NOW our series really gets interesting!
Today, our national conversation on the future of faith adds Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, best known as The Adventure Rabbi until the release of “The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5,000-Year-Old Tradition.”
- Series Pt 1: Newsweek’s Lisa Miller talks about her encounter with Rob Bell.
- Series Pt 2: Newsweek’s Lisa Miller talks about her research on “Heaven.”.
- Series Pt 3: “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold talks about her call for a “God Upgrade” and the need to reach millions who are alienated from religion.
- Series Pt 4: Completing the circle, Jamie talks about her encounter with Rob Bell.
- Wisdom of Rabbi Harold Schulweis: He introduces Korngold’s book. Here’s an interview with Schulweis on “Conscience”
- Find the Adventure Rabbi now: A quick link to Korngold’s outdoors program
(Scroll to the end—“Recommend” this story via Facebook, please.)
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH RABBI JAMIE KORNGOLD
DAVID: You live and work on the Adventure Rabbi program in Boulder, Colorado, but do you actually have a house of worship there in Boulder?
JAMIE: We have a congregation, but no big building. There are about 5,000 people who are somehow involved with our programs. We might see them at Rosh Hashanah and then not again for a year. We have 400 people who are quite active and we see all the time. We have three rabbis on staff, but we only have an office space large enough to include one huge conference room where we can teach classes. We can get about 40 people into that space. For our bigger programs we either rent other spaces or we hold the programs outdoors.
DAVID: This new book, “The God Upgrade,” has been described this way: In your first book, you showed people how to reconnect their faith with the natural world around us. In this second book, you answer an even bigger question: Why bother with faith in the first place? That’s a tall order! You’re trying to sort out the very nature of God and religion in this new book.
JAMIE: The biggest stumbling block to religion is God. What I discovered in writing my earlier book is that the way I lay out Judaism is really compelling to lots of people. They tell me: “Yes, that’s what I think, too!” But then they go back to their regular synagogue or, in some cases, they’re Christians and they go back to their home church—and they can’t experience religion in the way I’m describing it. For example, their rabbi or minister is up there talking about a God who you pray to and things happen as a direct result of your prayers. And people tell me: “That kind of religion isn’t for me. It doesn’t work for me.”
DAVID: Let me stop you there. Right away, we’ve focused on the core issue in your new book—the very nature of God. That connects your voice with this red-hot national conversation unfolding around writers like Rob Bell, Lisa Miller and a host of others: Marcus Borg, J. Philip Newell, Barbara Brown Taylor—I could rattle off quite a list here.
JAMIE: Yes, I’m aware that there is this national conversation going on. And it’s important because it relates to why people are leaving synagogues and churches. Everyone is aware that people are leaving, but most leaders in congregations only want to talk about easy institutional responses. What new things can we do to welcome more people? How can we get more people through the doors? Nobody dares to talk about God. But, I think that, if we don’t come to terms with this piece of the puzzle, then we’re never going to get people back into congregations.
DAVID: You’re saying some radical things in this book. Among other things, you believe in God as a creator-sustainer-connective force in the cosmos, but you don’t believe that God is sitting up there on a throne dispensing answers to individual prayers. Now, you know the polling data as well as I do, so you know that millions of people disagree with you. The vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they believe in prayer and pray regularly. Are you telling them that they’re wrong?
WHEN SAYING ‘I’LL PRAY FOR YOU’ ISN’T WELCOME
JAMIE: I know lots of people who are very content in their religious practice and who firmly believe that if someone is ill, and they say a prayer, then their prayers are efficacious and God will take their prayers into account in some way in deciding what to do with this person. I know lots of people who envision God as consciously making decisions involving individual prayers. And, if I’m describing you right now, then don’t worry. I don’t want to mess with your religion. I say: Go, and be content in your faith. I don’t want to mess with you. God bless you.
In this book, I’m really trying to respond to people who, when a rabbi says, “I’ll pray for you,” their first reaction is: “Hunh? That’s not what I want.” There are a lot of Jews and Christians out there who feel alienated from our traditions because they feel that the concept of God we’re presenting today forces them to check their rational minds at the door.
