God Is Everything, in Drag

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September 1, 2006
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Elie Spitz

Irwin Kula with Linda Loewenthal, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life , Hyperion, 2006, 224 pp, $22.95

Irwin Kula wears his hair long, speaks dramatically, and confronts his audience with edgy ideas that spur conversation long after the presentation ends. It is hard to translate his energetic, frank, conversational tone into writing. Yet Kula, President of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and a graduate of Jewish Theological Seminary, has done just that in his new book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. The book is searching and self-revealing; eclectic in its sources; entertaining; quotable; and leaves the reader inspired to examine the big questions in a personal way. It also left me wondering how to move beyond it. Perhaps that is a fundamental premise of the author. Quoting his mother in the book’s first sentence, Kula writes: “When you’ve got an answer, it’s time to find better questions.”

Rabbi Kula believes that big questions produce paradoxical answers. Life up close, as in relationships, is a sacred dance between opposites – assertiveness and passivity; dependence and independence; trust and uncertainty. His answers to the big questions about life – What is the nature of God? How does a person achieve love and happiness? When will the Messiah come? – emphasize that truth is found in the space between the certainties. I identify with Kula’s impatience with those who hold to Truth, with a capital “T” – both the religious fundamentalists who believe that they know who God is and exactly what God wants, and the secularists who believe that we can know exactly who we are and that life ultimately lacks enduring significance.

Regarding God and God’s place in the world, Rabbi Kula is a pantheist: one who asserts that all that exists, exists within God. Or as Kula states more playfully: “God is everything in drag.” He emphasizes that God cannot be described precisely because our experiences are inseparable from God, who contains them and goes beyond them. Consequently, “God is really just code for an experience felt so intensely, so deeply, that there seems to be no other word to describe it.” He describes Divine command as the awareness from within that pushes us to action for a higher and more just purpose than our own selfish inclinations. As Kula writes, “The God inside is immeasurably more investigative, has much clearer standards, and is more punitive than the God in the sky.” On pursuing happiness: “Happiness is about having the full range of yearnings in dialogue.” And on the source of wisdom: “The ability to live with seeming contradictions – and the ambivalence and tension these contradictions create – is what gives rise to wisdom.” Yet, Kula acknowledges that “Our actions are our legacy. It’s what we do that counts” and “Right and wrong may be dependent on context, contingent and open to constant change, but the distinction does exist.”

When I stopped reading, questions lingered in my mind, such as the following: God is primarily described in the book as a verb, a consciousness that flows through us or is manifest in our doing. What about the place of God as a noun, a Conscious Being to whom we legitimately turn and who compassionately hears our prayers? Is not our experience of God as both a noun and a verb?

While it is true that thoughts and feelings are paradoxical – as when boarding an airplane and feeling both sad about leaving and excited about going – the bottom line is that we do act. In that light, what is the place of committed, consistent action in crafting a life of meaning? And how do we translate wisdom (with which this book is filled) into constancy of action (of which more needs to be said)? More specifically from a Jewish angle, what does it mean to be duty bound by our people’s covenant with God?

This book, written for Jews and non-Jews, weaves insight and practices from the Jewish tradition demonstrating the great legacy of our people’s wisdom. The author’s voice will also be heard in our living rooms via national public television in coming months. He has much to say that is distinctive and wise, prompting greater self-understanding and additional questions.

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Rabbi Elie Spitz, spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Israel in Tustin, California, has served on the Rabbinical Assembly's Executive Board and for a decade on its Committee of Jewish Law and Standards. Spitz teaches classes on Jewish Law, the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, and Jewish Life-Cycle to the rabbinical students of the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

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