Kabbalah and Everyday Mysticism
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is a long-time student and articulator of the mysteries and messages of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. Kushner says mysticism tends to appear when religion — whatever the tradition — becomes too formal and logical. “The minute mysticism becomes permissible, acceptable, possible, it’s an immediate threat to organized religious structures,” he says. “Because what mysticism does is it gives everybody direct unmediated personal access to God.” He is influenced by the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem, who resurrected Kabbalah from obscurity in the 20th century and made it accessible to modern people.
Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He served for 28 years as the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. He has been an adjunct faculty member at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and also a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. His many books include God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know, Kabbalah: A Love Story, and I’m God; You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: I think what our generation seems to be living through is the realization that rationalism is only part of the answer. I think, I’m not the first one to notice this, that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were perfectly rational decisions and behaviors. So there’s this sense that religion has to be more than rationalism. And mysticism offers — it says, sort of like in the corner, “Psst, hey kid how would you like a direct experience of the divine? Would that help your religious life?” And a lot of people discover that they’re mystics after all when they’re given that offer.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Krista Tippett, host: “This,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written, “is a definition of a mystic”: “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”
Kushner is a long time student and articulator of the mysteries and messages of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. He was influenced, like every modern student of Kabbalah, by a Jewish historian named Gershom Scholem, who was born in 1897 and died in 1982 and literally resurrected this tradition from obscurity.
I spoke with Rabbi Kushner in 2014 in honor of Gershom Scholem’s legacy, and it’s in the spirit of Kabbalah — which wraps teachings in teachings, wisdom in wisdom, life within life — that we get to know Scholem through the living ideas of this rabbi in his lineage.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. And he’s written many books that touch on themes of Kabbalah, including a novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story.
Gershom Scholem suggested that the Zohar, the Kabbalah’s core text, was itself a mystical novel. He demonstrated that the Zohar was not written, as had previously been assumed, by a 2nd century Galilean sage, but by the 13th century Castilian Kabbalist, Moshe de Leon. Still, it entered the spiritual bloodstream of Judaism — with new ways of understanding and describing the inner structure of reality, a feminine side of God, and the cosmic significance of each ritual and ethical deed.
According to Kabbalah, all being is rooted in the ein sof, the holy oneness of creation.
Ms. Tippett: So when did Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism enter your imagination? And how did that happen?
Rabbi Kushner: Well, it wasn’t until I was in the last couple of years of my rabbinic school education — it’s a five-year graduate program — that I began to realize that most of the ideas that I was fascinated by had something to do with mystical characters and the ideas that they talked about. I finally went to my professor at the time, Jacob Petuchowski — his memory is a blessing — and said something like, in his office, “Jacob, what’s this about mysticism?” And he sort of sat back in his chair and said, “Oh, I see you’ve discovered something.” And we talked a little bit, and he pulled off the shelf a book by Gershom Scholem, probably his magnum opus. It’s called Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.
And he gave it to me, and I ran home and tried to read it. And at about 10:00, I fell asleep because it’s really tough, serious, heavy Jewish history. But it’s extraordinary. And what Scholem did in that book was that he brought the Jewish mystical tradition to the English-reading public.
Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you about some language you use. I mean, there’s so many ways to describe what Kabbalah is, what this tradition is, but this is one way you did it. Somewhere you said, it attains maturity as “a system of theosophy claiming to explain the influence of human action on the inner life of God.” That’s a very intriguing statement. “The influence of human action on the inner life of God.”
Rabbi Kushner: It’s delicious, isn’t it?
Ms. Tippett: Yes. Say some more about what that means.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, again, it’s very difficult to separate out Scholem from Kabbalah, but Scholem comes along and says that the Torah itself claims to be a document describing the inner life of God. And through studying the Torah, one therefore not only learns about how to act, or how to look at the universe, but you realize immediately that you are reading about the ultimate nature of being and therefore the DNA of creation or the warp and woof of the way the world works. And that effectively becomes the inner life of God.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So, I need to backup a little bit because everybody is not in this. So, ein sof is kind of — and again this is your language — the font, the source, the matrix, the motherlode of being. The original light, right? That original spark, that cosmic seed. A point of light containing everything yet to come. And then here is this wonderful way you describe it. You say, “ein sof is to being what electricity is to the letters and words on a video computer monitor.” Explain that.
