There’s a holiness in the world.
“We’ve been disconnected from the idea of it, particularly from the idea that there are holy leaders,” says Rabbi Irwin Kula, referring to the “we” who believe in modernity as much, if not more, than Scripture itself. But this is the season, nestled within the Days of Awe, the chill of Ecclesiastes, the frequency of Yizkor, when even the most modern of souls feels autumnal, humbled by the absence of certitude rather than emboldened by certitude’s absence, as skeptics of religion often are.
At a time when atheist authors have almost made it a fad to trash religion, Rabbi Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is not only defiant but daring
to speak of the lost but precious art of holiness, be it embodied by a chasidic rebbe or a Buddhist lama, a concept most liberal rabbis are reticent to embrace.
Rabbi Kula has become one of the few nationally known go-to spiritual leaders, ranked eighth on Newsweek’s famous list of Top 50 rabbis. He is a frequent interlocutor of what he calls “Jewish Wisdom” for general consumption, hosting a series on PBS last year, this year appearing numerous times on NBC’s Today show, as well as The Washington Post and Newsweek’s “On Faith,” an online “conversation on religion.”
He is one of the few rabbis who won’t complain or premise his agenda on insecurity about “Jewish continuity.” He says of his teachings, “It doesn’t matter to me whether this makes anyone Jewish or more Jewish,” but rather “more human.” Convey Jewish Wisdom with integrity and humanity, with the inner music of holiness, he says, and continuity will take care of itself. He has little patience with the communal accountants and bean counters that understand the mathematics of polls that drive so many rabbinic agendas but who don’t understand the magic of holiness that is the agenda itself.
He can teach holiness on a Talmudic level or on a mass level, explaining, for example, the possibility of learning from Yizkor — the personalization of memory, and a commitment to take action, such as charity — to a “Today” show segment on Memorial Day.
And there may not be a better example of braiding the particularity of Jewish holiness to simple humanity than the goosebumps arising from his ethereal chanting of the transcripts of final phone calls from the World Trade Center that he sings to the melody of Eicha – The Book of Lamentations — as it is liturgically chanted on Tisha b’Av. His chant can be heard through an online link posted by The Washington Post’s “On Faith.”
Rabbi Kula’s book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (a new paperback edition was released this week) has been used not only by dozens of Jewish groups but by the United Theological Seminary and the Princeton Theological Seminary, among other non-Jewish learning centers, and its original edition was named by more than one list as one of the “best spiritual books of 2006.”
Rabbi Kula, despite his own embrace of much of modernity, understands what the Grateful Dead — a photograph of Jerry Garcia adorns the rabbi’s office — sing of as that road to holiness, “no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night … Let it be known there is a fountain, that was not made by the hands of men.”
There is no simple highway, and not one that travels through Jewish neighborhoods alone. As Rabbi Kula has sought holiness, other religions have sought him. He has been invited more than once by The Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado to teach his understanding of Jewish Wisdom, and one of those occasions was one of three non-Buddhist leaders invited to speak alongside the Dalai Lama.
At the Shambhala Center, Rabbi Kula wore a tallis “because the tallis is my special clothing,” just as the Buddhists there had their special garb. “I wasn’t just going to wear a western suit. The tallis is what would remind me of who I was.”
After spending hours trying to decide what he should ask the Dalai Lama, “I looked at him and all my questions just flew away. I was having an experience, a five-second experience, feeling like eternity: I see all of my flaws, my errors, my stained sense of embarrassment, this sense of who am I really? And I look at him and feel perfectly OK. I realize that I can be better, but it was OK. That’s what Yom Kippur is about. I had a five second Yom Kippur experience.”
Referring to the flurry of recent books that seek to deconstruct and diminish religion, Rabbi Kula said, “If we really are empirical, and thousands of people have the same very real experience as I did when meeting a holy person, then we ought to take that experience seriously. And that’s why the authors (of the anti-religion books) are so inexcusable. They went for the lowest excessive forms of religion and confused that with religion. That would be like taking low-level scientists who want to do nothing but make bombs and saying that is what science is and does.”
Rabbi Kula says, “Rambam says that science is thoroughly compatible with Torah. Humility is the key. Do these atheist authors really think that the science of today won’t look ridiculous in 500 years, just as the science of 500 years ago looks ridiculous now? Every week, The New York Times Science section knocks down what scientists were swearing by two years ago.”
And yet, says the rabbi, “Everything is a partial truth. The partial truth of atheism is that it is a healing for what had gone wrong in the religious community; religion can get out of control. But we will not be able to address the basic religious problems in the world if we don’t take religion seriously.”
For Torah to address real problems, says Rabbi Kula, it can’t just be an affirmation of anyone’s previously held political positions: “That’s apologetics, to get God on your side. Torah has to have the power to destabilize your position. The Jews who think ‘Save Darfur’ is not Jewish, they have to think about how Jewish it is. And those who think ‘Save Darfur’ is the essence of being Jewish, they have to know there’s more to being Jewish than universalism alone. And whatever you think, remember that those who disagree are 49 percent right.”
In the end, “There’s no whole truth,” says Rabbi Kula. “Only HaKadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One Blessed Be He) can have the whole truth.”
Such is the difference between holiness in antiquity and holiness today. When Jerry Garcia sings, “If I knew the way, I would take you home,” Rabbi Kula hears the holy “if,” but with the certainty that there is a home, a home that’s not made by the hands of men.