When your guru has feet of clay

Do we judge our holy men too harshly, holding them to too high a standard?

man near tree 88 (photo credit: )
man near tree 88
(photo credit: )
The death on September 25 of M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist who wrote The Road Less Traveled, barely registered with most Anglo-Israelis. Maybe it was because he died just before the hectic Rosh Hashana period; or possibly no one remembered that Peck essentially created the self-help genre back in 1978. I belatedly stumbled upon The Road Less Traveled in late 1997, at a Jerusalem used-book shop, at a time when my own life was in upheaval. The irony was that I had previously pooh-poohed the self-help "movement" as being largely shallow and self-indulgent. Still, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, the need to confront spirituality and grow up (regardless of age) can intrude in our lives, uninvited. Besides, Peck's work was inimitable. His teachings can be summed up in his opening line: "Life is difficult." This may sound banal but, as Peck explains, it's because we invest ourselves in escaping from life's intrinsic sufferings - in all the wrong ways - that we end up weighed down by layers of neurosis. And because Peck made no distinction between the mind and the spirit, "between the process of achieving spiritual growth and achieving mental growth" he concluded that refusing to engage God was just another form of counterproductive pain avoidance. It was only after he died that I read how Peck's secular father (with whom he had a difficult relationship) had been in denial about being half-Jewish. The precocious Morgan Scott Peck attended a Quaker school in New York, became a Zen Buddhist at 18, and wound up as a US army psychiatrist during the Vietnam War. He began working as a private psychiatrist in Connecticut and, in 1976, was stirred to start writing The Road Less Traveled. Though the book dabbles in Buddhist and Christian theology it is essentially a non-sectarian work which propagates values essentially in harmony with mainstream Judaism. How far, after all, is "Life is difficult" from "Es is schwer tsu zein a Yid"? The book argues for delaying gratification, for accepting responsibility, for dedication to truth, and for "balancing" (knowing when to compromise). It calls for a distinction between "genuine" and romantic love, and teaches that discipline is the road to spiritual growth. BUT PECK also made pantheistic and Christological claims that are not in harmony with rabbinic Judaism - about the immanent nature of God; about our unconscious being God; that each person is born in order that God might be a new life form; and about participating in God's "agony." Yet the thing to remember about Peck is that by the time he died at age 69, his book had spent more than eight years on The New York Times bestseller list, so there was probably something there for seekers of all hues. Even if the book is theologically problematic it is still written in a voice one can only describe as saintly. Not only did Peck's work offer individual lessons; there are also commonsense applications to the political realm. In Further Along the Road Less Traveled he argued: "Virtually all of the evil in this world is committed by people who are absolutely certain they know what they're doing. It is not committed by people who think of themselves as confused. It is not committed by the poor in spirit." PECK WAS a spiritual thinker of the highest order - even for those, like me, who rejected huge chunks of his philosophy. And what a seeming breath of fresh air he was compared to the shabby holy men whose improprieties make news in Israel as they despoil Judaism for politics and profit. Alas, the flesh-and-blood Peck was - in his own words - more prophet than saint. He was a womanizer - par for the course in the modern age, but striking for the fact that he dedicated his magnum opus to his wife, Lily, with: "She has been so giving that it is hardly possible to distinguish her wisdom as a spouse, parent, psychotherapist, and person from my own." He also acknowledged being a poor father. Though he sermonized about discipline, he was a heavy gin drinker and a chain-smoker. In an interview with Andrew Billen for the London Times, Peck recalled: "A fellow who was thinking of doing my biography once asked me: 'God, man, have you ever denied yourself anything?' And I said: 'Well, I've never smoked or drunk as much as I would like to.' That's about as close as I could come." His ecumenical offerings dwindled as, toward the end of his life, Peck became preoccupied with Satan and The Revelation. Death came from Parkinson's disease and cancer. Peck's saga spotlights the age-old dilemma about whether seekers can and should separate the sermon from the sermonizer. Can we look beyond the bad things our spiritual pastors and political leaders do while embracing their work in the public sphere? Adolescents can afford the luxury of dismissing hypocrisy in both the message and the messenger, but the more the rest of us travel along the difficult road of life, the more the world appears full of nuance and complexity. jager@jpost.com