.sqs-featured-posts-gallery .title-desc-wrapper .view-post

Just Sign Up for the Goodies?

By Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer


I was prepared to not like this book. I did not disagree with the author’s core belief that, in the words of Brother Wayne Teasdale, there is a “shared mystic heart beating in the center of the world’s deepest spiritual traditions.” Nor did I have trouble with naming that heart “interspiritual.”

However, that is different than saying a person could claim interspirituality as her religious identity; that it is possible to have a practice that is fully interspiritual; that one’s base community could itself be interspiritual. Those possibilities challenged my core beliefs.

I love Nia, an exercise program that draws from Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, jazz dance, modern dance, Duncan dance, yoga, Alexander Technique, and the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais. But what works for exercise, I tell people, does not necessarily work for religion. I have spent the better part of my adult life learning and teaching about religious paths not my own, engaging in dialogue across religious differences and collaborating with people of other faiths on causes of mutual concern.

But I came to those encounters as a Jew. I believed that, in the end, I had to make peace with my particular religious identity, find spiritual tools (mostly) within the treasure chest that is Judaism and settle in for life with my tribal family, even when that sometimes involves fighting with them to change. Besides, boredom builds character. You can’t just sign up for the goodies.

But what if you can?

I had my ammunition all lined up. To my surprise, Miarabai Starr began disarming me from the start. I related to her love of words and her practice of creative writing as a spiritual exercise. I applauded her admonition to readers to make a special effort to learn about Islam. Here was a spiritual writer who also read the newspaper, and cared about social justice! Starr writes beautifully and accessibly; she tells stories, old and new, in a lucid, compelling way. While I was prepared to find her ideas superficial (“a mile wide and an inch deep,” to quote William Sloane Coffin), I found her words always thoughtful and at times profound.

I was eager to judge Starr’s syncretism as a lack of discipline, but I soon got to know her as a person of strong character, committed to hard work to transform herself and the world. By the time she shared the interspiritual funeral and mourning rituals around the death of her 14- year- old daughter, I had given up the fight. When she described how her community — itself an interspiritual mix – “cobbled together” a ritual to “contain the wildness of our loss,” I could only stand in awe.

For nerds like me, the book’s reference section may prove disappointing. I was glad to read an uncluttered text. I was not glad, however, when I turned to the end notes and found them sparse. Many beautiful stories and quotations were left without sufficient citation for the reader to easily follow up. Take, for example, “‘The world is new to us every morning,’ said the Baal Shem Tov.” Where did he say that? And since the Besht did not speak English, who actually translated his words in just that lovely way? Perhaps a second edition or a website will address this concern.

Also on the geeky nitpicking side, the occasional ahistorical lapses provoked me. I am not entirely sure that “the Hebrew prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs all had contemplative inclinations.” I am not even convinced they all existed. Even as mythic figures, they do not strike me as people who all “set aside time for solitude and silence,” as they did in Starr’s imagination. Still, I will grant her that it would probably have been a good thing if they had.

Bottom line: Starr’s luminous soul won me over. She left me with no enthusiasm for challenging her path, only a desire to get to know her better. I finished the book with more openness toward Starr’s way of approaching religious life, and just in time! Her way is undoubtedly growing. While I am unlikely to change my own core commitments, I am more willing to rethink my prejudices. I would not mind living in a world populated by people like Starr. As William James said about religious belief, although he was not the first, “by their fruits you shall know them.”