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A Conversation With the Bad Boy Rabbi

Don’t tell Rabbi Niles Goldstein, the brash leader of New York’s New Shul and author of the new book “Gonzo Judaism: A Fresh Path for an Ancient Faith” (St. Martin’s Press), that the “High Holidays” are upon us. It’s not the holidays that Goldstein dislikes — it’s the phrase, which he calls “a metaphor for the way we’ve neutered and neutralized Judaism’s elemental power. What ought to be potent and strong has become light and sweet. We don’t need to be treated with kid gloves — we need to be agitated. Our generation calls for a Judaism that is bold, confrontational and smack in your face.”

Okay, Niles, but tell me how you really feel.

I first met Goldstein when he officiated at the wedding of a friend of mine. I’d read his book “God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places” (Harmony, 2000), which regaled the reader with tales of horse mushing, rock climbing and spending a night in the New York jail known as The Tombs. True to form, Goldstein was tall, macho — and sometimes a little edgy. It didn’t surprise me when his next book, “Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness” (Harmony/Bell Tower, 2002), dealt with the darker emotions. And when we taught together at Elat Chayyim two years later, the rabbi from Greenwich Village liked nothing more than to disturb the sometimes beatific bliss of Jewish spirituality with unsettling questions, provocative comments and invitations to challenge ourselves.

“Gonzo Judaism” is Goldstein’s best book to date, because it is the truest to himself. It’s angry — or rather, he insists in the introduction, “indignant toward the inane behavior and sheer idiocy of the powers that be” — and it’s provocative in its call, appropriately for the season, for searing introspection and renewed commitment.

“Gonzo Judaism,” an outlook that takes its name from the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson and his ilk, is, according to Goldstein, “a disposition and a proposition: It’s about having a certain attitude toward Jewish identity that is very brash, proactive, life affirming and unapologetic, and about reclaiming and recapturing ancient rituals that we’ve lost.”

In other words, as Goldstein and I agreed during our conversation, Gonzo Judaism is simultaneously radical and conservative — radical in its rebellion against authority, but conservative in its belief that at the core of Jewish religion is a spiritual and moral call to confront ourselves honestly, even brutally, and to commit ourselves to improvement. I spoke with Goldstein just as the High Holiday — sorry, Days of Awe — season was beginning.

JM: So, tell me what a “gonzo” High Holidays would look like.

NG: Well, I’ll tell you what we do at The New Shul. I am a Reform rabbi serving a progressive, unaffiliated Greenwich Village shul. But I wear a kittel [the traditional white robe worn on the Days of Awe] and fully prostrate myself before the ark during services. At the same time, rather than giving a formal sermon on Rosh Hashanah, I’ll play a song by Leonard Cohen about the binding of Isaac, or Bob Dylan, and use that as a springboard for discussion. To me that’s gonzo. On the one hand, it’s extremely alternative and different, and something that a lot of people would have problems with. But on the other hand, it has a lot of reverence and respect for traditions, including some archaic ones that I think we should reclaim.

JM: It’s interesting that you’re working with body postures, since one exercise I do with my students is to experience how the same line of liturgy can feel completely different depending on whether you’re kneeling, sitting or standing. What is going through your head at that moment you’re lying on the bimah?

NG: Well, certainly not the words of the Aleinu prayer. What’s coursing through my soul at that moment is a feeling of deep and very real awe and humility. It’s not discursive; I don’t know if anything is going through my head at that moment. It’s a rush, a physiological sensation that permeates my entire being. The only words I can use to describe it are “awe” and “humility.”

JM: Not an easy position to be in.

NG: You’re right. Gonzo Jews — we don’t want to get down on our knees. We want to stay in the ring until the bell sounds. So that’s the challenge: to get to that point when you are down on your knees, and you don’t have a single thought in your head or a single word coming out of your big mouth, and you are just in this state of awe and humility. It’s one of the most liberating and redemptive experiences I’ve been able to have.

JM: Sometimes I think that “Gonzo Judaism” plays very well in Greenwich Village — but what about big synagogues outside of major cities?

