The world is full of God: the editors interview Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.
Now the first rabbi-in-residence at Hebrew Union College in New York, Kushner served at Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts for more than 25 years. Kushner has authored award-winning books on Jewish spirituality and mysticism, has been featured on National Public Radio, and speaks widely on the subject of spiritual renewal.
Why write a book about Jewish spirituality for Christians?
The book lets Christians eavesdrop on how a Jewish spiritual teacher does his thing. And as I worked on trying to explain it to others, I wound up finding out a lot more about my own tradition.
Judaism and Christianity share a special sibling relationship. One of the things that struck me, however, is that Judaism is aware of the difference between the material and spiritual, but it's not nearly as central as it is in Christian spirituality. There's no traditional Hebrew word for spiritual. For Jewish spirituality, it's much more that the whole world is full of God. God is present with all beings, especially and including material reality and those parts of material reality that we don't ordinarily view as being very religious.
Anybody can find something spiritual in a church or a synagogue, but can you find it in garbage or dirt or just after you've stepped in what the dog left on the sidewalk? Now that's a real challenge. In that way, Jewish spirituality tries to raise all matter to spirit.
So Judaism is more oriented to this world than Christianity?
Judaism by its own admission is not very interested in talking about matters of life after death. In contrast to Christianity, Judaism tends to be much more of this world. Rabbi Daniel Polish, one of my rabbinic colleagues, says that you can understand Judaism's take on heaven and hell in this way: When you die, they sit you in an easy chair in front of a big video monitor with surround-sound, and they begin to show in slow motion a movie of every single thing you did in your entire life, over and over again. Heaven or hell? You decide.
This story says that heaven is nothing more than a projection of the way you lived your life, so you should put all your attention on how you're behaving now. There may or may not be a heaven or a hell, but it isn't going to be any different from what you've got right now on Earth.
What is Jewish spirituality?
Spirituality for me as a Jew is life lived in the continuous presence of God, a life in which one is constantly trying to find the presence of the Creator and act in such a way as to help others find it, too.
Judaism is not a religion that structures life by what you believe; it is a religion that structures life by what you do. Judaism is not a religion for individuals; it's a religion of a people. Judaism is a religion of a God who has no form and doesn't want one. Judaism is a religion that has as its center a sacred text, which teaches Jews through its infinite analyzability who Jews are. Judaism is a spiritual tradition that places enormous emphasis on this life and sanctifying the everyday and doesn't spend much time thinking about what happens after you die.
How do Jewish people see God?
Let me tell you a story. One day I was at the synagogue, and a fourth-grade teacher bursts into my office and says, "We need you right away. They're talking about God." It was like I got beeped for an emergency.
I ran down the hall to the room of fourth graders, and I asked them to tell me what they know about God. One kid said, "God made the world." So I write on the blackboard, "Made the world." Another kid said, "God is one," so I write that down. One kid says, "God's good." There's a couple of no votes, but the majority agrees. And then one kid says, "God's invisible." I start to write "invisible" on the board, but before I can, another kid says, "God is visible, he's right here, right now." To which another kid says. "I don't see him. What does he look like?" The second kid says, "That's just it--there's nothing to see."
That's an important part of the Jewish spirituality of God: There's nothing to see. The God of the Jews is not visible. The God of the Jews doesn't look like anything. The name of the God of the Jews is made from the three letters in Hebrew that are vowels and that are also the root letters of the verb to be. The name of God--often mistransliterated as Yahweh--means the "one who brings into being all that is." But being doesn't look like anything. Moreover, one Jewish mystical tradition teaches that all that God said at Mount Sinai was the first letter of the first word of the first utterance, which is the Hebrew letter alef, which is almost silent. It's only a barely audible sound of the larynx clicking into gear.
So let's summarize: God doesn't look like anything. God's name is the sound of breathing. And all God says is contained in a silent letter. That's a big reason why Jewish theology is so slippery.
What is the Jewish idea of creation?
People talk about creation as if God is somehow other than the world. I don't know what that means.
My daughter just had our first grandchild, and she and her husband had a ceremony in the temple for all the people who couldn't come to her house. She said mercifully the baby slept through the whole thing. One little girl, a 9-year-old, came up to her after the service and said to my daughter, "Has she opened her eyes yet?" (As if the baby were a puppy!)
Opening the eyes--unfocused, not sure what you're looking at, not sure there is an outside or an inside but all of a sudden experiencing light--that's creation. It's the beginning. All creation stories begin with light because it's a metaphor for the emergence of consciousness from the enveloping waters of unconsciousness.
