I’ve been giving a few interviews lately.
This one, I am told, will not be published, so I am publishing it. I am keeping
the interviewer’s name out of it as per his request.
Rumor is that you find Judaism too narrow
for your tastes, and too small to hold your spiritual experiences. When did you
stop being a Jew?
A Jew can’t stop
being a Jew any more than a Chinese person can stop being Chinese or a Navaho
stop being Navaho. I was born Jewish and I will die Jewish, and I am quite
proud of being a Jew. As for Judaism being too small, all religions are too
What do you like best about Judaism?
Jews are doubters, arguers. We prefer questions to answers, and as soon as we
have answers we think it best to question them. We deliberately misread our
texts and in so doing reinvent them.
We don’t believe
in fixed meanings. Meaning comes from the interaction of story and reader/listener/interpreter—the
three are really one. We have this
wonderful phrase, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim
. Roughly translated it means: All opinions, no matter how mutually
exclusive, are the words of the Living God if their intent is to search out the
truth. I don’t know any other culture that values argument and doubt the way we
Jews do. That alone makes me want to be a Jew.
What do you like least about Judaism?
Do you worry about the future of Jews and
Worry? No. Worry
doesn’t do anything. But I am concerned that Jewish education has shifted to
the western model of seeking answers rather than the Jewish model of learning
how to sharpen one’s questions. We need an old/new kind of Jewish academy that
focuses on questions and hones one’s creative, imaginal, and critical thinking
skills. What we’ve got are Jewish schools that teach you the rules of Jewish
life rather than how to cultivate the genius of the Jewish mind.
I’ve heard you say you are not only
Yes. While I am
tribally and culturally Jewish, and Judaism is my primary source of spiritual
nourishment and expression, I draw from the wisdom and practices of many
religions, especially Vendanta Hinduism and Zen Buddhism.
And you find the same capital “T” Truth is
all of these?
No. I find useful
insights into how to best live my life, and powerful practices that open me to
realities beyond those my normal waking mind can fathom, but Truth with a
capital “T” is something else. No system can articulate Truth. To paraphrase
Lao Tzu, the Truth than can be named ain’t the Real Truth.
Most of your time is spent writing. If the
Truth can’t be named, what is the point of writing?
I write because I
have no choice. When I don’t write I feel ill.
But I never write to articulate the Truth, only to share my opinions.
What do you feel is the future of the book?
I think digital
books will dominate the market sooner rather than later. I’m not one to make a
fetish out of paper, though I do own hardcover copies of those books that have
defined my life.
The writings of
Camus, Borges, and Edmund Jabes, Kafka, Nachman of Breslov, Martin Buber, Krishnamurti,
Alan Watts, Ramana Maharshi, and Ramakrishna.
You also teach writing and religion. What
have you learned from your experiences in these fields?
people can’t write. Second, most people don’t read, which may be why most
people can’t write. Third, most people studying the religions of the world are
careful to defend their own against any intrusion from the outside. Fourth,
some people are curious enough and courageous enough to let their defenses down
and actually be touched and perhaps transformed by other religions. These are
the people I love to talk with, teach, and learn from.
You work extensively in the field of
interfaith. Do you find the same thing to be true there as in the classroom?
so–called interfaith dialogue is really interfaith monologue. True dialogue is
unscripted, leaving the partners open to surprise and transformation. Few
people are ever changed in what passes for interfaith dialogue today. They are
too busy defending their truth to be open to challenging it, let alone changing
What about your experiences of the Divine
Mother? You have written about this, so it is no secret that you think God is a
God isn’t a woman
or man. God is Reality. In Hinduism we speak of God with Attributes and God
without Attributes. When I experience God with Attributes my experience is
clearly feminine, relational, the voice I hear is that of the Divine Mother.
But this is not to say God is a woman. God without Attributes, the most pure
manifestation of God is ungendered. It is pure being, pure consciousness, pure
And you have experienced both?
No. When I
experience God, I experience the Divine Mother. The pure Godhead is not
experienced for there is no “I” to experience and no “other” to be experienced.
All there is, I suspect, is the pure I Am of God, Reality in and of itself.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the
future of humanity?
Both. If people
change—if we learn to overcome our intrinsic ignorance, arrogance, greed, fear
and violence—I am optimistic. If we don’t, I am pessimistic. While we are good
at improving the longevity of our lives, we suck an improving the quality of
our living. While we get better and better at distracting ourselves; we suck at
What about global warming? Do you think we
will reverse this trend?
No. It’s too late
for that. And, besides, I like my air-conditioning and central heating too much
to give them up, and I imagine that when one billion Chinese have these
luxuries as well they won’t want to give them up either. The question isn’t can
we stop global climate change, but can we adapt to it and survive it? I don’t
know the answer to that, but I suggest that millions of us will die while
millions also survive.
You don’t think we will switch to alternative
sources of energy?
Probably not in
time to save our civilization. There comes a moment in the life of every empire
when they have to choose to embrace the future or cling to the past. Usually
they cling to the past. And when they do they begin a long slow and often
bloody decline. The American moment is now. We can choose a green future and
reinvent our civilization, or we can cling to our addiction to dead dinosaurs
and follow them into extinction. Right now dinosaurs are winning.
So you don’t think we can turn things
You know the
phrase, “come hell or high water?” Well, they’re both coming, and soon.
So how does that impact your work as a
I’m a teacher not
a leader. I don’t like following others, and I certainly don’t like others
following me. But to answer your question, my concern is with cultivating
compassion and loving-kindness. No one will survive what is coming alone. If we
close our hearts out of fear, we will maximize the horror of what is coming,
and those who do survive it will be the most heartless of all. But if we learn
to open our hearts and work together in love more will survive, and do so with
heart and soul intact.
Don’t you think God will intervene? Have
you no hope?
Counting on God
hasn’t really worked out so well for us Jews, so I don’t do that. But what I
said doesn’t preclude hope. I have no hope that we will avoid the hell and high
water that is coming with climate change. I have no hope that we will create a
just and equitable society in place of the plutocracy we have now, but I do
have hope that we can live our dying with love and compassion.
Last chance. Is there no way we can save
ourselves at all?
All right, you
want hope here’s hope. I have hope in Yertle the Turtle.
Yertle the Turtle? Like the Dr. Seuss
Exactly. Though not in Yertle himself, for he was the king. My hope is in Mack the lowest of things. Dr.
Seuss’ story is about a society where the top turtle, Yertle, rests on the backs of all
the lesser turtles beneath. Mack, the lowest turtle, complains about this
injustice and is told to keep still. Mack burps and topples the entire
system. I have hope that some Mack will burp and the whole system will crash.
This sounds like the Tea Party.
Not at all. Tea
Party turtles worship the giant tortoise on the top. They worship the system
that keeps them on the bottom even as it promises them a turn at the top. Tea
Party turtles never burp. The true Macks are those who realize that the
entire system is sick, and that maintaining it is wrong. They are mad as hell
and just won’t take it any more. Tea Party turtles are mad as hell and just keep
taking it. The faux Macks will stay where they are and allow the system to
continue to exploit them. The real Macks will burp, and having burped walk
away. It’s like a reverse Atas Shrugged
Right. In the
novel the creators at the top shrug off the world of the takers at the bottom.
In the Yertle version the takers are at the top: the wealthy and powerful, the
greedy security-military-government-industrial-financial-media complex whose
only concern is with maintaining their own power, and who add nothing of real
value to human civilization. In the Rand novel the average person cannot live
without the genius of the superior folks. In the Yertle version the powerful
cannot live without the Macks lower down. When we Macks at last know our
true worth we will burp. And when we do—watch out!