Reaching Godward: Voices from Jewish Spiritual Guidance
by Carol Ochs
New York: URJ Press, 2004
Reviewed by Karen Lee Erlichman
Reading Carol Ochs’ latest book, Reaching Godward: Voices from Jewish Spiritual Guidance, feels a bit like looking at photographs or home movies with a friend. Each chapter shows us the author sitting with sixteen individuals as they wrestle with their relationship with God, as well as a variety of spiritual challenges, theologies, and practices. Although most of her “guidees” (a term she prefers instead of directees) are Jewish, all of them present with universal themes such as parent-child relationships; traditional versus innovative prayer practices; aging, grief, and loss; and creativity. Each chapter presents a compelling, descriptive narrative of each guide and what he or she brings to the spiritual guidance relationship. Ochs’ warm, personal writing style offers the reader an intimate glimpse of the relationship between the spiritual guide and guidee, as well as the evolving and sometimes surprising ways God moves through their conversations.
Ochs, a member of Spiritual Directors International, is the author of eight previous books including the groundbreaking Jewish Spiritual Guidance: Finding Our Way to God. She begins this book by sharing her definition of spiritual guidance; as a philosopher and academic, she states that spirituality is “coming into relationship with reality…[a reality she names as] God” (p.1). She then offers a succinct explanation of the differences between spiritual guidance, psychotherapy and pastoral counseling. “All three…have as their objective the healing and ultimate wholeness of the people who come to them. But ‘wholeness’ is defined in different ways by the three groups” (p. 3).
Ochs’ introduction also outlines her Jewish theological foundation that underlies her practice as a spiritual guide. These include the gift of story, God at the beginning, creation, and B’tzelem Elohim: being made in the image of God. She highlights her belief and understanding of the teaching that is repeated throughout the Torah, “I will be with you,” i.e. the primacy of the Divine Relationship (p. 8).
Following the introduction, Ochs then shares the stories of eleven women and five men, snapshots into the spiritual lives of a diverse group of guidees. Each chapter heading lists the person’s name, followed by a subheading that describes the theme of their journey, such as “Bringing a Love of Dance into Worship,” “A Priest Discusses a Personal Problem,” and “A Marriage and the Healing of Childhood Losses.” Each individual person’s story and chapter was compelling and moving in different and sometimes surprising ways. Ochs portrays her spiritual guidance style or approach as highly psychological, analytical and interpretive at times. Through a slightly distracting writing style of peppering her chapters with parenthetical comments, she invites us to observe what stirs in her as she sits with each person in God’s presence. This book is a lovely addition for any spiritual director’s library of interfaith books and resources.
Karen Lee Erlichman, MSS, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in San Francisco, California, USA, where she provides psychotherapy and spiritual direction. Her writing has appeared in Tikkun, on-line at www.interfaithfamily.com, and her article entitled “Cultivating Compassion” was recently chosen as one of the winners of the 2005 International House Vision of Hope Essay Contest, addressing prejudice and stereotyping in the wake of 9/11/01.