Rabbi Kushner: I think the best way to understand it, Krista, is to remind you of two Hebrew words that are in kabbalistic language much more important than their normal definitions. The first word is “yaish.” And it’s sort of untranslated. If you held my feet to the fire I’d say it translated as is-ness. Being-ness. And “yaish” refers to virtually everything in creation: anything that has a beginning or an end, that has the spatial coordinates, that has a definition, that is bordered by other things. And it’s not just material reality. I mean, love has a beginning, it has an end. Beauty can have a definition. And it’s not bad. It’s not something to be renounced. Anybody who has tried to live in the world knows that it is the world of yaish. You and I are yaish. Our microphones are yaish. The room, the city of San Francisco is yaish. Everything is yaish. Yaish is not bad. It’s only bad if you think that’s all there is.
Turns out there is only one thing that’s not yaish. It has no beginning, it has no end, it’s not bordered by anything, it has no definition, it has no spatial coordinates. You probably can’t say as much about it as I’m about to try to say. It is the opposite of yaish. It is called ein sof: without end. Literally it means nothing. But with a capital N. Because if I said it was something — you’ve got to stay with the logic here — if I said “something,” then you will say “oh, well, it’s next to another thing.” And the Kabbalists, being serious about logic also, they are very logical, say “No, the only way we can talk about this non-yaish thing is to call it no-thing or nothing.” And that becomes ein sof, and that has something to do with God, the source of everything of yaish.
Everything in the world is made of ein sof. Everything in the world is the wave of which the ein sof, or God, is the ocean. And our knowledge of the ocean is largely based on the way it manifests itself in the waves, that is, the yaish. So my closest I can come to learning about ein sof and God is by talking to you or looking at a tree or planting one.
Ms. Tippett: Right. But this understanding of God also defies the containers that religion generally puts God in, or maybe just that our minds put God in because they are what they are. Because this nothing with the capital N is also everything, right?
Rabbi Kushner: And more.
Ms. Tippett: And more. Right. So it is God in this conception — I mean, I’m using the words I can. I want you to correct me and elaborate — is also not a thing but in everything and is everything in this mystical understanding.
Rabbi Kushner: Let me try it this way. There are two ways to understand our relationship with God. I’m going to say right up front that they are both just metaphors, relax. The first one, picture a big circle, and the big circle represents God. And then picture below it a very tiny little circle. And that represents you in the world. And because the big circle is above the little circle, it’s naturally hierarchical, and therefore it’s generically masculine, and welcome to Western religion.
All of Western religions have this thing, “God’s up there and we are down here, and we talk to God, and God tells us what to do, blah, blah, blah.”
Ms. Tippett: You didn’t mention the beard on that circle.
Rabbi Kushner: Right, but it’s not funny. There was a cartoon recently in The New Yorker. It shows two angels and a big guy talking without a beard. And one says to the other, “I just can’t take him seriously without the beard anymore.” [laughs].
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK, so that’s the one. We all know that picture.
Rabbi Kushner: That’s the one we all know, and you and all of our listeners could easily talk at length about that. Now I’m going to give you another metaphor. Just another metaphor, relax. Same big circle that represents God, but the only difference is is that the little circle that represents you and me is inside the big circle. And that strikes us as a more Eastern model, but — as Scholem demonstrated — it’s widely available in Western religious tradition as well. And the goal in that model is not to pray to God or have God tell you what to do, but to realize that you have been all along, contrary to all of your illusions, a dimension of the divine, and in moments of heightened spiritual awareness, the boundary line, which is the little circle defining you inside the big circle, momentarily is erased. Momentarily is blurred, and it’s no longer clear where you end and God begins.
[music: “Jardin” by Gustavo Santaolalla]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, exploring the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah.
Ms. Tippett: I actually want to quote you at yourself again, because this is so wonderful. “This is a definition of a mystic. A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity.”
