Three Jewish Books on Sadness
Jay Michaelson

Niles Goldstein, Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness (Bell Tower, 2002)

Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions (Shambhala, 2003)

Sherri Mandell, The Blessing of a Broken Heart (Toby Press, 2003)

For the last two years, I have been writing a book on sadness and the contemplative path, entitled “The Redemption of Ordinary Sadness.” In a nutshell, the point of that book is that we can work with sadness, anger, and other negative mind-states not merely (and not most effectively) by transforming or repressing them, but by accepting them as ‘flavors’ of God manifesting in our lives. We are conditioned to feel bad about feeling bad -- but that habit can be unlearned. With a deep acceptance of sadness, and a meditative inquiry into it, that which is usually avoided can be seen to be God in disguise.

As part of my writing, I have spent time with a number of Jewish and Buddhist books on sadness, to learn from them and to see which of ‘my’ ideas have already been treated by other, wiser authors. I’ve found out quite a lot--about the spiritual book market, about what I’m looking for in a ‘teaching’ book, and about how different those two categories are.

For a number of reasons, I spent relatively little time with the most popular Jewish book on this subject, Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It’s surprising that this book remains such a best-seller, since it is both radical and not really about how to get through hard times. It’s largely about theodicy: how not to lose your faith in God when unspeakable, undeserved evil happens. In its introduction, Kushner says he wrote the book “for all those people who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to hold on to their faith and be comforted by religion.” His ultimate resolution is that God is simply not to be held responsible for the random evil in the world. God doesn’t cause children to die of cancer; God’s role is to inspire them and their families.

Kushner’s theological decision to “choose” God’s goodness over God’s omnipotence is, for me, extremely problematic. But more important than that, it is not the question I wanted to ask. Yes, bad things happen to good people. But apart from theology, where do we go from there?

There was another problem with Kushner, one shared with the three books under review here: they talk primarily about Big Sadness. For Kushner, it is the death of his son from a rare disease; for Sherri Mandell, the murder of her son by terrorists. Niles Goldstein (who has written for this magazine, and with whom I recently led a retreat on experiencing the Divine in nature) and Miriam Greenspan fill their books with anecdotes of divorce, death, and the kind of suffering one sees in well-made tragic movies. I searched for, but did not find, a book which addressed the spiritual value of feeling blue, or just a little down. On the contrary, reading stories of such searing pain made me feel spoiled.

Mandell’s is by far the best of the three books, and I think I liked it most because she, unlike Goldstein and Greenspan, is a writer first and foremost. Reading Abraham Joshua Heschel several years ago, I became convinced that rhetoric is as important a religious faculty as devotion, compassion, and discipline. Heschel’s language is so exalted that his thoughts are exalted. And it’s not simply a matter of fancy words; behind his turns of phrase are, as is revealed on quiet reflection, remarkable insights which are largely dependent on the turns of phrase themselves. Simply put, dumbed-down Heschel isn’t Heschel. The way in which he writes is the way in which he invites us to think, and to feel.

Mandell’s book is very different from Heschel’s work, but it shares the attention to good prose that marks a “writer’s writer.” One could hardly blame Mandell for not being so artful; the book was written during the year after her thirteen year old son was beaten to death in a wadi on the West Bank. To be sure, there are passages of great anger and sadness. But even they are understated in a way that I found exquisitely beautiful. This is just damn good writing. And I think that has “spiritual” value.

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December 2004

Straight Eye for the Consumer Guy
Dan Friedman

I'll Say Goodbye and Let you Go
Abigail Pickus

Three Jewish Books on Sadness
Jay Michaelson

Rachel Barenblat

The Other Jews: Secularism, Kabbalah and Radical Poetics
Hila Ratzabi

A Jewish Masterpiece
David Zellnik

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From previous issues:

Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Lauren Wilson

The Stable
Ira Stone

The Desert and the City and the Mall
Jay Michaelson