I turned 59 this past Monday. By coincidence (if you believe in coincidence) I received an email from a student who needed to interview a clergy person for a final class paper. He had come across me somewhere and thought I might fit the bill. I thought you might like to read our brief exchange.
What has been your primary goal since becoming a rabbi?
I entered seminary to find God and change religion. I believed and still believe that God is the source and substance of all reality. God is not a being or supreme being, but be-ing itself. To realize God is to realize our connection with and responsibility toward all life. The more you know God the more you become a vehicle for compassion and justice. I wanted to know this God and to make Judaism a means for knowing this and becoming this vehicle.
Did you do it?
I continue to know God, but to change Judaism—no. At this I have failed, and my rabbinate is a failure.
Does it bother you to have wasted your life in this way?
I said I was a failure not that I have wasted my life. To fail means that I first had to try. To waste a life is never to bother living it in the first place. I lived. I continue to live, and I continue to do the only thing I know how to do: I write, and I talk. I write and talk to change minds and hearts and institutions. Perhaps I have changed some minds and heats, but the institution is the same. Failure, yes. Life waster, no.
If you had succeeded in changing the institution what would it look like?
There is no one way to be Jewish even as I envision Judaism. But I would say we would root Judaism in two principles: teshuvah and tikkun: returning to our true nature as God (teshuvah) and repairing the world with godliness (tikkun). This places compassion and justice at the heart of Judaism. Jews would choose which traditions to follow or amend or invent based on a single question: will this make me more just and compassionate? If the answer is yes, then the tradition demands your loyalty. If the answer is no, then it makes no demands on you at all. Every Jew and every synagogue would be unique, but all would be responding to this question. What would unite us would not be shared answers, but a shared question.
If you have failed, what will you do now?
The only thing I know how to do: write and talk.
And if you continue to fail?
I fully expect to fail. But better to fail than not to act.
Doesn’t it ever occur to you to quit?
Of course. Everyday I sit and read newspapers and websites, and watch the news on television, and I think for a moment about abandoning the madness that is religion. Then my anger and frustration translate into yet another book or talk and I go on. I have no idea why this happens, but I cannot ignore it when it does.
You do a lot with interfaith work. Is this more promising that working within one religion?
No. My work in interfaith is to suggest that religions are like the blind men and the elephant: each has a piece of the puzzle but none knows it as a whole. While I admire those who work toward interreligious understanding and peace, I am not among them. I study and teach religion to reveal the existential heart of religion: the realization that we are mortal. Then I focus on those teachers and teachings that help us live with dying, rather than those who promise us some way to escape from dying: Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, Buddha before he was made into a god, Ramana Maharshi, Hillel, Rumi, Ramakrishna, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Erich Fromm, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Toni Packer, to name a few off the top of my head.
Do you write and talk differently now than, say, 25 years ago?
Yes, I write and talk more fiercely. I have less patience for niceties and political correctness. I used to care about what other’s thought of what I wrote and said. And while I still notice this, it no longer shapes my writing or my speaking.
I read once that you say rabbis have a choice between being prophets or clerks, and that most are clerks. Which are you?
I didn’t say that, I was quoting someone else. But I do believe it. Which am I? Only others can say; and only after I’m dead. Hopefully you will be around to ask those who survive me.