Embracing Sadness: An Interview With Jay Michaelson
by Marilyn Cooper
After his mother died following a long battle with cancer, LGBTQ activist, rabbi and scholar Jay Michaelson returned to writing a book that he had begun more than a decade earlier, The Gate of Tears: Sadness & the Spiritual Path. In it, he effortlessly blends wisdom about experiencing emotions from diverse sources, including Talmudic tracts, Rilke’s poetry and the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. The result is a beautiful book and a very brave one. Michaelson fearlessly discusses challenging and often taboo emotions in a complicated and nuanced manner, carefully distinguishing sadness from depression and sorrow from despair. Ostensibly about sadness, ultimately, The Gate of Tears provides a gentle guide for discovering happiness and the true joy that can result from embracing the full range of human emotions. Michaelson recently spoke with Moment Culture Editor Marilyn Cooper about Jewish spirituality, gender and sexuality and the journey that led to his latest book.
Your new book, The Gate of Tears, is in many ways a departure from your previous books. What motivated you to write it?
That’s interesting to hear. I’ve been working on it for so long that it feels like another dimension of what I do. I first began to write the book about 15 years ago in the flush of having begun a meditation practice. I felt I had discovered something really important. There was some arrogance in that but also sweet enthusiasm, the zeal of the converted. I put that book aside for a long time and then opened it back up as I was going through the process of my mom’s illness. It wasn’t so much that this was the next book to write, but that this was the book I wanted to read.
I knew I was writing about something people have been doing for more than 2,500 years. But I discovered it for myself. I realized that there was a way to neither wallow in my sadness nor to ignore it. There was a third way of being with it—noticing it, but not being taken over by it. Gradually, over the years, there has been a real joy with that. For me, it has been a real relief to be out there not having the answers and not writing a self-help book or saying, “here is a view that everyone should have.” Instead, I’m trying to go out there with what actually is, with what’s working for me and how that can be really beautiful.
How have people reacted to the book?
It’s been what I expected: A small number of people really like it. And large numbers of people don’t know it exists! That’s all right. I had ambitions with previous books such as God vs. Gay? of really trying to reach a wide audience. Here, I just wanted to write, and it’s wonderful just to connect with the people who are connecting with this material. There are a lot of people trying to make a lot of money selling lots of copies of spiritual books. I don’t think the world needs another one of those. I wanted to write a book that could only be written the way I wrote it.
You wrote in The Daily Beast that you felt embarrassed to have written about spirituality. Sometimes, particularly in parts of the Jewish community, spirituality seems to be regarded as religion’s less intelligent stepsister. Why do you think this is?
There is a lot of muddy thinking that gets labeled as spirituality. There is a lot of stuff out there that meets certain human needs for meaning or myths or consolation. Those are really valuable. But it is true that they are not always intellectually credible and they are not necessarily durable.
I don’t know that spirituality is religion’s less intelligent stepsister so much as religion itself is suspect within parts of the institutional Jewish community. If by religion we mean things that involve the sacred or even obedience to the law, in non-Orthodox Judaism, I think for most people our religious language has been incoherent for generations now. We don’t have a mainstream language for religion that truly connects to what people actually think and believe about the world. It is as though we have to suspend disbelief to enter into Jewish tribal spaces if they are also religious spaces. We do that so we can come together regardless of what we actually believe in. That attitude is mainly that “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”
It’s funny that while consultants are tracking the disappearance of the Jewish mainstream, the gifts that the tradition has to offer actually are being appreciated—just by smaller groups. Judaism is alive and well—it is just in boutiques rather than in big stores. The big-store version of Judaism is quickly revealing itself to be unsustainable in the 21st century. The Reform and Conservative movements are cutting back and large synagogues are not really sure what sustainability looks like. What’s interesting is that this less intelligent sibling, to borrow your phrase, has some of the most intelligent qualities for sustainable Judaism in the 21st century. There is cultural Judaism, nationalistic Judaism around Israel, communal Judaism and social-justice Judaism. But there is also spiritual Judaism that seems to do what other forms of Judaism don’t do. I’ve really appreciated that during this last year of saying Kaddish for my mom. Whether it’s the daily or weekly community I’ve said Kaddish with or the people from my mom’s mainstream Jewish Conservative community who really showed up for her during her illness and after her passing—those kinds of community bonds are hard to build. There is something to having these ancient rituals and ways of relating to life and death. I’m not sure we are good at highlighting those. Nobody says, “Join our synagogue because when you are in the hospital we will be there for you.” But actually, that is one of the most valuable things our community can do. To me, that is spiritual work.
Mindfulness activities such as yoga classes, meditation groups or retreats tend to be female-dominated spaces. As a prominent male figure in the Jewish community who is known for having a mindfulness practice, why do you think there are so few Jewish men involved in this?
