The first steps down the path of the spiritual quest may have been taken in a mind befogged by hallucinogenic stupor or an auditory epiphany in the midst of a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. However that initiatory moment arrived, it likely occurred in one's teens or young adulthood. Smitten by the awakening call to that which out leaps the self, the spiritual quest is a lifelong adventure that can take us to ecstatic moments of inner realization but also to the dead ends of failed gurus or self-destructive cults. In the chapter that follows, a multigenerational story of the spiritual search draws on contributions from the fields of life course development, gerontology, neurobiology, and philosophy. The tale has its origins in mid-twentieth century, suburban, and Jewish America. But its implications touch other lives in other places.
“A Serious Man,” the Coen Brothers’ 2009 dark film comedy about a Biblical Job-like college physics professor, Larry Gopnick, is a biting satire on one man's effort to understand the soul-testing God of the Hebrews. In the movie, Larry's seemingly idyllic, mid-1960s middle-class, suburban life is beginning to crumble. Looking for answers to conflicts at home (his marriage is on the rocks), and at the office (he's up for tenure but hasn't published anything in years), Larry seeks spiritual guidance from rabbis. They preach patience and acceptance, glibly citing the impenetrable ways of HaShem (a substitute for the unutterable name of God). Adding to this woeful tale, Larry's son Danny, ensconced in his room supposedly preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, finds spiritual illumination in the glowing tip of a reefer. Meanwhile, down the hall, older sister, Sarah, is badgering her parents for a life changing rhinoplasty as she heads to the bathroom for another ritual immersion in shampoo and cream rinse.
In hindsight, it is precisely young people like Danny and Sarah who turn out to be among the Jews of the Baby Boom generation destined to venture in search of alternative and New Age spirituality in their adult years. They will join the thousands of Jews, and millions of non-Jews, who set forth on a journey in search of a spiritual home. Their sojourn reminds us that those who pursue spirituality in middle or later life most likely embarked on their quest when they were younger.
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