Rabbi Kushner: Yeah, I like that a lot. [laughs] It’s the closest I’ve come to nailing it down.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. So, it’s wonderful to ponder. We don’t have the luxury here of just being quiet and pondering it, but maybe people who are listening on the podcast can push pause. But it also raises these very mysterious questions, right?
Rabbi Kushner: For me, the starting point for trying to make sense out of these very slippery ideas — William James in his masterful, not Jewish, “On Mysticism” identifies the four characteristics of a mystical experience.
Let’s see if I can remember all four. The first is that they’re transient, these mystical moments. They come and go according to their own timetables and for their own reasons. There’s nothing you can do to guarantee a mystical experience, and anybody who says he can guarantee one for you is a quack. The second characteristic James identified is that you’re passive. You don’t have the experience, it has you. All of a sudden, “Whoa, what was that? Something has changed.” The third is that the experience is noetic. That means that there is intellectual content to it, but unfortunately, that leads us to the fourth: It is ineffable, you can’t put it into words.
I want to add just one more thing before we go on. The kind of mystical experiences that I’m talking about are not where the roof flies off the building, revealing the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, and light streams out of your facial apertures and you get a new name. I hope that would happen for you and for me, it hasn’t yet. I’m 70. The odds are against it. What I would rather talk about is — I would call them “quickie everyday garden-variety moments,” in which nothing big happens and that if you weren’t sort of looking for it, you might have just thought it was something you ate or drank or smoked. “What was that?” And then you go on. But I am increasingly convinced that mystical seekers are able to have that moment where they lose themselves in the divine all, the unio-mystical experience several times a day. Fleeting. Casual.
Ms. Tippett: It’s interesting, the timing of this interview with you because just yesterday I was invited to be on one of the major talk shows in New York City, Brian Lehrer. And he chose as his topic actually religious experience, and it kind of very quickly got into mystical experience, and the experience people have of God, which is actually really not even a sentence that’s spoken much on public radio or in our other intellectually …
Rabbi Kushner: And you don’t get invited to dinner parties if you start talking that way.
Ms. Tippett: No, you don’t. But what I’m going to tell you and what will not surprise you at all, he offered for listeners — this is on WNYC in New York — to share experiences they’ve had. And of course the phone lines completely just filled up. And the few people who are able to come on, they talked about this “garden-variety experience” that was completely transformative, very brief, and very, I’d say, organic. Each of them actually described very much this definition that you gave, the sense of separation fell away. It was this knowledge, this experience of a vividness and a unity. And even as I tell about it, it sounds suspect in a way that it didn’t when they were describing the moment.
Rabbi Kushner: It’s a handful of smoke. Yeah, it’s real hard to talk about. But it’s the most important thing to talk about. My suspicion is — and I think it may have been Moshe Idel, one of Scholem’s best students, I’m not sure of this, he said that “whatever it is that makes religion religion, mysticism has more of it.” It seems to be freeze dried, it seems to be intensified, focused. It’s the name of the game. It’s the very center of what we are talking about. Because to be sure, mysticism is intensely personal, and that’s what it always winds up doing for people.
Ms. Tippett: But again back to religious terms, to say that God is not just in everything but God is everything and that occasionally human beings apprehend that. It also makes God much more messy. Gershom Scholem said “The price of God’s purity is the loss of his living reality.” But it does also cast aspersions on God’s purity. You’ve said, it raises these questions: If God all there is, then why did God make the world? And if God made the world, how did God do it? And here’s the hard one: If God is perfect, but the world is not, then what went wrong?
Rabbi Kushner: So many of those classic questions and conundra come from trying to make lived experience sense out of “God’s up there, and we’re down here.”
And most people crash and burn on that. I guess that’s why I became a mystic. If you think about the other circle where we are within the divine, it poses obviously different problems. We solve some, and it makes new problems. But the minute you say “It’s all God,” then you’re stuck with stuff you don’t usually want to say is God, like pimples and dirt and what the dog left on the sidewalk and Adolph Hitler. My question would be, if you say “No, that’s not God,” then I’m going to say to you, “Well, who made it then? You mean there’s somebody else out there making just some junk and throwing it into the mix?” You don’t have that option.