Creation is the process of waking up. Take the story of Moses and the burning bush. Most people were taught that this story is about God performing a miracle to get Moses' attention. Now if you were God, how would you get someone's attention? Maybe split the Red Sea, maybe set up a pillar of fire--big time stuff. But why make a bush catch fire and not get burned up? Why would God do that?
I was once sitting at home in Boston in front of the fire, and I made this discovery. Do you know how long you have to watch wood burn before you know whether or not it's being consumed? Five minutes, which means there could be a miracle going on in your fireplace but you wouldn't know it unless you watched for five minutes.
The burning bush was not a miracle, it was a test. God wanted to see if God was dealing with somebody who would pay attention for five minutes. So creation begins with opening your eyes and paying attention. And when we pay attention, we discover the world, and when we discover the world, we discover that everything is connected--or at least a lot more things are connected than we had previously thought. We get a sense that there's something else going on.
God didn't create the world once and for all; God continuously creates the world. The process goes on all the time, and we try to be aware of it.
How do Jews respond to God's ongoing creation?
An increasingly potent image for American liberal Jews is a mystical idea propagated by a 16th-century rabbi, Isaac Luria, who sparked one of the flowerings of the Jewish mystical impulse.
Luria came up with a new creation myth that was dazzlingly creative: Before the creation, God was not only everywhere but was everything. But that meant that there was no room in which to make the world. So God had to voluntarily self-withdraw or contract God's self to make a space in which creation could grow. It's like being a good parent: You can't be all over your children; you've got to give them space.
Then, according to Luria, God created vessels into which God intended to pour the divine light of creation--like a fountain. Once the first vessel filled up, the light would fall into the second one, and into the third, the fourth, and so on. But God underestimated the power of God's creative light, and when the light hit the vessels, they all shattered. And the result was a world not exactly the way God intended it.
Our world is a cosmic debris heap of broken pieces, and the light got trapped inside the broken pieces. This chair, this table, Larry Kushner--all of us are shards. The job of human beings is to mend the broken pieces, put them back together the way they were meant to be. Free the light and make the place holier. Liberal Jews today have appropriated this extraordinary "myth" as a theology of social action for the 21st century.
You talk about Judaism's emphasis on being over doing, but how are sacred deeds important?
The word for sacred deeds is mitzvah (plural mitzvot). We Jews say that from trying to live in a covenant relationship with a nameless God we discover what we must do to be true to our end of the bargain; it becomes clear to us that such a life must be expressed through deeds. Judaism classically categorizes such deeds as either positive or negative--thou shalt and thou shalt not--and Jews tend to define their religiosity by their personal yearning to live in accordance with these sacred deeds.
Liberal Jews differ from Orthodox Jews in their belief that the catalog of sacred deeds is still open. One example: Liberal Jews believe that women must be treated with full religious equality. That's clearly a new mitzvah. Or they understand that gay men and women are the way God wants them to be and must be treated like any other Jew. That's another new mitzvah.
Jews would tend to measure their own religiosity by their observance of mitzvot. You might say that each sacred deed is a souvenir of a moment in time when you were close to the divine, and each time you do that deed again, you bring that moment with you.
What should Christians know about how Jews understand Torah?
Torah--the five books of Moses--is not properly understood as law. It's much more the chronicle of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
As a Jew, Torah is a symbol of God's love for me. I can walk into any synagogue, take the Torah scroll out of the ark, and read it as a reminder that God loves people so much that God would say, "I'm going to tell you the way of creation. I'm going to tell you a story, and through reading and wrestling with this story you will begin to discover the way of being. And how to act. And in that way you will be reminded of my love for you, and it will awaken in you a love for me."
How do Jews observe the Sabbath?
First of all, Jews rarely call it sabbath; they call it shabbos. Shabbos is celebrated more at home than in the synagogue.
Before shabbos begins on Friday evening, families put money in a charity box, because you can't handle money during shabbos. Shabbos begins with the blessing of shabbos candles. Then someone at the table will sanctify the day by holding up a cup of wine and chanting a Hebrew blessing called "kiddush," or sanctification. It's common for parents to bless their children. The children will come to their parents, and the parents put their hands on them and offer them a blessing, give them a hug. Sometimes the husband might chant passages from the Song of Songs to his wife in front of their kids. Everyone then washes his or her hands in a ritual way, and there's a meal during which songs are sung and stories are told. It's a several-hour deal.
Saturday morning people go to the synagogue for Torah discussion, then worship. Saturday afternoon it is customary to take a nap, go for a walk, or visit friends, and then shabbos concludes with a ceremony at sunset.
