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Conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner — Finding the sacred in the everyday

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner moves through the world noticing and expressing the holy, whether as a rabbi, teacher, writer, or artist. The 2013 Bennett Center for Judaic Studies’ Scholar in Residence, Kushner will present “Tales of the Mystical God: When the Sacred Appears Within the Everyday” on Monday, Oct. 7 at Fairfield University.

Kushner is a Reform rabbi and the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Born in Detroit in 1943, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Cincinnati, and went on to receive rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He served Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass. for 28 years before relocating to the West Coast.

Kushner is an adjunct member of the faculty of the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He has taught spirituality and mysticism, and mentored rabbinic students as a visiting professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

A prolific and best-selling author, Kushner explores Jewish spiritual life in books geared toward adults and children including Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary; God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning; Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism; The Book of Letters: A Mystical Hebrew Alphabet; The Book of Miracles: A Young Person’s Guide to Jewish Spiritual Awareness; The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk; Eyes Remade for Wonder: A Lawrence Kushner Reader; I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion and other Disguises of the Ego; Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians; The River of Light: Jewish Mystical Awareness; The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition; and co-author of Because Nothing Looks Like God (co-written with wife Karen Kushner); How Does God Make Things Happen?; Where Is God?; What Does God Look Like?; and In God’s Hands (co-written with Gary Schmidt).

He spoke with the Ledger about finding the sacred during holy times and in the everyday.

Q: We’re just coming to the end of the High Holiday season. Since you write a lot for kids, where is the fertile ground during this season to nurture children’s spirituality?

A: The High Holiday experience is very much the same and very different for adults and kids. The big thing about the High Holidays which makes them hard to explain to children, is that they’re all about “You’re gonna die.” That’s the central message. Every time you apologize to someone – every time you retreat from one of the conquests of your ego – you experience a mini-death. You realize, I’m not as big, important, powerful, or kind as I thought I was, and you get a little smaller. For kids, the message is usually something like, “Apologize to your sister or I’ll break your neck.”

A better model for kids is Ed Koch. I didn’t like him as a mayor, but he would go onto the street and say “My name is Ed Koch, I’m the mayor of New York; how’m I doin’?” That’s something we can say to each other – parents and siblings and friends – at a time when nobody else is around so that we can hear a real answer.

Rosh Hashanah is a time to do cheshbon hanefesh, the soul’s accounting. Rosh Hashanah is to cheshbon hanefesh what Thanksgiving is to Christmas shopping: “Oh no, the holiday is only a month away; let’s get our act together!” It’s been extended earlier, to Slichot and first of Elul, with Rosh HaShanah marking the home stretch.

Rabbi Jack Riemer pointed out that on Yom Kippur, for 24 hours, you don’t eat or drink, you wear white, you don’t wear tokens of wealth, you don’t sleep much, you can’t have sex, and you don’t perfume, anoint, or deodorize yourself. Essentially, people are dressing up as their own corpses. The sound of the shofar sounds so good, not because now you can go and eat, but because you were ready to die and God said, “That’s OK, you’re good for another year.”

The entire Jewish community is acting like their own corpses – it’s the end or the death of the old year and of the old ego. If you want something new, you have to let something old die.

Show me a kid who prays regularly, I’ll show you a screwed-up kid. Adults should be watching kids, who are more spiritual beings, until we drum it out of them. The most important challenge adults face is trying to demonstrate, not tell; to show by living action how universal the urge is to access the transcendent or re-experience the primal unity of all things. This can be done beautifully and gracefully and effectively through all the Jewish religious “junk.” I would want my kids to see me cry and hug someone in the temple courtyard and explain why, or to see me with a tear running down my face during services and ask why.

Beyond that, for kids to experience being in the big room with everybody all dressed up is powerful. Adolescents are quick and eager to dismiss it, but when we get a little older we realize that God looks at us through the eyes of community. Everybody wants to dress up and look good and hope that it reflects on them internally, which it doesn’t. In the congregation I used to serve as rabbi, people were formally discouraged from wearing their mink coats or driving their expensive car – what we call in Yiddish, “ferpitzed.”

Q: In addition to your rabbinic and scholarly work, you are a well-known artist who recently returned to painting after a 50-year hiatus. What brought you back?

A: I was a prodigy as a boy and my parents saw to it that I had a full battery of art classes. My life revolved around art until I got to high school and realized that I wanted to be a rabbi, and I gave up the whole thing.

"Broadway Lights," a painting by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

“Broadway Lights,” a painting by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner


In 2012, with Matthew Jacobs, I co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in a feature-length film, Your Good Friend, about the unlikely friendship between a recently widowed rabbi and a down-and-out pornographer. The message is that sometimes, people utterly unlike you can help and heal you. The film will have its world premiere at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in November. Most test audiences cried at the end. But I said to Matthew, “What if nobody gets to see it?” and he said, “I don’t care – I loved making the movie and if it gets picked up and distributed, so much the better, but that’s not why I made it.”

I realized that I had never done anything just because I loved doing it. Being a rabbi was a calling and work I love doing. But I wanted to see what it was like to just do something with no expectation of reward. The art jumped up and I’ve done a painting or two a week ever since. I’m studying with Ezra Katz and Sandy Ostrau and I just had a one-man show, “Street-Light: The Urban Impressionism of Lawrence Kushner,” at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, Calif.

[From Kushner’s website: “According to the Zohar, in the light with which God began creation, Adam and Eve were able to see from one end of space to the other end of time. But, when the Creator realized that, if human beings could use such infinite awareness, they would destroy everything. (If you could see into the future, tell me you wouldn’t dabble in real estate.) So God hid the light. And just this is the task of the artist: To reveal the radiance once again; light is everywhere.”]

Q: You talk and write a lot about Kabbalah. What is an entry point into Jewish mysticism for an absolute beginner?

A: That’s what I’ll be talking about on Oct. 7, the role of nothingness in Jewish spirituality and Kabbalah. There are different dimensions of Jewish spirituality, and they’re all summarizable by the title of “I’m God, You’re Not.” I tell my rabbinical students that my best idea for a bumper sticker is, “It’s Your Ego, Stupid.”

Kabbalah is a way to do Jewish; it’s not something other than Jewish but rather a more sophisticated way to do the Jewish stuff. There are many levels of Kabbalah but if your hunch is that everything is connected to everything else, that’s a good start.

But it’s not necessarily about a belief in God. The primary move for Christianity was, ‘Do I believe in Jesus?’ If not, you’re in big trouble. But for Jews, being asked to profess a belief in God doesn’t come up. Ask me after the funeral of a child if I believe in God, and Jews will be suspicious if I say I do. Talking about God shows the level of Jews’ assimilation into American Christian society. One of my teachers used to say that if you don’t seriously doubt the existence of God every couple of weeks, you are theologically comatose.

I want to help people realize that the sacred makes surprise appearances and exercises extraordinary activity in the unfolding of our lives. There are many levels of holiness going on in and guiding our lives that are mind-bending.

 “Tales of the Mystical God: When the Sacred Appears Within the Everyday” with 2013 Bennett Center for Judaic Studies’ Scholar in Residence Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: Monday, Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m., Fairfield University Dolan School of Business Dining Room, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield | Complimentary admission; reservations required: (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066.

 Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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