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Rabbi's Search for God in the Shadows of Life

GOD AT THE EDGE, Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and UnexpectedPlaces, By Niles Elliot Goldstein, Bell Tower, $22.00, 204 pages


New York Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is a restless soul and self-described "spiritual malcontent," a man driven by inner demons and drawn to the dark side of life. Not for him the suburban synagogue, the endless rounds of benedictions and baby namings, the preaching, marrying and burying. His search for God takes place in the shadows of life.

In "God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places," Goldstein details some of his adventures: His night in a New York jail. His ride-along in a squad car, cruising the squalid streets of a drug-infested neighborhood. His visits to the fabled Silk Road of Central Asia, the temples of Katmandu, the wilderness of Alaska. He uses his experiences in these exotic locales to illustrate unconventional spiritual paths.

His night in jail, for instance, launches him into an examination of the "dark night of the soul" and the experiences of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite mystic who coined the term. Pain over the loss of his first love leads him to brave a three-day wilderness fast and an exploration of asceticism. His wanderings along the Silk Road provide the hook for a look at Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, an 18th century Hasidic master who exemplified the spirit of the Jewish itinerant preacher. And a dog-sledding trip to Alaska gives rise to ruminations on seeking divinity in nature.

In presenting such paths, Goldstein challenges the religious culture of today, which he views as complacent and overly comfortable. Judaism, he writes, "was born in the wilderness of the desert, at the foot of the mountain, as a people cringed in terror." But he is dismayed by what he believes Jewish America has become today: "a cult of woe, a reactionary community that seemed to be obsessed with its own degeneration, with intermarriage, assimilation, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust."

The book is most interesting when Goldstein limits himself to factual accounts of unconventional spiritual seekers: the snapshots of St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezeritch, Menahem Mendel of Kotsk. Although the descriptions are relatively brief, they pique the curiosity and stimulate the appetite for more.

The book's greatest weakness, coincidentally, is also its biggest marketing lure: Goldstein's varied adventures. Exotic as they seem at first blush, the experiences mainly took place when the rabbi, now 33, was in his 20s; he seems to have lacked the maturity and insight to extract notable spiritual lessons from them. He also breaks a cardinal rule of autobiography in revealing almost nothing about his inner self. Since we never really get to know him, it's hard to care.

For instance, the book opens with his experience under lock and key in the notorious Tombs, the dank holding cells of the New York penal system. He tells us he got there because, after excusing himself from the company of a beautiful woman in a bar, he headed to the bathroom, suddenly erupted in rage over his own mortality, then ripped a urinal out of the wall. Huh? Whatever demons are raging within stay pretty much locked up; we really never learn what ails the man and why.

In various parts of the book, he briefly mentions an open-heart surgery at age 3, a cold relationship with his father, a miserable year in Los Angeles and a crisis of faith. But he never expounds.

The pattern pervades the book, with Goldstein juxtaposing what come across as superficial and sometimes contrived personal experiences with those of great scholars, thinkers and saints. His stab at asceticism is a three-day fast and "vision quest" in the woods, where he reports mainly boredom but declares himself "cleansed" anyway. In Central Asia, he reports that few people seem interested in his insights on Judaism; the highlight of his trip seems to be a tryst with a beautiful blond named Irina.

And Goldstein's adventure with the urban drug culture takes place, not ministering to the diseased and doped-up like so many inner-city clergy, but during ride-alongs in the safety of a squad car; the most exciting event he reports is a traffic accident.

He declares that the battle to achieve faith must take place "out in the real world, the world of struggle and suffering, the world where God really lives, but lives undercover." Yet you can't help but wonder if this product of Ivy League schools, with rabbinical posts, first in the affluent New York suburb of Westchester, then in Greenwich Village ministering to a hip crowd of "artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals," has ever actually experienced the struggles and suffering he speaks of.

The book contains no remarkable spiritual insights, and Goldstein throughout questions himself as to whether his faith journey is an exercise in altruism or narcissism. The reader is left wondering the same thing.

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