Ms. Tippett: So, what is the mystics’, the Kabbalists’ response or reflection on the dirt or Adolph Hitler? What are the questions that this tradition asks?
Rabbi Kushner: Well, any attempt to just explain those things quickly is going to be a disaster, obviously.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but it’s not the “Where was God?” question. Right? That’s the separation question. That’s “God is up there, and we’re down here.”
Rabbi Kushner: Just because it’s God, doesn’t mean that you’re not obligated to go on doing the best you can with the brain God gave you. And so that doesn’t mean, therefore, that you should roll over and play dead or ignore dirt or filth or terrible things in the world. You’re still obligated to do what you’ve got to do.
But you have to understand that if there’s evil in me, I can try to banish it and push it away, but I won’t succeed because it’s part of me. What I need to do is to find something holy even in it, and thereby try to redeem it and free me from it. And I can do the same thing with the world. I’m not creative or spiritually anywhere near big enough to be able to handle it, but I think this is the right way to go. Well, therefore, everything in the world that I don’t like is there. I don’t deny its existence, especially if I say it’s a manifestation of God. It raises a challenge for me, though. What can I do to redeem even this? This terrible thing, whatever it is. What is holy in it? I will keep working at it, and that is how I can free myself from it.
[music: “Sun Will Set” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says that the Jewish moral commandment, tikkun olam is not so accurately translated “repair the world” as “repair the cosmos.” Here is the most memorable way the Kabbalistic connection between ein sof and human moral action has been told to me across the years — by the physician Rachel Naomi Remen, as her grandfather told it to her.
Rachel Naomi Remen: In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the ein sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.
And this is of course a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.
[music: “Sun Will Set” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Rachel Naomi Remen. After a short break, more with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed. Now with bite-sized extras — wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Jardin” by Gustavo Santaolalla]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner about the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah.
We’re exploring his wisdom as part of the living legacy of the 20th-century historian Gershom Scholem, who resurrected Kabbalah for modern scholarship and spiritual renewal. As Rabbi Kushner says, Judaism had largely torn the pages of Kabbalah out of its history books in its response to the Enlightenment.
Ms. Tippett: There’s something intriguing to me in — we’re having this conversation here in the 21st century, and in an interesting way, kind of coming out of the 20th century and all its great plans and ideals and rationalism, there’s a new curiosity and kind of hunger, and I think, especially in new generations, there’s this sense that things are more complicated, differently complicated than we made them.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, enter Gershom Scholem. It’s so important for people to realize that for virtually all of the 19th and the first half, two-thirds of the 20th century, mysticism was widely considered to be nothing more than folk magic and superstition unbefitting an enlightened 20th-century thinker. And it all grew from the prevailing intellectual attitude in Germany in the 19th century. It goes under the name of Wissenschaft des Judentums.
Ms. Tippett: Right. The science of Judaism.
Rabbi Kushner: Scientific study of Judaism. It had to be rational. And these guys went into apoplectic shock when they found out what mystics thought and what they did. And, the result was that they simply, as I mentioned before, tore all the pages of Kabbalah out of the history books and didn’t even allow anybody to pay attention to it. When Saul Lieberman, the great scholar at Jewish Theological Seminary, was asked to introduce Gershom Scholem once — I need to give you a Hebrew word to get the joke.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Rabbi Kushner: The Hebrew word “shtus” means folly, nonsense, insanity, madness, idolatry, stupidity. I mean, shtus. It’s junk. So, Lieberman introduced Scholem the following way: “Shtus is shtus, but the academic study of shtus is scholarship.” And then he sat down. That’s what Scholem was up against. The reigning intellectual community thought it was all just so much shtus, so much nonsense, silliness. Who would care about it at all? Except some historian, like Scholem, trying to figure this stuff out.
