Thank you for being here! “What am I Missing” is a book that Illuminates the difficult life lesson that everyone is missing something in their lives. This truth includes six significant characters of the Hebrew Bible: Abraham and Rachel; Moses and Miriam; and David and Esther. Using texts from the Hebrew Bible as our source of interpretation, we search for the meaning of ‘what-is-missing’ in each of them and ourselves. These challenges provoke questions that have no simple answers and stimulate us to reflect on being a human with purpose and hope today.
I invite you to read the full book and hope you enjoy the facinating explorantion of this simple question.
At the outset of this review I feel obligated to disclose that the author of ‘What Am I Missing?’ is known to me. Stating this outright enables one to set aside any pretense of clinical objectivity and provides an opportunity for honest expression uninhibited by the strictures of critique. What follows will be nothing more than a description and endorsement from someone who considers Dr. Edelheit a mentor and friend.
Essentially the book is a series of meditations on the lives of biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs that is then refracted back onto the life of the author. The intention is to demonstrate that ancient texts, despite their temporal distance from us, still have much to say about the experience of modern life. It may appear as if the human condition has changed dramatically over the course of two millennia and our ability to relate to these ancient persons seems all but impossible, yet Edelheit does more than merely disagree with this sentiment and wants to illustrate the contrary in a personal fashion.
For those of us who know Edelheit and have experienced his lectures, many of the anecdotes shared in the book will be familiar to us. Indeed the book is even written in a prose that captures the timbre and cadence of the author’s speech patterns. On more than a few occasions while reading I found myself picturing the animated and often ambulatory nature of how Edelheit speaks, gesticulating and pausing to laugh or sigh as the situation warrants. This has an effect on the pacing of the book making it brisk and robust without having to become ponderous with the usual accoutrements of unfortunate academic writing such as heavy footnotes punctuated with confusing acronyms representing arcane journals which many cite but few read or lengthy digressions about minute distinctions between the author and the works of others.
The above speaks to a particular strength of this title, it is written for a general audience and does not presume any knowledge about biblical studies, rabbinical treatises, or the practice of Judaism. These topics are most certainly touched upon and invoked, but in a manner that seeks to provide a succinct and accessible explanation and introduction before their use. This means that readers without a background in those areas will not have to consult Wikipedia or conduct a Google search to understand what is being said. This is not a book written to and for other theologians, secular academics, or even to a Jewish audience, but to every person who has experienced a crisis of insecurity, failure, or meaning.
I must however warn potential readers that this text is built upon certain assumptions of religious inclusivity. What I mean by this is that even though the author writes from the Jewish perspective he is still a student of Christianity and Islam and seeks to include any person who draws meaning and/or inspiration from the Hebrew Bible. This does not mean Edelheit compromises his own traditions, only that he refuses to invalidate the traditions and experiences of others. The book accepts readers as they are and is only motivated to share with them what the author has endured and learned.
I’ve included this book into my personal library because it will allow me to revisit the teaching and methods of a friend whenever I find the need arises. It is a vivid reminder that no matter what kind of life we lead and what challenges we face, it is a fact of human existence that we feel ill-equipped and overwhelmed at times. Rather than feel discouraged at this we should take time to remind ourselves that we are far from alone in these experiences and that our traditions might have more to say to us than we might have assumed.
We have now a long-awaited volume from Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, known to his students, congregants, and colleagues as a brilliant, thoughtful, and empathic observer of the human condition. Widely versed in both Jewish and Christian theology and deeply committed to multi-faith conversation, Edelheit brings to his work a refreshing transparency about his own humanity. He is the opposite of the pinched clergyman of whom Emerson wrote, after a particular Sunday service:
A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.
Edelheit’s writing, by contrast, is saturated with his own experience – with the depth, the pathos, the mystery, and the joy of it. This isn’t to say that his book is heavily autobiographical, although he is generous with personal stories. But even when he is not taking a page from his own life, the Rabbi’s readers know instinctively that he is present to them, that he understands them, that he is interested in them . . . and that he cares about them. Here is a book in which writer and reader can truly be in conversation . . . and it is a conversation that is refreshingly honest.
Edelheit’s premise – that every life is missing some important element – is an ingenious way of introducing us to a series of six Biblical characters . . . and then re-introducing us to ourselves. By marking these characters (Abraham, Rachel, Miriam, Moses, David, Esther) with their deficits, he diminishes the distance that often makes them untouchable. They are not plaster saints, not invincible heroes, not paradigms of sanctity or strength, but rather they are people like us, struggling through life, doing the best we can despite the fact that we don’t have everything we need . . . despite, one might say, our disabilities.
