'Spiritual Journey' Wanders Well-Worn Path of Self-Help Indulgence

Bernadette Murphy is the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a book of literary essays, to be published next year by Adams Media

Judaism has been good for Emily Benedek.

In her memoir "Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate," she gives before-and-after portraits of her journey into her ancestral faith to illustrate just how good: Before, she was living in a part of Texas she detested, losing her job, enduring an ugly breakup with her boyfriend, slogging through life unhappy and unfulfilled. Then she rediscovers her religious roots via her psychotherapist, moves back to the Big Apple, gets her career on track, finds a good Jewish husband and even conceives a hoped-for daughter after visiting the mikvah, or ritual bath. Though she never comes to fully embrace the faith and its tenets--she pingpongs between strains of Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, depending on her need for community, ritual and intellectual stimulation at given moments--she garners enough comfort from Judaism to improve her life.

In William James' definitive work, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," he writes of religion as another consciousness larger than the individual self. In this memoir, James' concept is brought to mind, along with questions about what constitutes religious awakening. Must one encounter the metaphysical and godly, or is it sufficient to simply belong to a community? If ritual, music and traditions are shared, though the doctrines of faith are not fundamentally believed, is that a religious awakening? Most important, is religion yet another self-help tool?

Benedek's tale, which leaves aside faith to focus almost exclusively on the cultural home she finds, raises these conundrums--though they are not, I think, the inquiries she means to pose.

In the first chapter, titled "Blinded," Benedek takes readers back to the harrowing morning that launches her spiritual search: "I wake up and I cannot see." We learn, a bit later, that she can see but is experiencing blurred vision that disappears when she covers one eye. "I can run and read and write and see friends. I can drive with one eye closed," she later explains. Doctors surmise that she's contracted Lyme disease; the vision problems are symptomatic and soon corrected. Still, she views the ailment as a manifestation of existential dread and reaches out to Judaism for the cure. "I believe that in naked fear, stripped of all defenses, literally blinded, I had a moment of true sight."

Using phrases such as "literally blinded" to describe what, in other paragraphs, she calls "double vision, though I can see fine if I look out of only one eye," is unfortunate because it causes the reader to question the veracity of her account. As a metaphor for the unseeing manner of her life, it's accurate. But as a claim to categorical truth, it's clearly flawed.

This lack of self-awareness comes through most strongly in "Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate." Benedek fills a good portion of the book, for example, by retelling visits to her psychotherapist, as well as her own dream analysis. Surely religion is more than an extension of psychotherapy, but in Benedek's narrative, religious practice, cultural identity and psychotherapy are presented as facets of the same self-improvement quest, the goal of which is to find and hold fast to corporeal happiness. Likewise, she seems unaware that as she rails against her ex-boyfriend's Catholic family for being anti-Semitic, she counters with more than a few anti-Catholic remarks of her own.

These flaws are unfortunate, because they stop the reader from appreciating the lovely job Benedek does in the second half of the book of conjuring her encounters with Judaism, her conversations with rabbis and her interaction with religiously observant women. She immerses herself in several Jewish subcultures but, ultimately, refuses to either accept or reject what she finds. To her credit, she quotes Rabbi Berman, the Orthodox cleric with whom she's been studying, when he indicts her: "You are still interested in watching, like a tourist, in observing the life, appreciating its poetry, the learning. . . . You are happy to have an ethnic attachment. But I sense you are not encouraging me to engage you in debates that get right to the very bottom of your questions."

The reader cheers to hear these words and waits for Benedek to address them, but she cruises on, unaware of any need to answer. Later, when Rabbi Berman laments that, "these days, the search is not perceived as a search for God's will; rather, it is a search for self-improvement or gratification," one sees clearly the trajectory of the story she's written.

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