Ms. Tippett: There’s even an echo with the emergence of Kabbalah in the 13th century, right? There was that rational Jewish philosophy of the middle ages that this Jewish mysticism kind of arose as a response to.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, I think historically, Krista — and a lot of this is in Scholem, although some of it is just me, trying to figure out a way to make things make sense — in world history, there’s a sense that when religion becomes too formal, too rigid, too structured, too logical, the only way to bust it open and get something decent going instead, is for mysticism to reappear. Because whatever religion you’re talking about, on whatever scale you’re talking about, the minute mysticism becomes permissible, acceptable, possible, it’s an immediate threat to organized religious structures. Because what mysticism does is it gives everybody direct, unmediated, personal access to God. And then they say to whoever’s running the local religious community, “I don’t need you. I’ve got God directly.” So it winds up being an explosion of chaos, Scholem used the word “anarchy” that mysticism creates an anarchic situation, and it’s healthy, and it’s part of growing.
Ms. Tippett: Right. This idea of mysticism as a resource for change and development within religion. And just to take this outside Judaism, I think it’s very interesting that Scholem really was fascinated and took seriously mysticism as a human experience, right? He was rooted in Jewish mysticism, but he saw the parallels in other traditions. So right now, within Christianity, the fastest growing face of Christianity is Pentecostalism, which, one sociologist I’ve spoken with gave this — I think, wonderful name — Pentecostals are main street mystics. And it is kind of turning Christianity inside out in very interesting ways.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, I know it’s messing up Judaism. I don’t know enough about contemporary Christianity.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, say some more about what it’s doing with Judaism. You mean the rise in mystical curiosity, openness to this? Or what do you mean by that?
Rabbi Kushner: Let’s identify, there are three kinds of Kabbalah, at least. Maybe a couple more, too, but one kind of Kabbalah is called Kabbalah musari, and it is ethical Kabbalah. For some reason, and no scholar to my knowledge has really done the work on this, after the appearance of the Zohar — 12th, 13th century — virtually every manual of ethical discipline written within Judaism was written by a practicing Kabbalist. That to me is an extraordinary statement. Especially since mysticism gets such bad press and they say, “Oh, they’re anarchists. You can’t trust them to do good things.”
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, or it’s purely spiritual, right?
Rabbi Kushner: Beam me up, Scotty, float away.
No, I think when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You don’t have an experience that is unitive, in which you feel yourself dissolved into the divine all, and emerge from that wanting to rip somebody off. Your immediate desire is to show them how to get there with you and so forth. The second kind of Kabbalah is called Kabbalah ma’asit. Or what in Jewish history is called “practical Kabbalah.” If Krista has an experience of the divine, she now presumably, in some dim sense, also has an insight into the inner workings of creation and how everything functions together. And it might be tempting for her — not you, I’m just making this up, of course — to use this new knowledge as a way of, well, maybe figuring out which stock to buy or which stock to sell or how real estate is going to go or maybe to help Timmy who’s sick in the hospital get better.
Ms. Tippett: So kind of as magic. Mysticism as magic.
Rabbi Kushner: Yeah. And that’s why there’s a whole lot of people who think that’s all Kabbalah is, and it’s superstition and hocus pocus and all. And the third kind of Kabbalah — which is mainly what Scholem talks about and which most students of Kabbalah of these times, like myself — is called a Kabbalah iyunit, or theoretical Kabbalah. And that’s pretty much what we’ve been talking about. Kabbalah as a way to do Judaism. It’s Judaism on steroids. You can’t do another religion and do Kabbalah at the same time because Kabbalah only makes sense as a system for making a heightened sense out of classical Judaism.
Ms. Tippett: I guess I’m interested in your perspective on — we also live in one of these ages where we’re kind of hungover from rationalism and secularism but not with a lot of the same entry points that other generations had into religion. And I want to ask this question in a positive way: What do you experience this mysticism and this mystical tradition to offer to 21st century people?
Rabbi Kushner: Oy. To offer. What an annoying question.
Ms. Tippett: Well, do you know what I — I understand why it’s annoying.
Rabbi Kushner: No, I hear you.
Ms. Tippett: What is it that’s attractive — that’s not a good word, either.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, I mean, the old saw is that for our purposes, we would say old-time religion wants to know what God wants us to do, whereas a mystical variety of the same spiritual tradition would say, “No, no, no, I want to know what God knows. I want to see the world through God’s eyes. I want to lose myself in the divine all. That’s how I want to experience God. That’s how I want to make sense out of religion.” And, your question in that sense, though it’s so annoying, is just very, very perceptive. Old-time religion: God’s up there, we’re down here; God says this, we pray to God for that. Just doesn’t seem to cut it for most of the people I talk to.
