The rabbi's guru

After a long search for spirituality, David Zeller returned from India to rediscover his Judaism.

soul book 88 298 (photo credit: )
soul book 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Soul of the Story: Meetings with Remarkable People By David Zeller Jewish Lights 245pp., $21.99 David Zeller's story is unusual to say the least. In his spiritual memoir, The Soul of the Story, he describes his journey of enlightenment, one shaped by a variety of experiences and meetings with mentors that include Ram Dass, Sai Baba, Nakasono Sensei and others. It's an atypical path for a rabbi from the United States. Organized in a series of short vignettes, the book traces Zeller's spiritual education from a self-confessed student and hippie to the 59-year-old rabbi, singer and teacher he is today. While in his early 20s, Zeller found himself in Vrindavan, India, living as a sadhu, or holy man, and following a guru called Sri Pad. Gradually, he shed his shoes, Western clothes and the majority of his possessions to live a life of meditation, relying on the generosity of others and the providence of God for food and shelter. All he carried with him during this time was a blanket, a bamboo flute, his passport and the clothes on his back. "I did it because it felt so comfortable, and because I felt so much at home," he writes. "I did it because it was being offered by people who were so loving and caring." In the process of becoming initiated into sadhu life, Zeller was required to undergo a variety of experiences that tested his endurance and belief, ranging from self-imposed starvation to physical exhaustion. "I understood that I needed to let go of my desire to control, predict and direct my life," he says. "I needed to turn over the reins to God." The fact that he gladly does this, and has the courage and conviction to embark on this extreme spiritual journey, makes The Soul of the Story a fascinating read. But unfortunately, it's marred by several elements that make it a challenging book to complete. For one, Zeller introduces us to over 20 individuals on his journey, ranging from rabbis and swamis to theorists. The cumulative impact of reading about so many mentors is that after a short while, they tend to blend together, becoming indistinguishable from one another. Zeller loses his readers in a myriad of mentors whose beliefs and theories remain elusive and inaccessible. Near the start of the book, Zeller tries to explain how the theories of Carl Jung have shaped his life. But unless you are familiar with the writings of Jung, this influence is difficult to understand. His story also takes place in several countries (the US, Israel and India) and doesn't have a clear sense of timeline. Part of the problem could be that a spiritual, highly personal journey like Zeller's is by nature difficult to communicate, especially without any experience as a professional writer. While in India, for example, he meditates before meeting a woman known as "the Mother," and describes a life-changing experience he had as a result of his encounter with her. "I felt an electric-like surge. There was a flash of white light and I saw and heard the essential Jewish mantra of God's Unity. This coincided with multiple levels of understanding and revelations of depth and meaning - not in the head, but in the heart." After meeting the Mother, he summarizes his experience thus: "When I looked into her eyes, Eternity stared back at me." This kind of vague description communicates little to the reader attempting to follow his spiritual progression. Sometime after 1972, Zeller returned to the US, married, had children and obtained his smicha. He studied Jewish spirituality, meditation and transpersonal psychology, all the while working with adults, college students and at-risk youth, teaching through all the streams of Judaism available to him. While he is doubtless inspiring as a rabbi, teacher and singer, his book fails to capture the profound impact of his journey. Perhaps he should have committed to writing a complete memoir about his life, rather than short vignettes about his spiritual journey. Had he done this, there's a chance his readers would have gained more depth of understanding about his character, his motivations and how his spiritual journey shaped his life as a whole.