the author of three books, numerous essays, articles, poems, and short stories, and is editor of “Az Yashir Moshe: A Book of Songs and Blessings,” and was the founding editor of “Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.”
Michaelson has been a visiting professor at Boston University Law School, and has held teaching positions at Yale University and City College of New York. He is a former assistant principal of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Prozdor School, and has written more than 20 curricula on Jewish life and practice.
Michaelson spoke with the Ledger about creating a more meaningful Passover experience.
How did you come to this topic?
A: The seder is one of the most widely observed of all the Jewish rituals, and even more than the High Holidays, American Jews gather together on Passover. And yet, it really is in large part a do-it-yourself holiday. There are a lot of good guides and classes, but you’re left on your own to create the experience. That’s one reason for its success: people are more interested in taking an active role in their religious and spiritual lives rather than it being handed to us on a silver platter. That provides both a challenge and an opportunity.
Everybody is busy vacuuming their carpets and looking for crumbs, but it was never the intention that we be neurotic about the holiday. The physical cleaning is meant to bring a spiritual introspection and a spiritual cleansing. The seder, most importantly, isn’t meant to be rote recitation and repetition, but rather should include lively conversation that touches on contemporary issues as well. It’s not meant to be a source of stress; it’s meant to be a celebration of freedom. But the preparation can feel like slavery.
How does one create a more balanced seder experience?
A: I think it’s possible, with two key intentions, to make the preparation and the enjoyment go together. One is, be realistic about the physical requirements. There’s a story about the Vilna Gaon, one of the greatest rabbis of all time. His wife became sick and he took over the cooking and cleaning in the house. When she got better, she thought he had made everything traif in the kitchen.
The second point is to balance the spiritual and the physical. The seder should not be about rushing to the kitchen to make sure that the dinner hasn’t burned. Rather, it should be a balance – how to engage the children, how many guests are coming, creating an environment that encourages conversations and spirituality.
The culinary centerpiece of the seder is meant to be the eating of matza. At my own seder, I do it as an eating meditation. If you eat it slowly and mindfully and without chitchat, and you take the opportunity to refocus on the miracle of being able to eat and how fortunate we are to be free, it can be a profound two or three minutes of quiet mindfulness.
Who has influenced and inspired you in your own spiritual journey?
A: On the Jewish side, Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose view is that Jewish practice is a response to being in what he called “radical amazement.” This requires some practice: you can’t have radical amazement if you’re worrying about whether the matza balls will turn out fluffy or like golf balls. We have to slow down a little bit and appreciate what’s in front of us. From that place of wonder or gratitude comes authentic religious sentiment, something I think we’ve really lost a lot of in our religious practice. Judaism is about experience first, religion second. There’s a passage in the Torah that is repeated in the grace after meals: Eat, be satisfied, be blessed. That order is so important: first, an experience of satisfaction, and from that experience comes a religious impulse – instead of “I’m supposed to feel a certain way” or “I’m supposed to read something and feel a certain way.”
On Passover or any holiday, how does one take that first step toward deepening the spiritual experience?
A: The advice one hears again and again is, start where you are. The intention is the first step, as is taking the intention seriously, deciding that cultivating some gratitude and loving-kindness is as important as other achievements. The second step is to try out spiritual practice from the large salad bar of spirituality out there today, in order to find what’s right for you. By practice, I mean something you do on a regular basis to help the mind and heart relax and open to the blessings around us. You have to actually do something, if it’s a few moments at the seder where people go around and talk about what they’re grateful for or how they’ve experienced liberation over the past year or performing acts of social justice with a spiritual intention. It’s not the what, it’s the how – taking that step and saying, “I’m going to make a commitment.” Spirituality was never meant to be a fad or a passing thing; you’ve got to work.
Give us a preview of your program at Temple Beth El.
A: The session, “Passover’s Spiritual Side: Discovering the Deeper Meaning of the Holiday through the Wisdom of Kabbalah” includes meditation practice and Kabbalah study. I am not one who thinks that Kabbalah is the best entry point to spiritual practice. It’s challenging, but it becomes very nourishing to deepen one’s perception. Kabbalah is about balance – of the different parts of a human being, and of reality – and it’s a dynamic balance. You don’t find a golden mean; it’s always shifting. I try to bring balance into the way I teach and share. I never want to get too far into the air; earth and water are pretty real also. I don’t mean to suggest that the right seder is just about a matza meditation.
For more information on the scholar-in-residence program at Temple Beth El, Friday – Saturday, Apr. 15 -16, call (203) 322-6901 or visit www.tbe.org.