Speaking of Spirituality
on his new book, his faith and practicing Jewish spirituality
Kushner has been recognized as one of the most interesting spiritual
teachers on the planet since about 1975, when he published The
Book of Letters, and then in 1977 with Honey from the Rock.
Both books were published by what was then known as Harper &
Row. Spiritual seekers, not necessarily Jewish, quickly learned
that Kushner was an original thinker with a fascinating mix of Midwestern
(he grew up in Detroit ) common sense, cutting-edge intelligence
(he studied with the greatest Jewish theologians of the twentieth
century), and the mystical bent of an old-fashioned rebbe. He took
that odd mix of qualities with him to Sudbury, Massachusetts, where
he led one of the most innovative Jewish congregations in the country
for a quarter century. Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent,
was one of his congregants. She thanks him in her novel for introducing
her to midrash.
was featured in Winifred Gallagher's 2001 book, Spiritual Genius.
A few years ago, he and his wife moved to San Francisco, and Kushner
joined the staff of Congregation Emanu-El as their scholar-in-residence.
He says that he loves the change from New England to Northern California.
Kushner's latest book is his first novel, which he worked on for four years. It is Kabbalah: A Love Story, and has been reviewed widely since being published late last year by Morgan Road Books, an imprint of the Broadway Doubleday Publishing Group.
We sat down recently with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner to talk about spiritual practice…
have earned a high level of respect over the years, as a rabbi,
a mystic, a teacher… Does spiritual practice become more difficult
the more famous or respectable you become?
Judaism, this is called “disguises the yetzer ha-ra, (evil
urge).” Our evil urge is no dummy. It is very clever. It would never,
for example, simply tell us to do something wrong. Instead it disguises
its base goals as lofty, even holy. “It's for your own good,” “he
deserved it,” “since I'm important, I need some extra slack,” et
this, Judaism then adds the notion of “the greater the person, the
greater the yetzer.” In simple psychological terms this means that
the great psycho-spiritual energy needed for success and fame is,
at its core, libidinous. And what makes most people famous is the
unconscious fantasy that they are like gods! Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
once quipped, “if someone tells you he's the messiah, ask his wife.”
for this reason, the greater the person, the greater the need for
humility and elementary spiritual discipline.
danger therefore is that a person starts to believe that the nonsense
written about him on bookflap jackets is true and not just another
disguise of his or her yetzer . I remember the day several
months ago when my first novel was published. The project had taken
me over four years. Many professionals were involved in its hype.
I was pumped. I awoke that morning and opened the blinds. But there
were no crowds awaiting me on the street below; the dog had s---t
on the carpet.
I love it. Okay, then, who are some of the real champions of Jewish
spiritual practice in the last century?
are virtually none—the vast majority of Jewish spiritual exemplars
and their students were incinerated in the Nazi ovens. There are,
to be sure, some who escaped—brands plucked from the fire: Martin
Buber, Abraham Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, Adin Steinsaltz, Kalynomous
Kalmish Shapira of Piesetzna (who did not escape), to name a few.
But by and large, contemporary Judaism is just now in the process
of re-inventing its own spiritual tradition and masters.
new novel— Kabbalah: A Love Story —tells of people both
in and out of organized religion—a rabbi, a scholar, a beautiful
woman—that are all caught up in something mystical. Is that how
spirituality works: almost accidentally? Is it possible to be spiritual
without knowing it?
is no person who does not have his sacred moment, no place devoid
of the holy, no moment beneath being the footstool of Heaven.” Indeed,
if we have learned anything,
eruptions of the holy seem more likely at unlikely times and places.
This may, of course, be more a critique of contemporary organized
religion than an insight into the spiritual. I cannot say.
A Love Story is populated by characters who are largely unaware
of the roles they play in a sacred drama. Indeed, the story is largely
about how they fumblingly begin to realize this and what they do
What about deliberate spiritual practice in your tradition? Are those practices as vital and common today as they were, say, fifty years ago?
Most American Jews seem to be trying to take the Judaism, not so much of the 20th but of the 18th and 19th centuries and comprehend how to bring as much of it as they can into the 21st. In the words of Franz Rosenzweig, Nothing in the tradition is alien to me . That is to say that, in principle, all the commandments are potentially binding upon every Jew. As my own teacher Arnold Jacob Wolf taught, there is only one Judaism and it is Orthodoxy but all Jews are Reform.
are indeed a Reform rabbi; do you have an Orthodox heart?
just the point. As a “Reform” rabbi, I'd like to think I have a
self-honest appraisal of how I make religious decisions and am very
willing to consider the realities of the larger culture in which
I find myself, but none of that changes the compelling demands of
the tradition. What can I say? Sometimes I do a better job at living
by mitzvot (commandments), other times I fall short. But
their potential relevance is never in question. As a liberal Jew,
I do believe also that, from time to time, I have the responsibility
to respectfully add a new form of Jewish practice which later generations
might choose to identify with the sacred. Examples here might include
the religious equality of women, driving for a religious reason
on the Sabbath, or the equality of homosexuals—all of which began
in Reform and now seem to have migrated and taken root into more
traditional movements in Judaism.
are your own personal, spiritual practices? What do you do each
day, as a Jew, as a human, as whatever, that connects you to the
I recite a lot of blessings (but not enough); prayers upon waking (but not on retiring); struggle with not venting anger; try to remember that I am a creature and am ultimately a manifestation, and agent, of the divine; permit everyone to be someone who only yesterday they were not; try to find the presence of the Creator in each and every thing (good and bad); and then act in such a way as to help others find it too.
Catholic mystic might say that all human beings are called by God
to become saints. Would you say that all human beings are called
by God to become mentchen? And what would that look like?
phooey. It's hard enough just to be an ordinary Jew!
but how would you define a mensch? Can anyone become one?
mensch is a person who continuously struggles with and
overcomes his or her darker side, a person who respects social norms,
others' decisions, and yearns to be ever more compliant with the
path and the commandments God seems to have set before him or her.
Judaism is incorrigibly democratic. Any Jew can become a rabbi,
rebbe (spiritual master), or, for that matter, the Messiah
him or herself.
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