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Hearing the Call, Hitting the Road: A Conversation with Bruce Feiler

Hearing the Call, Hitting the Road: A Conversation with Bruce Feiler

PBS’ new six-part series Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler premiered on December 16th, 2014. ReformJudaism.org caught up with Feiler, who is the author of six consecutive bestsellers, including Walking the Bible, and writes the "This Life" column for the Sunday New York Times. Here's what he had to say about Sacred Journeys.

Sacred Journeys follows the experiences of individual spiritual seekers of different faiths who travel to pilgrimage sites in six countries: India, Japan, France, Nigeria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. What makes these sites so revered?

They are revered for different reasons. The power of Jerusalem derives from its centuries-old history as a place of encounter between humans and the Divine. Pilgrims come to Japan’s island of Shikoku, birthplace of Kobo Daishi, to pay him homage for his introducing a populist form of Buddhism in the early ninth century. Pilgrims in search of healing come to the French town of Lourdes, where in 1848, a 14-year-old peasant girl claimed to have had 18 encounters with the Virgin Mary.

You've described your own fascination with Jerusalem. What is its allure to you and to so many other seekers?

Through most of my twenties, I was like a traveling bungee cord. I'd travel and bounce back, travel and bounce back. The first time I visited Jerusalem the bungee cord stuck. I felt connected. When a friend pointed to the Golden Dome and said that it covers the rock where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, I thought, “Here in this place, you can touch and feel history.”

What distinguishes sacred journeys from other travel experiences?

In a sacred journey, you are searching for answers to questions – what do I believe, what is the meaning of my life? A sacred journey typically follows a process with several stages. First is the call, the idea of feeling summoned. Next comes the work of preparation and heightened anticipation. Then there's the journey itself and the suffering that often comes with it, like losing a lot of sleep, uncomfortable accommodations, and food you'd never choose. Arrival can bring ecstasy or disappointment. The last stage is the return, when you ask yourself, "I just had this experience. How much am I going to change? How much of it will stick with me? How much of it will affect what I really believe?”

You open each segment of the series by saying, "Today organized religion is more threatened than ever, yet pilgrimages are more popular than ever." How popular?

The number of people on pilgrimages is surging. A 2014 UN study in connection with The First World Congress on Pilgrimage reported that one-third of all tourists are pilgrims – 330 million people a year. Just look at the Hajj. In 1920, Mecca drew 50,000 pilgrims; last year, there were two million.

What's driving the surge in sacred journeys?

I think part of the reason is that more and more people are breaking away from institutions, wanting to decide for themselves what their religious and spiritual beliefs are going to be.

Does one have to be a believer to be a seeker?

Not necessarily. I think of seekers in terms of movement. While some of them are moving toward religion, others are moving away. They tend to be in a time of transition, about to enter a new phase in their lives – college graduates, newlyweds about to have children, people who just lost a job or a loved one, retirees about to begin a new act in their lives. At such times, they are open to change and transformation. If this sounds familiar, think of the Bible, whether it is Abraham leaving his father's house or the Israelites leaving Egypt. It is in these moments of transition and dislocation that the great breakthroughs in monotheism – and ultimately Judaism – occurred.

Can someone have a powerful Jewish journey without leaving home?

Absolutely. During Temple times, making three pilgrimages to Jerusalem was central to the religious lives of Jews. After the Temples were destroyed and the Jews expelled from their homeland and often restricted from travel, they found avenues, such as mysticism, to internalize those journeys.

In addition to Israel, what are other Jewish pilgrimage sites today?

Returning to the place of your family's origin, to the gravesite of a sainted rabbi in Morocco or a Chasidic master in Russia, to a concentration camp memorial site in Poland, to the immigration center at Ellis Island… there are many possibilities.

How do you think the organized Jewish community needs to change to draw in more spiritual seekers?

I don't have the answers, but it is important to understand that we live in a time when the dominant metaphor is search, whether spiritual or Google. Young searchers are not drawn to a building open at times not of their choosing, where they sit in a pew passively while someone steps up on a high mountain and lectures from a book. They want to do things in their own time and in their own space. They want to interact, talk back, and discover the meaning of Judaism for themselves.

What's next for you on your own spiritual path?

I'm writing a book on Genesis, going back to a subject for the first time in a decade.

So you're going back to the beginning.

Exactly.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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