Most of the people who are seriously into religion are seriously interested in experiencing the divine. The language is important. One could argue that what we’re witnessing is the pendulum shift from the extreme, sometimes destructive rationalism of the past couple of centuries and returning to a more balanced view of religious life. And mysticism is the way home.
[music: “Only the Winds” by Olafur Arnalds]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, exploring the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah.
Ms. Tippett: We don’t have much time left, but I want to just talk a little bit about some of the other really intriguing aspects of Kabbalah and Jewish mystical tradition. This notion — this is not just mystical, but I think Kabbalah really emphasizes it — that creation is not something that happened once but is an ongoing act, that “creation is now,” I think is how you said it once.
Rabbi Kushner: Yeah, it’s the doctrine of continuous creation that God can’t remember anything. It doesn’t mean that God’s above a certain age, it just means God can’t remember anything. And God has no hopes for the future because — I love this — there is no such thing as time, for God. God experiences the past, the present, and the future as one present continuous reality. So that means that for us the world’s coming into being is, as we said before, continuous. And we come close to God when we are willing to experience the world in the same way. That it’s always possible, and that the divine is always present. And it’s only the silly illusion that I’m in business for myself, which becomes in translation that I made the world, that I’m God. God makes the world, and God’s making it right now. And to really understand the implications of that statement is to have a mystical experience.
Ms. Tippett: And the world that we live in now is this brew of curiosity, an openness to mystery, and therefore, also to the mystical aspect of our traditions — that kind of cosmic curiosity — alongside very well publicized fundamentalist and literalistic readings of religious tradition. Gershom Scholem did not live to see these particular dynamics. I wonder how you think about what the heart of this mystical tradition — I don’t want to use the word “offer” again; I won’t use that word — how does it speak to this world? And of course, behind a lot of the fundamentalism and the literalism is a lot of anxiety and fear that is in fact kind of reality-based because there’s a lot to be anxious and fearful about.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, I think what our generation seems to be living through is the realization that rationalism is only part of the answer, that rationalism can only get you so far. There was a time when people thought it was the answer, and it could get you there. And it’s clear that it won’t get you there. And as a matter of fact, I think — I’m not the first one to notice this — that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were perfectly rational decisions and behaviors. So there’s this sense that religion has to be more than rationalism. And mysticism offers — it says, sort of like in the corner, “Psst, hey kid how would you like a direct experience of the divine? Would that help your religious life?” And a lot of people discover that they’re mystics after all when they’re given that offer.
Rabbi Kushner: Can I tell one more story that reminds me of that?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, sure.
Rabbi Kushner: I was leading a tour of the sanctuary, the prayer hall with the children in the congregation’s preschool. And then I figured as a piece de resistance I’d have them come onto the bima, or the little prayer stage up in front of the room, where there was an ark where we kept the scroll of the Torah. It was accessible via a big floor-to-ceiling curtain. And I got them up on the stage, and I was about to call them — “Open the ark,” but I saw the teacher at the back tapping her wristwatch, which as you may know, is an old Talmudic gesture, which means your time is about up, bucko. So, I said, “I tell you what, boys and girls. We’ll come back when we get together again in a couple of weeks. We’ll come back here, and I’m going to open that curtain there and show you what’s behind it. It’s very special.” And so they all say, “Shalom, Rabbi,” and like little ducklings, follow the teacher back to the class.
Well, the next day, the teacher shows up at my office with the following story. Apparently the preceding day’s hastily-concluded lesson has occasioned a fierce debate among the little people as to what is behind the curtain. They didn’t know [laughs]. And, the following four answers are given, which is I think pretty interesting. One kid, obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university, opined that behind that curtain was absolutely nothing [laughs]. Another kid, less imaginative, thought it had a Jewish holy thing in there. A third kid, obviously a devotee of American game show television subculture, guessed that behind that curtain was a brand new car [laughs].
