100 brachot a day can ignite divine spark within, rabbi says

Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld has a bone to pick with Michelangelo.

Not that Seinfeld doesn't admire the great Florentine master. It's just that with his painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo locked in forever the image of God as a bearded, wise man in the sky.

That, says the rabbi, did God and humanity a disservice.

"It totally set us back," says Seinfeld, adding that he personally doesn't believe in God, at least not as represented by the old-man deity of the Renaissance.

Instead, Seinfeld has come to view the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as more in line with what he believes the sages of Judaism always understood: a great, good and infinite spirit, one that should arouse in us a perpetual sense of amazement.

With that in mind, Seinfeld, a Palo Alto-based teacher and lecturer, wrote and recently published a new handbook, "The Art of Amazement." He hopes it will help Jews (and even non-Jews) better savor the miracles of life, great and small.

How small? In one exercise, the rabbi asks readers to take their sweet time in eating an orange. That means fully contemplating the flavor, the texture, and even the fact that fruit was placed here on earth for our pleasure and nourishment.

The resulting feeling should be one of amazement, something Seinfeld believes lies at the heart of Judaism and which may be mastered over time.

Seinfeld is quick to credit previous scholars, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, with pioneering the concept of cultivating amazement.

But, as he writes in the preface to his book, "The Art of Amazement" is "a curriculum for anyone to begin transforming our lives individually and collectively."

He says Judaism has already invented a handy shortcut to make that happen. A crazy little thing called brachot, or blessings, such as the familiar Hamotzi or Shehechiyanu.

"These words of what may seem like empty ritual actually have tremendous power and beauty," says Seinfeld of the myriad blessings observant Jews intone throughout the day. The objects of such gratitude run the gamut from food and wine to seeing the ocean to hearing exceptionally bad news.

The advantage of the blessings, according to Seinfeld, is that they open a portal to the Infinite even in the midst of everyday life. "We're busy," says the rabbi. "Who has time to be amazed all the time? That's the genius of brachot. If you're going to eat the food anyway, how about appreciating the intense pleasure and wonderment of that first bite."

Of course, no one is born so easily amazed, not even Seinfeld. A native of Tacoma, Wash., he grew up in what he calls "a serious Reform family. My parents taught me a love for Jewish traditions, though I checked out of it by age 16."

What followed was a long period of "experimenting with many 'isms,'" punctuated by a classical education at Stanford (he mastered ancient Greek and Latin) and a master's in anthropology. From there he spent time teaching school in rural Mississippi.

Seinfeld then embarked on an extended vagabond tour of the world, visiting ports of call in South America, Europe and Africa. Along the way, observant Jews he met in Paris inspired him to study in Israel.

"I knew I was pretty ignorant," he says, "but I figured if Judaism had anything valuable to tell me, I should get an inkling within a month. Of course, after a week, I knew I'd need more time."

That week turned into seven years. He dived into Talmud Torah study, mastered Hebrew, and even met his future wife, a native Canadian who was also studying in Israel. Ultimately, he became ordained as a rabbi under the tutelage of the late Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.

From there, he, his wife and three children returned to the United States., settling in Palo Alto. By the late 1990s, the seeds for what would become "The Art of Amazement" had begun to sprout.

Seinfeld says that "99 percent of my book is based on classic texts, so very little is original. But no book in the English language has taken the approach I'm using."

So far, that approach has drawn interest from many quarters. In promoting the book and his ideas, Seinfeld has spoken to audiences in Toronto, New Orleans, Los Angeles, London and New York. "There's nothing foreign about my talk," he says. "It speaks to what they already know intuitively. I partner with synagogues to help them bring in people who normally are not interested.

Seinfeld himself is up to about 100 brachot a day. Sounds exhausting, but the rabbi says his method has given him nothing but positive energy. "We have to recognize that one of the keys to loving your neighbor is to recognize the divine spark in every human being," he says. "Judaism gives us tools to do that."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.