Rabbi Kula: Adapting Jewish wisdom to modern life

Rabbi Irwin Kula

Rabbi Irwin Kula describes himself as “a disruptive spiritual innovator and rogue thinker,” with a focus on the “intersection of innovation, religion and human flourishing.”

He is the co-founder and executive editor of the Wisdom Daily, a political and spiritual commentary website. A popular media commentator, he is also the author of the award-winning book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, creator of the short film, Time for a New God, the TV series, Simple Wisdom and co-founder of the Disruptor Foundation.

He received the 2008 Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Award for his work in fostering “equality, liberty and a truly inter-religious community,” and has been listed for many years in Newsweek as one of America’s “most influential rabbis.”

On Nov. 15, the co-president of Clal – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, for the first time will be bringing his message of inclusiveness to Winnipeg, as the keynote speaker at the annual Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture.

What attracted you to the rabbinate?

I come from a long line of rabbis. You might say that I grew up in the business. I was the oldest of six boys. We grew up in a loving, life-affirming Jewish home. I was a good student in a Jewish day school and I was always comfortable in synagogue. From a young age, I lead services and read Torah.

Were you a congregational leader before joining Clal?

I led a congregation in St. Louis from 1982 to 1987. I led the first Conservative congregation in the Old City of Jerusalem. And I co-founded Congregation Aitz Hayim in Chicago.

Tell us about Clal.

Clal – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership was founded in 1974 by Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. I have been involved since 1987 and have been its co-president for the past 10 years.

Clal is a think tank, whose mission is to re-imagine Jewish life for a globalized, technological age, in which people are mixing, blending and switching identities. We work at the intersection of religion, innovation and the science of human flourishing, and through seminars, classes, consulting and media outreach, we make Jewish wisdom a public good that’s accessible to anyone, everywhere.

Our bedrock principle is that Judaism and Jewish life must be profoundly and robustly pluralistic. No one stream or form of Judaism has a patent on the truth. We work with all religious denominations and political expressions of Judaism.


What do you say to traditionalists who may be resistant to innovation?

I point out that there is really no such thing as a tradition without innovation. Every tradition was at one time an innovation. The paradox is that a tradition is just an innovation that made it.

You have noted that we live in what is the most exciting and prosperous time in Jewish history. How does the challenge of affluence differ from that of poverty in spiritual terms?

Judaism was, for the most part, designed during periods of scarcity, powerlessness and persecution. The question in that context was how to help people living in poverty have a sense of dignity. The challenge of power, freedom and affluence – the challenge of abundance – is a very different ethical and spiritual challenge.

For example, the idea of having two challahs at Shabbat dinner was to give a sense of abundance and dignity to people who barely had bread during the week. But what does having two challahs mean when you can have challah and the best bread every day? What does Shabbat as a day of rest from toil mean when our work is enjoyable and for many of us a choice? Very few Jewish communal leaders have to do burdensome work.

Similarly, the challenge of living an ethical life when you have power and affluence is very different than when you are poor and powerless. With power and affluence, one can do so much more good and so much more harm.

How do you connect with so many Jews who seem to want nothing to do with Judaism?

The good news is that surveys show that over 90 per cent of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. There is no Jewish identity problem. It is just that so many people are disconnected from our communal institutions. In other words, we don’t have an identity problem, we have an institutional problem.

The challenge is not how to make people feel more Jewish. It is to explore how Jewish wisdom and practice can help people flourish. If Jewish wisdom and practice solve people’s real problems and help enhance their lives, they will use it. Just as we see a lot of innovation in many areas of society – education, health, entertainment, etc. – so too do we need innovation in religion.

We need entrepreneurship, Jewish leadership and expressions of Judaism that enhance people’s lives in measurable ways.

There is an incredible explosion of Jewish creativity taking place in America. There are a tremendous number of new ventures starting up. Our challenge is not only to foster that start-up culture, but also to help legacy institutions innovate from the inside.

You have also been extensively involved in interfaith activities.

Yes. That is a different facet of my work. Technology and innovation are changing the world. I feel that it is important to work with leaders, not only across religions, but also in different sectors, including business, politics and culture.

You have met with the Dalai Lama.

Yes. I had become friends with a Buddhist leader of the Shambhala lineage. The Dalai Lama came to America to dedicate a new Buddhist temple in that community. I was invited to speak at the dedication to a few thousand people. After the dedication, I was privileged to meet with the Dalai Lama and discuss the dialectic between cultural loss and cultural creativity. A couple of years later, I had the opportunity to study with the Dalai Lama and 300 other students for three days in Milan. It was a remarkable experience.

You have also worked with Muslim leaders.

I have worked with liberal Muslim leaders. The challenge we face regarding Islam is how to support liberal, progressive and heretical Muslims in the West, in their efforts to win the battle of ideas within Islam. We spend all of our time and resources fighting wars against the bad guys. We may well need to, but there is no way we can win this war on the battlefield alone. We need to support the millions of liberal Muslims in their effort to win this war of ideas within Islam.

What are your thoughts on the situation between Israel and the Palestinians?

The problem is that this is not a good guy versus bad guy story. It is very complex and actually only makes things worse when seeing one side as all good and the other as all evil – whether we are hawks or doves, conservatives or progressives.

What do you have coming up, in terms of appearances, new initiatives and publications?

My newest initiative is working to develop a field of spiritual entrepreneurship and I am working on a book titled, Search Engine For Meaning.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.