In “What Am I Missing,” Edelheit describes three touchstones of Jewish life: God, Torah, and Israel. With an ease that comes from a lifetime of scriptural study, he then introduces each of his six characters and reveals their “missing piece.” (Abraham, for example, has a relationship with God but he does not have the support of Torah, of revealed scripture.) The specificity of these missing pieces, however, does not prevent the reader – be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or other – from understanding the paradigm: that our lives are profoundly shaped by the characteristics or gifts that we lack. This shaping, however, is no tragedy, for we come to our full humanity in facing our brokenness.
It is no surprise that one of the book’s most passionate chapters is the one about Rachel in which Edelheit makes his case for religious pluralism. While a rabbi in Minneapolis, he was a prime mover, along with a friend who was a Roman Catholic priest, in establishing a rich and enduring multi-faith relationship among the city’s various clergy and their congregations. This relationship moved well past the usual polite instruction about one another’s traditions. It brought representatives of those traditions into deep conversation with one another, conversation that many times revealed conflict but which always was grounded in a deep and gracious mutual respect and love. In this – and in his book – Edelheit embodies the paradox that those who are the most deeply immersed in their own religious traditions are the ones who are invariably the most open to the traditions of others. One is reminded of Professor Paul Knitter’s provocative volume, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.”
In sum, Rabbi Edelheit has given us – by virtue of insightful scripture study and honest self-revelation – a rich and accessible examination of what it means to be human. One turns the final page of this book with regret because the journey has been so stimulating . . . but also with gratitude because one feels newly empowered to continue down the path.
Joseph Edelheit has written a remarkable book. It is — effectively combined — part biblical interpretation, part memoir, part clarion call for social justice, and part sermon calling on all of us to embrace our imperfections. Rabbi Edelheit draws compellingly on his experiences as rabbi of Major American congregations, prison chaplain, AIDS-HIV activist in both theUSA and India, professor of Jewish studies at a state university with a history of antisemitism and trail blazing liberal rabbi in Rio de Janeiro. We are not surprised, therefore, but greatly enriched that Rabbi Edelheit's unique array of experiences brings us a unique perspective on the meaning for our lives of the biblical treatment of Abraham, Rachel, Miriam, Moses, David and Esther.
If you Google “what am I missing”, you’ll get more than 11 million results. If you could check out each one in 30 seconds, that would take about 11 years, with no time for sleep or anything else. Instead, this slim, accessible book will take you some hours, but you’ll probably want to go back and read it again. It’s reassuring, at some level, to realize that our Biblical heroes weren’t perfect, that we can learn from both their strengths and what they were missing. The chapters each tie sometimes surprising insights (Moses was “good enough”, and that’s for the best), with provocative questions about what those lessons mean for us as members of society, and as individuals. And the personal anecdotes the rabbi shares both teach and challenge us to recognize and treasure our own “missing pieces”. The hours reading will change the way you look at the random encounters that come your way.
This author is not an ivory tower rabbi. This is a rabbi who has helped people in the trenches, bringing the bible to bear as he does in the book, but not without true and modern empathy. Many of us find biblical lessons archaic and arcane, but Rabbi Edelheit brings a background to his teachings and his public service that makes them real and relevant.
“Rabbi Edelheit guides us through the Hebrew Bible as if we are living in it. Through scholarship, jeremiad, and memoir, he patiently explains how we Jews 'read' it. He introduces us to great biblical characters and ordinary contemporary strangers who seem to mysteriously pass through his life with their flaws, injuries, prayers, and lessons. If you're a Jew and know someone who is Christian, for the love of God, give them this book.“
“In this rich and easily accessible book, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit takes a simple question--'what am I missing?'--and shows how it illuminates the lives of famous biblical characters as well as our own struggles with modern society. Despite their many virtues, Abraham, Rachel, Miriam, Moses, David, and Esther are all missing some important feature of Jewish existence. But their stories have important lessons to teach us about what it means to be human, to deal with uncertainty, to live in a pluralistic society, and to be satisfied with who we are. This is a book that needs to be read and re-read to appreciate its many valuable insights.“
“Joseph takes us on a journey interweaving important characters of Torah and his own life and the lessons we learn or don't learn by seeking out what we think we need or what society tells us we need. . . . Joe reminds us that we need to stop our fast ride through life and gather what is offered to us and to learn from it. A perfect read as we all travel through life's joys and travails and take ancient lessons into our contemporary life. A must-read for all searchers, learners, and life's active participants.“
“Rabbi Joseph Edelheit has provided us with a deeply engaging and provocative text on how six biblical figures--Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Ruth, David, and Esther--teach us how to understand our own human limitations and how to work to overcome them. This is an extraordinarily thoughtful discussion that shows us how we can work to perfect ourselves by asking the right questions to reveal what is missing in our own lives.“