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A Rabbi Takes Judaism to Prime Time

Confession: I have had a running debate for the past dozen years or so with my friend Irwin Kula. Being a journalist, I tend to see almost every crisis, from war and hunger to loneliness, in political terms. People should be given a fair shot at supporting themselves, I figure, and then left alone to work out their anxieties. Folks who tell you how to look inside for spiritual answers usually sound to me like snake-oil salesmen, trying to distract you from the real issues.

Kula, being a rabbi, tends to see these crises as spiritual challenges. He starts off agreeing about political rights and wrongs, but ends up claiming life would be better if people would open their hearts and minds. It drives me crazy.

Over the years, we’ve come to realize that we agree on at least one big thing: that the point of a system like Judaism is to answer such basic life questions. The issues that Judaism tackles best are precisely things like hunger, war and loneliness. These days, too much energy is spent on smaller questions: who marries whom, who eats what. Most Jews are bored with this stuff, understandably.

Then we start talking about what should happen next, and we’re arguing again.

It’s tricky carrying on a decade-long argument with a friend, and trickier still when you live upstairs. You’re forever charging downstairs, waving the latest article that proves your point. Birthday parties and Sabbath dinners become shouting matches that annoy your families and bore the neighbors.

It’s even trickier when you’re the editor of a newspaper, and you realize your friend has won the argument. Can you write about it? Journalists are supposed to refrain, monklike, from using their pulpit to tout their friends.

The rules have to change, though, when your friend proves his point in a best-selling book and a national television special.

The book in question is “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” published in September by Hyperion. In it, Kula walks through the painful questions that trouble our inner lives — intimacy, guilt, lust, loss — and presents his ways of finding peace.

His essential argument is that we all want to have it all, but we’re not going to get it all. “Our yearnings, our desires — they always leave us in a space between what we yearn for and what we get,” he said over breakfast the other day. (That’s really how he talks.) “That space between the yearning and the reality is the place where all the learning happens, where the action is. And if you can embrace that space, then you grow.”

“Yearnings” examines life questions one by one, looking at the pain and confusion and describing ways of living with them and learning from them. The advice is sprinkled with stories about Kula’s home life, tales from the Bible, observations on the healing value of Sabbath, teachings from the Talmud, Hasidic rebbes, Eastern gurus and episodes of “Seinfeld.”

It’s wise, charming, compelling stuff. And it’s catching fire. He’s currently on a 30-city book tour, addressing audiences of up to 700. Next spring he’s got another tour — of churches. He’s a regular on the “Today” show. He’s been on “Oprah.” His own special runs this month on every public television station in the country, starting December 4. The reception seems to leave Kula gratified, tickled and a bit bewildered. The son of a Long Island cantor, he was educated in Orthodox day schools and ordained in 1982 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He’s spent most of his career at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, teaching Torah — in the broad sense — and serving since 2000 as president. He started arguing nearly a decade ago that the “Jewish wisdom” he and his colleagues teach to community leaders could reach a much bigger audience, if they could go outside the usual Jewish channels. He was convinced that Judaism could compete with the best of them in “the public square,” as he puts it. He didn’t expect to become a rock star along the way.

“When people are gathered in the public square to talk about how to add value to your life, there’s never anyone speaking for the Jewish wisdom tradition,” he said. “Deepak Chopra speaks from the Hindu tradition. Wayne Dyer speaks from the Eastern and the Emerson-Thoreau tradition. Thomas Moore speaks from the Catholic tradition. When a Jew appears in the public square to speak in the name of the Jewish tradition, it’s usually to protect the Jewish people.”

Conventional Jewish teaching has gotten itself into a malaise, he says. It tries so hard to convince Jews to stay within the fold that it forgets to offer them a good reason. “I’m not trying to make Judaism relevant to Jews so they’ll be more Jewish — by anyone’s measure. The goal is to learn how to be human and see what the Jewish wisdom tradition has to teach about it.”

He admits he’s not the first to try this. “Harold Kushner paved the way. Shmuley Boteach does it. The Kabbalah Centre does it in its own way.” So, in a sense, do Jon Stewart, Larry David and all those Jewish politicians who bring their Jewish sensibilities to Capitol Hill and try to make the world better.

The goal of any true wisdom tradition, he says, is to help people gain greater awareness of themselves and greater compassion for others. “In Hebrew we call it tikkun ha-nefesh and tikkun olam.”

“Ramban” — the medieval scholar Nachmanides — “says that every single Halacha, every single part of the tradition, can be understood as either repairing yourself or exercising compassion.”

The question to be asked, therefore, “shouldn’t be how do you get people to light candles, but how does lighting candles increase your self-awareness, your compassion?” That’s the sort of question America is ready to hear. Just this fall, Kula notes, the new season of “Grey’s Anatomy” — “the most watched show on TV” — opened with the lead character, a non-Jew, suffering a loss and a Jewish character teaching her to sit shiva. “That’s not just Jewish sensibility. That’s substantive Jewish wisdom in the mainstream.”

“Overt Jewish identification in the public square is increasing,” he said. “It could be that we are in a position now to go big.”

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