There are two reasons. One, patriarchy still has a lot of power, and if you already have positions of authority in Judaism you might not be looking for additional places to fit in within the synagogue hierarchy. Second, in our culture as well as in many others, the idea of being in touch with one’s feelings and cultivating compassionate spiritual presence is gendered. A lot of men are still socialized to not talk about or really experience their feelings. Classical Buddhism, where all these mindfulness techniques originated, was actually a male-dominated culture. It is ironic that a patriarchal system has been imported into a Western context and re-gendered into a feminine experience.
I entered this space as a feminist and a queer activist. I generally feel really comfortable in majority female spaces, I am happier in them than in straight male dominated spaces. To be honest, I don’t like having to perform my masculinity for a bunch of Jewish men who want to measure the strength of my handshake. I want ways to relate to spirituality apart from authority-based patriarchies. There is something intrinsically powerful—and also anti-patriarchal—about saying that the truth is within. And it is powerful to see that the truth comes from a group or from an individual—that it is not inherited from a man on a mountain who gave it to another man. So that would be a third reason. Not just that men have other places to play and not just that being with your feelings is feminine in our culture, but that there is something destabilizing about a spiritual practice that locates truth within rather than through a system of authority.
You’ve been open about having experienced pain around your sexuality. Why have you chosen to be open about these personal experiences?
It’s my history doing activist work. I founded two Jewish LGBT groups and that openness was really at the center of my work. It’s very natural for me to talk about this part of my life. It doesn’t feel like an over-share. It’s part of my suffering. And parts of my experience such as feeling marginalized or inadequate are things many people have experienced. Many of us are told at some point, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are not the way we are supposed to be. I am thankful to have spent some time on the margins and to know what that is like. That is central to the Jewish experience. My favorite line in the whole Torah is when it says not to oppress strangers because you were once strangers in Egypt. It is very central to remember the experience of oppression in order not to oppress others. Our Jewish experiences of oppression have been so traumatic that we often go to the other side and we use our experiences of oppression as a reason to oppress others. That is clearly not what the Torah has in mind. That’s the connection point between telling my own ongoing coming-out story in the book and the moment in which we are living. These politics of fear have sent us a demagogue in the form of a politician who is going to try to keep the brown people out of the U.S. and make sure they don’t vote and kick out the ones who are here. They are trying to maintain white supremacy because it’s terrifying to think about the browning of America. What would it be like to instead contemplate a Utopian vision of politics in which we owned our sense of uncertainty or insecurity? We could accept that there are people out there who are dangerous and we could understand that our lives are fragile and that fear is part of being human instead of trying to banish any sense of insecurity by turning to rage and turning on Fox News.
If sharing my story helps me seem less perfect, then it is worth it just for that. I can’t stand these teachers who present themselves as perfect paragons of virtue in the Jewish world or anywhere else. There is a chapter in the book called “Don’t believe your teachers.” I don’t believe anyone who says they have all the answers.
One of my favorite quotes from your new book is “Sadness is not the problem, the hatred of sadness is the problem.” Why do we hate sadness? Why are we so often scared of it?
Human beings don’t like sadness because of millions of years of evolution. It is not that we are doing something wrong. If you poke a paramecium it will try to get away; that’s evolution and natural selection. We want more of what’s pleasant and we don’t want what’s unpleasant. Sadness, anger, loss—these are emotions that indicate displeasure or unhappiness. It is entirely natural to have feelings of sadness or aversion and then to not want them to be around. They don’t feel good at first.
But it is possible—and it has been done for thousands of years—to settle in and feel comfortable and even joyful at the same time that sadness arises. It can be really mundane. A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street and I felt really uneasy and I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t feel like myself. I did some introspection and saw that there was some grief. That is how grief comes up after a loss. It is gone and then it is suddenly there. It doesn’t follow instructions; it just appears when it wants to. Very quickly, my mind recognized it and was like, “Oh, grief.” It can feel good to feel bad—that’s part of the point. That’s how grief works.
I felt really happy and sad at the same time. It was fine that these negative feelings were there. It’s totally natural and okay, just like the changing of the seasons; it’s just a different climate in the mind. I feel grateful to do that kind of emotional alchemy. I wanted to pass that on. It’s not something I invented. It’s something I was taught by my teachers, Jewish and Buddhist. It is natural to feel sad and it is natural to not want to feel sad. And it is also possible to not mind any of that. Those are the clouds passing by. When people ask how you are doing after you suffer a loss or during a hard time, it feels good to say, “I am not doing that well. It sucks. But I’ll be okay even though it is not good.” That authenticity and releasing resistance to the sadness feels worth the effort. I can build connections to others by, when it’s appropriate, openly sharing my feelings. It’s a privilege when someone is open with me about his or her feelings. That’s how I understand Martin Buber’s teachings—that in relationships, there is something holy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.