Rabbi Lawrence Kushner on Jewish Spirituality
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.
Kushner 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…
You 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?
In 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 cetera.
To 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.” Indeed, for this reason, the greater the person, the greater the need for humility and elementary spiritual discipline.
The 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.
Ha! I love it. Okay, then, who are some of the real champions of Jewish spiritual practice in the last century?
There 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.
Your 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?
“There 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.
Kabbalah: 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 about it.
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.
You are indeed a Reform rabbi; do you have an Orthodox heart?
That's 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.
What 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 Divine?
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.
A 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?
Saints, phooey. It's hard enough just to be an ordinary Jew!
Okay, but how would you define a mensch? Can anyone become one?
A 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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