One Searcher’s Highway To Heaven

Jewish ‘agnostic by default’ spends a year looking for God in many unfamiliar places.

08/14/2012
Staff Writer
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Silver Spring, Md. — If, as President Kennedy famously said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step,” Eric Weiner’s journey of tens of thousands of miles began with a single question.

A best-selling author, a “gastronomical” Jew, a “rationalist,” an “agnostic by default,” a one-time Hebrew school student who had escaped from that educational experience with his existential doubts intact — in other words, someone pretty close to the profile of many American Jews — Weiner found himself shivering under a flimsy hospital gown in an emergency room a few years ago.

He had a health scare: off-the-scale pain. Lying on a gurney in a “sterile” examination room after the standard battery of tests, an IV “dangling from one arm,” he was alone with his thoughts. “Is it cancer? Something worse? What, I wondered, is worse than cancer?”

Then a nurse walked in. She, Weiner concluded, was from the Caribbean or West Africa. She leaned over to draw some blood, sensed his fear, and then spoke into his ear: “Have you found your God yet?”

Weiner hadn’t.

He hadn’t thought about it.

But since that day — the tests found a benign cause for his pain: gas — he’s thought about it a lot.

That anonymous nurse’s question set Weiner on an international journey, a spiritual scavenger hunt to find a God he wasn’t sure existed in the first place.

In “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine” (Twelve), Weiner describes his year-long series of self-discovery pilgrimages that took him to a Catholic homeless shelter in the Bronx, a Sufi camp “deep into California pot country,” a Buddhist meditation center in Katmandu, a Raëlian gathering in Las Vegas (they hold that life on this plant was scientifically created by a species of extraterrestrials), a Tao retreat in China (they embrace a holistic view of the universe), a Wicca “witch” near Seattle, a shamanic workshop in Maryland, and, finally, a kabalistic school in Israel.

They are, admittedly, a quirky, subjective, largely off-the-beaten-track-of-religion bunch of faiths to investigate. They, says Weiner, 53, leaning back on a couch at an Ethiopian café a few blocks from his home here, gripped his curiosity and would make a better book. A former correspondent for NPR who has reported from more than three-dozen countries, he is a 21st-century successor to Mark Twain, who brought an attitude of respectful cynicism to his travel writings. “Man Seeks God” combines the self-mocking silliness of Dave Barry, and the earnest openness of Yossi Klein Halevi, the Brooklyn-born writer who spent two years around the Holy Land with devout Christians and Muslims in “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.”

Each chapter is numbered with what looks like is a highway route marker; each chapter begins with what looks like a personal ad. For the Jewish chapter: “CWM, tired of strangers who don’t get me. Looking to come home but not sure where that is. Are you the One? Foodies a plus.”

For Weiner, whose earlier book, “The Geography of Bliss” documented his search for the “happiest places in the world,” chronicling his personal journey was natural. “I’m an exhibitionist.” If he experiences something, he writes about it.

The nurse’s question shocked him out of his spiritual lethargy. “I’ve been too busy running away from a faith I considered at best irrelevant, and at worst something of an embarrassment, like the uncle at family gatherings who balances wineglasses on his forehead,” he confesses in his spiritual travel guide. “That was me: mildly curious about God, but not curious enough to actually do anything about it. A spiritual voyeur, at best. A hypocrite, at worst.”

Weiner also had a very personal question to answer: “How do I want to raise my daughter?”

So he started “shopping for God.”

First, he read. “Tolstoy and Huxley and Merton and Heschel and Gandhi. I read a lot of William James.”

Then the “determined traveler” hit the road.

“I’m not interested in travel for travel’s sake,” Weiner says. “I’m interested in travel for a reason. I need to get out of my element.”

Like to some place like the Bronx church, where he ended up in a confession booth.

“Forgive me, Father,” he said to the priest behind a partition, “but I’m not Catholic.”

“‘Yes, that’s OK,’ he says,” according to Weiner’s account, “but his voice betrays unease.”

“I’m not even Christian. I’m Jewish.”

“That’s OK, my son, but …”

“Yes, Father.”

“I have to do the mass now. I’m already late. Can you come back in half an hour?”

Weiner promises to come back. He doesn’t.

“The moment has passed,” he writes. “I feel like a failure at confessing, which is something else I will need to confess, eventually.”

In each spiritual venue, he learned about other people’s faith and challenged his own lack thereof. From the Raëlians he learned about joy (“Religion and fun can mix.”); from the Wicca, about the multiplicity of theological paths (“They have a diversified portfolio, in a way that, say, Jews don’t. If Hashem tanks, has a bad year, Jews have no recourse. We’re screwed. Not so with Wiccans. There is always another god.”)

Along the way he refined his search. He’s been unable to track down the nurse whose question spurred his quest, but he came to realize he was trying to answer “the wrong question.” The right question: “Are you headed in a direction?”

“God is not a set of missing car keys or an exit on the New Jersey Turnpike,” he writes. “He is not a destination.” If Weiner did not find God, he found a way to look for God.

In the end, Weiner investigated Judaism. He saved the most familiar — which for him had remained foreign — for last. “I was born Jewish. That’s certainly my religious heritage, but not necessarily my God, which is another matter altogether,” he writes. His parents had enrolled him in Hebrew because of a “Jewish tradition … guilt,” but he found it “much less relevant to my life than, say, breakfast.”

“You could say I’m a self-hating Jew but that’s not quite accurate,” he writes. “In order to hate something you need to know it, at least to some extent, and I didn’t know enough about Judaism to hate it.”

Weiner says his time in Safed, Israel’s mystical city up north, spending Shabbat with the city’s mellow residents — “children of a less uptight God,” he calls them — and studying the tenets of Kabbalah, showed him a face of his religion he had never learned in Hebrew school.

His spiritual flirting days over, he’s settled down with his own brand of Judaism. He’s more comfortable with it and says he sees it “as something of value.” And now he is even bringing some rituals into his home.

“Instead of looking for my God, I must invent Him,” Weiner writes. “Not exactly invent. Construct.”

Think IKEA Judaism. “Some assembly required.”

Which is how Judaism is practiced in the Weiner household. “I now look forward to the Jewish holidays at my brother’s house,” he writes. “When my daughter, now almost 7, speaks of God, I no longer wince. I observe the start of the Sabbath, though not as often as I should. I meditate, though not very well or for very long. I say grace before meals, though sometimes I forget.”

Not long after leaving the Ethiopian café, he would share a Shabbat meal with his family. Candle-lighting. Kiddush. HaMotzi. “The whole thing takes 90 seconds,” he says. “We do the speeded-up version.”

But, Weiner says, he finds meaning in the level of Judaism to which his search brought him. “Sometimes,” he says, “what you’re looking for is right under your nose.”

steve@jewishweek.org
 

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