Rabbi With Midlife Crisis Looks for Answers

Seeking Sinai on the Sawtooth Trail

Kurt Hoffman

By Niles Elliot Goldstein

Published October 13, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
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The reply to my query was silence. That was the gospel of the mountain.

The gospel of Sawtooth is the gospel of Sinai — silence, mystery, ineffability. While a human being, Moses, conveyed to our ancestors what has been interpreted by some as the literal will of God, the nature of that God remains as elusive as ever. Even the name of the biblical God, YHWH, is unpronounceable, and it raises more questions than it answers: Does God have a personality? Does God “speak” to us? Or is it our own response to the divine reality that leads to the disclosure of life-altering truths?

Questions such as these have preoccupied my mind (and transformed my life) in recent years, both as a rabbi and as a man.

What have intrigued me most about the Hebrew Bible specifically are not its dramatic stories, colorful characters or moral lessons, but its questions. These many and varie d questions are profound, pedagogic, rhetorical, challenging, at times even painful. Some of them are famous and some infamous; some have elevated souls, and others have humbled them. Many of these questions are voiced by biblical figures, while others are attributed to God, either through intermediaries or directly. At their core, almost all these questions are as relevant and compelling today as they were in antiquity.

As I have strived to navigate through the trials and transitions of midlife — I did ultimately leave the synagogue and get a divorce — a number of biblical questions have granted me a paradoxical sense of security, an invisible yet palpable feeling of comfort and community. They’ve shown me that, in all my perplexity, I am far from alone.

The Hebrew Bible is neither a philosophical treatise nor, in my view, a roadmap for redemption. It is instead a complex, existential expression of uncertainty and confusion, of yearning and hope, of wonderment, suffering and joy. The Bible, and the timeless questions interwoven in it, is a testament to, and a portrait of, the valleys and peaks of the human condition. It doesn’t offer us rigid answers; it graces us with fellowship.

In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante finds enlightenment only after he, having become disoriented, enters a dark forest. Similarly, the skin on the face of Moses becomes “radiant” only after he enters the thick, smoky cloud that covers Mount Sinai at the moment of divine revelation. The message to us seems clear: It is in the heart of unknowing, the “thick darkness” where the lack of clarity fuels a hunger for answers, that we mature, evolve and ultimately discover our true path. Viewed in this way, perplexity is as much a gift as it is a source of discomfort, a conduit toward inner advancement as well as a crucible through which our minds and souls are pushed to their breaking points.

This hard-won wisdom has helped me immensely at a time in my life when I have often felt like a lost soul, when I have regularly wondered whether or not I was making the correct decisions. While I still struggle, I have learned to embrace my uncertainty.

Niles Elliot Goldstein is the founding rabbi emeritus of The New Shul and the award-winning author or editor of nine books, including “Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).


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