On Thursdays, we often feature guest writers. These are among the most popular stories we publish here at ReadTheSpirit. And, today, we’re welcoming back Gail Katz, whose earlier guest story is still popular among our readers. This time, we invited Gail to share a review of a book by Rabbi Irwin Kula.
It’s on a theme that’s very close to our hearts: Finding spiritual meaning in the often chaotic twists and turns of daily life.
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Here is Gail’s reflection on Rabbi Kula’s book:
“Yearnings: Embracing the Messiness of Life” is a book in which all of us — people of many faith traditions — can find fresh insights into what we share: Being human.
I heard Rabbi Irwin Kula give a talk about his book this summer. It’s a book that I enjoy, so I was pleased to learn more about him. He is an eighth-generation rabbi, nationally known speaker and teacher — and the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). He is a regular on the TV and radio talk show circuit and host of the public television broadcast called, “The Wisdom of Our Yearnings.”
His book is an exploration of our day-to-day living, an uncovering of the spirituality that can be found in all of our desires and longings, leading us to appreciate more deeply our varied pathways toward God.
Kula organizes his book around our major yearnings, such as desires for truth, meaning, love, happiness and transcendence. What I find most appealing is the way he writes about human nature — and the intense human desire for certainty. In his chapter, “God Will Be What God Will Be,” Kula describes the God that everyone would like to evoke: a God “who tells them exactly what they want to hear -– whether God is our intuition, that soft, still voice within that we feel holds some magical truth, or the guy in the heavens who affirms our perception of the world.”
What we don’t accept so easily is that God is more often challenging and life changing -– that God is the voice urging us to question every truth.
The word “prayer,” the rabbi teaches, comes from the same Latin root as the word precarious. The certainty we yearn for is, at best, precarious. Kula’s central insight for all of us is that the precariousness of life is bound up in our own sense of ourselves, and “when we hold our identities lightly, knowing that they are temporary constructions, humble absolutes, the crises and crossroads in our lives tend to be less shattering.” What great advice for handling the day-to-day challenges to our sense of our selves!!
Kula continues to refer to these challenges as the “sacred messiness of life.” It is the search for meaning –- the sorting though all of the messes -– that can transform us and give rise to wisdom.
I was most impressed with Kula’s use of the Yeshiva as an illustration of the need to accept uncertainly in our lives. In a Yeshiva, Jewish students wrestle with the meaning of the sacred texts -– the Torah, the Mishnah and the Talmud. In some settings, hundreds of students sit across from each other for 10-12 hours a day, discussing and analyzing, voices rising and falling with great emotion and vitality in debate. One point of view rarely prevails over the others. With this illustration, Kula is trying to teach us: Winning is not the point.
Disagreement is the gift that alerts us to “something wonderful waiting to be uncovered.” Kula’s point here is that we all need to re-assess how we deal with conflict and stress in our lives. Rather than dividing us, arguments should be about finding connection with each other. We need to look at the entire weaving, not just our own thread in the tapestry.
Another fascinating discussion in Kula’s book has to do with the enactment of rituals. I love the way Kula extends an interfaith perspective about rituals, explaining to his readers that all rituals can become rote and boring, and the act of seeing and participating in another group’s rituals can enliven our own spirituality. Kula describes rituals as “Songs of grace and dances of death: they can foment aggression and inspire love; calm the mind and stir things up; enchant the ordinary or transform it.”
Rituals across the religious spectrum –- the Jewish practice of blowing the shofar on the New Year, the Catholic Eucharist, the Islamic Henna marriage ritual, the Buddhist mandala, or the masked dance of the Hopi — all invite us to enter an “alternative universe.”
Kula also unlocks the beauty of the Sabbath -– something that Jewish and non-Jewish readers may find particularly helpful. And, he writes that, when we return from the Sabbath into the new workweek — “we do not enter the workweek alone, that all of our creative work is in the end collaborative.” In practicing the Sabbath, in recalibrating and rebalancing, we are “learning how to be better doers and do being better.” These are words that should give all of us pause!!
As a Jew, I enjoyed Kula’s book because of the many insights that he brought to my personal connection with Judaism. And, I reveled in Kula’s book because he helps us to embrace our differences. As Jews, we are commanded to “repair the world.”
The rabbi reminds us that “repairing the world is not about gathering the sparks, but about dignifying each one.” What is life-affirming, says Kula, is the “ever-expanding uniqueness of our selves and the uniqueness of others.”
Through all the messiness of our lives, we need to celebrate rather than fear the “anarchy, mystery, and multiplicity of the spark-filled cosmos.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
READ GAIL’S OWN STORY: Gail Katz has shared her voice a number of times through ReadTheSpirit — but the signature story that readers still return to read is her memoir: “My Interfaith Journey.” If you haven’t read her story, we think you may enjoy it — and may want to share it with others.
EXPLORE RABBI KULA’S WORK AT CLAL: The Jewish group has a number of landing pages on the Web, but probably the most useful is the portal called “eCLAL,” an online magazine.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, PLEASE. Click on the “Comment” link below. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly. Or, visit us on Facebook, where the best meeting place at the moment is our new OurValues Facebook group.