What about the prohibition against working on shabbos?
It's as if you're going on a long vacation, and you've done almost everything to get ready, but then your spouse says the taxi is here and there are still 15 things on the desk that you didn't finish. What do you do? You sweep them all off the desk and say, "That's the news, and I'm out of here." It's enormously liberating. It doesn't mean that you won't come back to those tasks when you come home. But as far as you're concerned, they no longer exist. You're just going to revel in the joy of being alive with the people you love and nothing to do.
What do you think about Christians borrowing from Jewish rituals by having their own Passover seders or lighting Hanukkah candles?
How would Christians feel if some members of the local synagogue decided to celebrate, just as a creative thing, a Jewish version of the Eucharist--imitate a ceremony of another's faith--and then go back to being who they were?
The best way for Christians to find out about Judaism is not to mimic Jewish practices but to visit a synagogue or ask a Jewish friend if you might hang around with him or her. Many Jews make it a special point of always having a place open at their seders. Jews are eager to bring Christians with them to prayer and to ceremonies in their homes.
Christianity is a holy, great, and noble tradition, but it isn't Judaism. It's not that Christians can't be at a seder. It's not that Christians can't be involved in hearing the Torah read. But they can't do them as Christians without any Jews around. It doesn't make any sense.
What is the place of the land Israel in your faith?
One third of my people were destroyed in the Holocaust of the past generation. They were not destroyed because of anything they did or believed. They were destroyed simply because of who they were. Their destruction has something to do with Christianity--not a lot, but more than most of us have talked about.
Christians can't understand Israel without understanding that it is the second half of a compound word, the first half of which is the Holocaust.
That's hardwired into my psyche. I don't think of myself as just an individual Jew. Judaism is a tradition that's made up of a people. Judaism is something that happens to the Jewish people. It happened to them all at once at the foot of Mount Sinai, and I trace my religious identity through that. It's family. That doesn't mean you always like your family. They do things that drive you up the wall, but when push comes to shove, they're your family.
I'm constantly struck by the fact that it's OK for the United States to bomb Afghanistan, but it's wrong for Israel to go after people who assassinate its own military leaders or blow up its civilians. Even though I've been a public and frequent critic of Israel, I get to say things about it you don't get to say. If I were to start moralizing about Northern Ireland, Christians would correctly tell me to mind my own business.
If World War II taught us anything, it is that Jews need a place they can call home. All of the stories that happened to my people happened there. That's where I "grew up"; that's the old old country.
How do Jews define who is a Jew?
You're not born a Christian. You have to be brought into the church. Judaism is different. You are born a Jew. Period. End of story. If you're born of a Jewish mother or if you convert through a ceremony of conversion, you're a Jew.
And because you're born a Jew, you don't have to be a member of a synagogue to be a Jew. Furthermore, there is not the emphasis in Judaism that there is in Christianity on attendance at prayer. It's possible for a synagogue to be a vibrant, healthy place and have the parking lot not very full during times of communal prayer.
A serious Jew in the liberal community is someone who would be affiliated with a synagogue and who would support Jewish institutions. It is someone who would always have a Jewish book open on the coffee table or the nightstand. It would be someone who is sensitive to the needs and the pains of the world but especially of the Jewish people and would express that through support for Israel. Remember, though: In Judaism you can support someone by arguing with them. So a serious Jew might be involved in long-standing arguments with other Jews.
What about Jews looking upon themselves as the chosen people?
Jews today don't think they're the chosen people. What they do think is what Christians think--that they have a unique and precious relationship with God. It's like this: I have a brother. There are things he's got to do to be a good son to our mother and things I have to do to be a good son, but they're not the same things. The things Christians have to do to be a good child of God and the things Jews have to do are similarly sometimes different things.
Too much of interreligious dialogue is based on mouthing platitudes as opposed to talking about what really hurts, both in your tradition and in the person whose tradition you're trying to learn about. That doesn't happen overnight, but it can happen. The most optimistic sign is that Jews and Catholics are just beginning to talk about the Holocaust seriously.
Professor Jacob Needleman talks about a mountain: The top of the mountain is being with God; the base of the mountain is very broad and is in several different climate zones. People in the tropics have a tradition of wearing pith helmets and mosquito netting and short pants. People in the arctic climates have a tradition of snow parkas and goggles. When the people in the tropics climb halfway up, it's a little chilly. They have to go back for a sweater. People in the arctic get halfway up, they have to take off a couple outer layers of clothing. By the time they get to the top, they're all dressed the same. The problem is when you walk around the base of the mountain and argue about how to dress.