And the fourth kid — and that’s what brings us back to Gershom Scholem and Kabbalah — said “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.” From a four-year-old. Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and a heightened and revealing way.
Ms. Tippett: Okay, that’s lovely. I think those are your last words, unless — there’s so much we didn’t get to, but is there anything that just must be said to add to this?
Rabbi Kushner: Well there is one other story, and it is actually the one thing that we didn’t touch on, which is a very important of Scholem’s teaching. As we mentioned before, Judaism and Islam and Christianity are revealed traditions. So therefore, what happened for all of them at Mount Sinai is of ultimate importance. I mean, did God talk to Moses? If he did, what did it sound like? Could we have picked it up on a tape recorder? In other words, what is the divine status of those allegedly holy words we find in sacred text?
And it was Scholem, who — I found in his book On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, I must have read it 50 years ago. It changed my life. And I subsequently found out it did for most of my colleagues and friends who had read it, also. It turns out that there is a mystical tradition that says that God really didn’t give the whole five books of Moses. God didn’t really give all ten utterances. There’s another tradition that said that God gave just the first two. “I’m the Lord your God. Don’t have any other gods.” Well, there’s a guy that Scholem found, a Hassid named Mendel Thurm of Rimanov. He says, “No, God didn’t even give the first utterance at Sinai, ‘I’m the Lord your God.’ God didn’t even give the first word, which is anokhi, first person pronoun singular I. All God gave was the first letter of the first word, which is the Hebrew letter aleph,” which most people who know a little bit of Hebrew will quickly say is soundless, but Scholem points out that’s not quite correct. Scholem points out, as a matter of fact, that the sound of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which coincidentally has the numerical equivalent of one, is actually the noise that your larynx makes as it clicks into gear. It’s a teeny little barely audible click. And that’s what God gave at Mount Sinai. And Scholem comments upon that at great length, of course. He says that Mendel Thurm of Rimanov’s clever teaching makes the revelation a mystical one, says that what happened at Mount Sinai was barely audible and had no particular sound, and it therefore became the job of, in this case, Moses, the Prophet, or of anyone else, to give human content to that otherwise unpronounceable sound. The Zohar says that the aleph is a seed in which is enwrapped the entire Torah, and what it means to be a religious person, is to spend your life unpacking that seed.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I am aware of that. It’s just so huge that I didn’t know if we could do it any kind of justice, but I think your story did open it up.
Rabbi Kushner: Well, thank you.
Ms. Tippett: I just also have to say that I feel like there’s so much resonance with things we’re learning now that feel unconnected. The emphasis on letters and on naming and letters and even the Golem traditions of using letters that gives life, and then we’re working with DNA, which is about letters [laughs]. I mean, even the one, the aleph, and not the ein sof, but the — say it again — sephirot?
Rabbi Kushner: Sephirot.
Ms. Tippett: “Sephirot infrastructure of reality.” Do you know what I’m saying? I feel like there are so many echoes with this mystical tradition, and these cutting-edge things we’re learning on our, in fact, our frontiers of rationalism.
Rabbi Kushner: Talking with you convinces me even more that Scholem was extraordinarily important because he brought this stuff to light. He read this stuff. He read it in manuscripts that weren’t accessible to anybody and they were written often in dialects and styles of the language that few people could read or understood. And he left it to us an inheritance. And it seems, from the questions that you’re asking of me, too, seems to be a way that we have of finding our way home again. The epigraph that I chose for my novel, Kabbalah, a Love Story, is from Scholem. He says, “In none of their systems did the Kabbalists fail to stress the interrelation of all worlds and levels of being. Everything is connected with everything else. And this interpenetration of all things is governed by exact, though unfathomable laws.” We have the gnawing suspicion in our generation now, Krista, that everything is connected.
And every now and then, we are given a glimpse, a tickle, a whisper, that maybe it indeed is. And that’s what religious people seem to be most interested in appropriately doing, which is finding more and more connections so that it’s impossible to do anything independent of something else.
[music: “Special N” by Mogwai]
Ms. Tippett: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. His many books include God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know, Kabbalah: A Love Story, and I’m God; You’re Not.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.
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