NG: I think for large synagogues, you have to create smaller communities, like embedded chavurot [prayer groups]. Otherwise, you just have something that feels like a corporation, which perpetuates the kind of Judaism that younger people have clearly repudiated. You have to be forward thinking, and willing to take risks. Otherwise I think those synagogues are going to die out. Obviously, for some people the large synagogue works. But I think it’s no accident that the most creative, imaginative, vibrant movements in our tradition came from younger, smaller circles, whether in the Galilee or Spain or pockets of Eastern Europe. I think there’s a correlation between observing from the margins — having one foot in the community, and one foot out — and being interested and imaginative. Look, I’m a pulpit rabbi, but I do think it’s important to keep that other foot dangling on the outside. Think of Hunter S. Thompson in Las Vegas — he was both a participant and an observer. I would apply that same paradigm to Judaism.

JM: But Hunter S. Thompson didn’t have one foot in and one foot out — he had both feet in and was drowning, only he took his notebook with him. But what’s gonzo about tashlich [casting bread into the water]?

NG: It depends how narrowly you want to define the term gonzo. It’s a disposition as much as a practice. I happen not to like tashlich that much, and I’m not saying every ritual inherently has that quality. But the challenge is how to infuse some of these staid rituals with that attitude. If certain current practices seem no longer meaningful or relevant, my impulse would still be to try to work with them before rejecting them. Fight first, before you give up. But if certain things just don’t work in our age and culture, then I’m perfectly willing to let them go.

JM: To me the real question is not how to infuse the rituals with attitude, but why bother at all. To me the whole momentum of the High Holidays is the opposite of gonzo. Gonzo is about living full out, with no regrets and no limits. The Days of Awe are about introspection, repentance and the idea that life should have rules.

NG: If you take the idea of heshbon nefesh [accounting of the soul], confronting yourself honestly, it’s very gonzo. It’s not about beating yourself up — although on a certain level, it is that. It’s about facing yourself honestly and sometimes painfully and calling truth to power. Only in this case, “the man” isn’t the establishment; it’s yourself. The High Holidays are a very good model for gonzo. For that 10-day period, you are obligated to face yourself in the most profound, elemental way imaginable, through the liturgy and the rituals — if you take the whole thing seriously. And that’s where we fall short. We don’t take the gestalt of it seriously. If we did, we’d see that these days are not high and are not holidays — they are truly days of awe and fear.

JM: I wonder how you instill those qualities today, though, without the myth of the God who knows all, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. In my model, heshbon nefesh is a contemplation, where I see the harm I’m causing to myself and to others. But to feel awe and fear — how do you do that without the theology of reward and punishment?

NG: Like you, for me the concept of a God who rewards and punishes is a dead hypothesis. I don’t buy into God as a cosmic Pez dispenser, giving you treats when you behave well and slapping you across the face when you misbehave. But as metaphor, a lot of that imagery is still powerful. Do I really think that when the ark doors close at the end of Yom Kippur, the doors of repentance are closed to me? No. But by playing out that sacred drama, even momentarily, things can happen. You can reach a tipping point. And it’s really hard, because it’s where we have to allow ourselves to become vulnerable.

JM: So on the one hand, you’re Holden Caulfield, decrying all the hypocrisy. On the other hand, you seem to really believe that there’s a good core within the Jewish tradition. It occurs to me that most angry young men don’t see the core.

NG: Because the core has been covered over, and they don’t see the gold within the dross. Part of that is that they have not gotten over their childhood baggage, and part is that we have failed to revitalize the institutions. You know, I have my own tensions and my own ambivalence. Sometimes I feel I have both feet fully planted, like when I’m lying, fully prostrate, before the ark on Rosh Hashanah. But sometimes I feel I have one foot that’s ready to bolt and run off to Mongolia.

JM: That ambivalence, to me, is what’s compelling in “Gonzo Judaism”: all that sharp critique of the established order, coming from a rabbi. But then the positive program ends up being very traditional: Go to synagogue, study Torah, keep the commandments.

NG: I’m definitely not saying people should just go to shul. In the book, I talk about the arts, or adventure travel. There are many alternative pathways out there for finding and expressing one’s Jewish identity, even in the midst of all this ossified, desiccated, institutional bulls–t.

JM: Okay. But can you be a gonzo cultural Jew?

NG: You can be an atheist Jew. Do I think you will have as rich and rewarding an experience as the person who also embraces, in a serious and vulnerable way, the rites and rituals? No. The religious, spiritual component is the core. So you can be a cultural Jew, but I think cultural Jews or secular humanist Jews will not fully reap the benefit of Judaism’s riches. The moral, prophetic tradition is a gonzo tradition. But these guys saw serious moral behavior as a direct consequence of their relationship with God.

They were called by God — or at least that’s how they interpreted it. If that’s not spiritual, I don’t know what is.

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