The Limits of Solitude: Faith Matters, Part Seven

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Note: This is the seventh of a nine-part series of personal vignettes that explore the challenges of the human journey from cradle to grave. Start at the beginning here.

I have usually sought God through extreme experiences, on mountain peaks, and in exotic lands. As a Jew, and as a congregational rabbi for much of my professional life, that can pose problems. Judaism is a religious tradition where peoplehood is a powerful feature and a primary focus. Consequently, there is a basic disconnect between serving as the spiritual leader of a Jewish community and being pulled so forcefully toward solitary adventures. I have struggled for two decades to make peace between the call of the wild and the call of my faith. And because I have often looked for a sense of spiritual connection not in human relationships, but through encounters with the sublime, I have very frequently felt, and continue to feel, like an outlier among my own people.

My path has been a lonely one, but it has felt authentic to me. Perhaps I have not felt comfortable enough to expose myself to others. Maybe I have been afraid of letting go of control. Or maybe my childhood heart operation made me feel different, and led me to create unconscious barriers with others. Whatever the reason, it has always been easier for me to seek adventures without rather than within.

While I have tried to be authentic to myself, one experience showed me the limits of my solitary journey — and the rewards of a journey with another person.

Several years into my tenure as the senior rabbi of my congregation, I traveled one summer to the Faroe Islands. The Faroes are an archipelago of islands in the North Atlantic, roughly midway between Norway and Iceland. Today, they are a territory of Denmark, but the Faroe Islands were first settled by Irish monks, followed by the Vikings. They are a place of stark, raw beauty, and they are sparsely populated. I hiked over hills so verdant and misty they seemed otherworldly, and along sheer cliffs dotted with puffins and surrounded by grey seals and pilot whales. There was a quiet but intense spirituality that suffused the land and the sea. It was a spirituality of solitude.

I felt a kinship with that sense of solitariness. It didn't exactly make me feel uplifted, but it did seem to speak to a part of my soul that only nature could.

When I returned to New York City at the end of the summer (with no small measure of reluctance), one of my first tasks as a congregational rabbi was to welcome new members who had joined our synagogue. One of them, Tori, was a literary agent and a self-proclaimed atheist and provocateur. We instantly took a liking to each other. If we weren't discussing the ever-changing state of the publishing industry, we were talking about — or, more accurately, arguing over — the existence of God. Tori's challenges to theism were thoughtful and sound, and I offered a defense of my belief, and a critique of atheism, that she found equally compelling. Our views on God couldn't have been more different and divergent, but our theological exchanges (at the synagogue, at restaurants, and over dry martinis) were always revivifying, enlightening, and fun.

I respected Tori and I knew that she respected me. Tori was smart, and it was obvious that she had thought about spiritual matters for a very long time. Perhaps for that reason, I kept debating her because I wanted to "win," to bring over this new congregant to the side of truth. Although we saw validity in one another's arguments, it became increasingly clear as time went on that neither of us was going to budge from our fundamental positions. And it raised a larger issue for me: What is, or ought to be, my job as a rabbi within the context of a spiritual community? Should my conversations, teachings, and sermons be devoted to promoting the Jewish belief in God?

I eventually came to see the folly of my mission, how I'd misunderstood and misperceived the true nature of my work as a spiritual leader. I had been so busy debating and arguing with Tori about God's existence that I'd hidden from myself the fact that our engagement itself was spiritual. The distance between the two of us was not vast, and our separation was mostly illusory. I respected, even loved Tori, and I saw the divine image that was within her — even if she herself adamantly denied its existence.