A Review of Jay Michaelson’s Enlightenment by Trial and Error

Jay Michaelson is a rare commodity: an expert seeker. His expertise is well documented in the work he has produced in several contiguous but certainly wide ranging realms of thought. Mysticism, Buddhism, the phenomenology of religious experience, politics, sexuality, law and, not to be forgotten, Judaism. While I did meet Jay personally in a year we both studied in Israel, my own real introduction to how he wields his command of material was in the book God in Your Body, a work that I found to be a masterful explication of a number of complex systems of thought, mystical experience and patterns that recur in the lives of human beings. A book like God in Your Body is like an atlas mapping out page by page the locations and routes between these different practices and worldviews. If previous books provide maps, Enlightenment by Trial and Error is the travel diary of a cartographer. In Michaelson’s own words he put together this volume in order to provide accounts of “someone still searching and figuring stuff out, still skeptical, still questioning everything along the way.”
The essays in the book are divided into three sections: Uncoiling, Unraveling, Unknowing. In choosing these themes, Michaelson has cast his journey as one of undoing of assumptions rather than acquiring new knowledge.
In the Uncoiling section, Michaelson is hunting for a new sense of awakening. He surrounds his quarry from several directions, exploring meditation, sex, queerness, and religious phenomenology in an attempt to break out of his own assumptions. His sources are suitably eclectic: Hafiz, Thornton Wilder, Friedrich Schleirmacher, Ken Wilber. Actually a lot of Ken Wilber, the consciousness guru that is himself a map-maker, delineating the grand unified theory of human experience and knowledge. In a way the certainty of Wilber’s systems helped reset Michaelson’s conceptions of what meaningful life was and wasn’t. And yet, thankfully, Michaelson remains confused and unsure. Unwilling to replace one protective skin with another.
And so to the Unraveling. This next section of essays are more direct as to what skin is being shed. A rudimentary and limiting sense of God and God’s attendant strictures on what constitutes a moral life.  Here the focus is on that stripping away at times with a self-conscious sense of shocking the reader in one way or another. Whether in “Star Wars, Conservatives, Judaism, and the Penis” or “How Not to Believe in God” there is a sustained effort to break down such assumptions as patriarchy, duality, and the very idea of faith as belief. This is the Michaelson who wrote God vs. Gay in order to make clear that finding the way to escape a suffocating sense of God has high personal and political stakes.
The final section presents a deeper appreciation for what can happen when one escapes not only the walls of God’s closet but the means by which the walls are knocked down. Michaelson recognizes that there is not one ideology or system that supersedes another or an absolutely hierarchy of religious traditions. This insight makes Michaelson so valuable as a finder as well as a seeker. What he finds is not the end of a path but a constant encounter with the multifarious expressions of what is Divine, what is holy, what is infinite, what is real.
One more point that may seem like an aside but is quite central to this book: Jay Michaelson is in love. He is in love with his work and in love with his body in love with his companions in love with God in love with life. Being in love makes Michaelson incredibly generous even when he is presenting concepts that fundamentally challenge the way so many of us live our own lives. Love is in fact the last word in this book, found in his dedication to two of the master guides of his spiritual practice Rabbis Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and David Cooper. “I owe them far more than this book I owe them the capacity to love” And in the end, this book is about seeking and finding that capacity to love.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a conservative synagogue in Alpharetta, Georgia, and has a particular interest in post-modern thought and the philosophy of Jewish law and practices.


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