Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Where God Is Hiding
SURPRISINGLY HAPPY: AN ATYPICAL RELIGIOUS MEMOIR by Sheila Peltz Weinberg
White River Press, 2010
Review by Margie Jacobs
For the past ten years, rabbis and other Jewish leaders have come from all over the world to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a retreat-based program in which they learn something new about Judaism, spirituality, and themselves. A key feature of these retreats is mindfulness meditation with Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, formerly a pulpit rabbi herself and a lifelong social justice activist. Weinberg has taught mindfulness meditation and yoga to over four hundred rabbis, cantors, educators, social activists, and lay leaders. She is a rabbi for rabbis. Many of her students, myself included, report that learning with her has transformed not only their work and teaching but also their own spiritual lives. In creating more authentic, creative, courageous leaders, Weinberg has been instrumental in bringing spiritual vitality and meaning to contemporary American Judaism.
What is it about Weinberg's teachings that so deeply touch, inspire, and renew overworked, burned-out leaders?
Weinberg is a funny, fast-talking New York Jew. She writes beautiful liturgical poetry, some of which is included in the pages of her new book, and brings to her teaching the wisdom of Jewish and other spiritual traditions. But the transformative power of Weinberg's teaching, in my opinion, comes from her encouragement not to rely on the words of the ancients as they speak about the sacred, but rather to investigate the truth of their assertions in our own experience. As it was for the early Hasidic masters, the everyday details of life become the place where we can search for God.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan discussed God as "the power that makes for salvation." It is this salvation, redemption, and healing that are present as Weinberg explores the stuff of her own life in the pages of Surprisingly Happy. In each page lies the question, "Where is God hiding in these stories, in daily life, in resistance, struggles, relationships, twists and turns of choice and chance?"
In the juxtaposition of moments from generations past and future, we find children redeeming the "sins" of the parents. Weinberg tells the story of her paternal grandmother, a bitter woman from whom the author was estranged, who bequeaths her diamond engagement ring to Weinberg. After leaving the ring untouched in a safe for years, Weinberg gives it to her son as he prepares to propose to his girlfriend. In doing so, she is "finally able to accept this gift, which I immediately pass along to another as an act of welcoming, trust, and love."
After giving birth to two girls, Weinberg's maternal grandmother considered terminating her third pregnancy because she was afraid that this one, too, would be a girl. Weinberg's own utter delight in her young granddaughter is a bit of tikkun to the patriarchy in which only boys are valued.
Weinberg is not afraid to step off the pulpit, to shatter the illusion of perfection that may be projected onto rabbis, as she reveals her own challenges. As with figures in the tales of the Torah, it is the very particularity and fallibility of this "Jewish baby boomer, spiritual seeker, recovering alcoholic ... [and] feminist grandma who loves yoga and is a rabbi" that draws us into its pages. Her compassion and honesty about her own struggles evokes in the reader a sense that change is possible, if not easy.
"My life is a struggle between avodah zarah (idol worship) and avodat hashem (worship of God)," Weinberg writes. "It is my constant choice to embrace my humanness. It is my regular practice to open to something greater than my own tale of woe." Throughout the book, Weinberg offers resources that have helped her, and can help readers, with this struggle: her poetry, Jewish ritual, and a capacity to forgive moments of failure, cultivated through years of practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation. She adds:
I have noticed that it is not helpful to scold my mind for forgetting. That is the way the mind is built and trained. What is helpful is the possibility of teshuvah, returning to the intention. The good news is that I can return no matter how many times I forget, fall down, or wander off.
Weinberg's message of courageous honesty and optimism invites us to think about our own narrative as a source of wisdom and redemption. We ask ourselves, what gifts, and what wounds, have I received from generations past? How have these been celebrated and transformed through my own children? What are the stories that I tell about my own life? Is this the narrative that I want to write for myself, my family, this planet? Where is God hiding in my story?
In her work as a rabbi and teacher and in the pages of this book, Weinberg's very personal revelations powerfully serve to open the hearts of her audience. In doing so, she draws out the caring in each of us that mobilizes acts of creating a more just, peaceful, sustainable world. She writes, "I wish the world a global Sabbath practice, a rest from harming our beloved mother, this planet, taking her into our hearts as she cradles us in her arms."
Weinberg has powerfully shaped the Jewish story throughout her career because her case for why engagement in spiritual life matters is so compelling:
I want to tell you what I know: It is more and more urgent to love ourselves, each other and the earth, through our differences, to make life, especially for the weak among us, safer and healthier in the air, water and earth. I know it is more and more urgent to help our children know the nearness of Divine love as they walk into the unknown. It is my experience that a renewed dedication to awakened spiritual practice will serve us well on this journey.
Rabbi Margie Jacobs is a consultant to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, teacher of mindfulness meditation and Hasidut, life coach, and ritual facilitator. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two daughters.
Soure Citation: Jacobs, Margie. 2011. Where God Is Hiding. Tikkun 26(1): 84