DAVID: But you still pray, don’t you?
JAMIE: Of course I pray. I do believe that prayer and ritual are efficacious, but I don’t believe that it’s a process of pleading to a god-like figure who is granting individual pleas. I don’t see God sitting up there deciding what will happen next, based on the petitions we’re sending every day. I think prayer is important because it enables us to connect with our communities, with ourselves and with God—but, I don’t see God sitting up there as a conscious interventionist force. So, if I am with my community, then of course I will pray for someone who is sick, but I’m not praying as though God is going to suddenly come down here and heal that person. What our prayers do is cultivate compassion and humility in our communities. They help us all become a community who cares for those who are sick.
CESAR CHAVEZ AND PRAYING FOR PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
DAVID: This is a tricky point and I want to bring in an illustration that struck me as I was reading your book. You don’t mention Cesar Chavez in your book, but we just published Chavez’s most famous prayer. Lots of readers have visited that prayer page. I know from emails that many readers have printed out that prayer in English and Spanish and have shared it widely. I would say that, if you carefully read Chavez’s prayer, it’s the kind of prayer that you would heartily encourage, right?
JAMIE: (After we both turn to the prayer online and read it over.) Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s an absolutely beautiful prayer—and one I would encourage people to pray. For me, like this prayer by Chavez, prayer has to do with personal responsibility.
DAVID: OK, then this is another point of connection. If readers turn to Part 2 of the interview with Lisa Miller, who is a journalist and also an active member in a Jewish congregation, Lisa talks about this very point. She actually criticizes Rob Bell for not taking that seriously enough. Lisa argues that personal responsibility—and the actions we take in our communities—should be central pillars of our faith. You’re making a very similar point, right?
JAMIE: This is one of the things I love about Judaism—the emphasis on personal responsibility. During Passover, we remember that God came down and liberated the people with an outstretched arm. But, today, there are many people out there who don’t believe that God came down like some scene in a Cecil B. DeMille movie and stretched out an arm to save the Israelites. The Passover holiday resonates with Jews around the world because it celebrates freedom. For many, Passover still resonates that powerful message of freedom, even if they don’t see this unfolding in a literal way. For many, the storytelling tradition we continue at Passover is powerful and the ritual of Passover is still essential, because it makes our lives so much more meaningful. The kind of message that I see in Passover is this: If anyone’s going to free the people who remain in slavery around the world today, then we’ve got to get out there and free those slaves ourselves.
DAVID: At this point, I know that a lot of our readers are shaking their heads. Many won’t agree with these points you’re making. So, I want to emphasize that this book does not come across as a hit-‘em-over-the-head argument about religion—it’s a plea for discussion. You’re not trying to shatter anyone’s faith. Rather, you’re saying: Millions of men and women don’t believe the traditional teachings in a literal way—so, please, dare to open up your communities and your conversations to let them honestly tell you what they think. Is that a fair way to describe what you’re saying in this book?
JAMIE: Very much! Yes, this book is a plea for conversation. I don’t need or want people to agree with every bit of my concept of God. I just want there to be room for people to explore what theologians have been exploring over the centuries.
THIS STUFF COULD GET YOU FIRED IN MANY CONGREGATIONS
DAVID: This is risky stuff for a clergyperson to say and to commit to paper. You could get yourself fired in many congregations, right?
JAMIE: Absolutely. You could get fired for this. I read a chapter of this book to my congregation one night when hundreds of people were sitting there. As I got ready to read this text, I suddenly had this thought: I might have no congregation tomorrow. And, you know, when I read it—the room was silent. Some people were shaking their heads. The whole time, I kept wondering: What are they thinking?
Then, afterward, people came up to me and said: “The whole time, I was curious what other people were thinking!” People began to ask around, to talk about it with others. Finally, I began to hear from people: “We’re relieved to hear this from you! This is what I think, too, but to hear a rabbi say this!?! Who’d have expected it?” In the end, people told me they felt very reassured by the honesty and openness in what I’m saying.
DAVID: I know that Rabbi Schulweis would disagree with you on various points you make in this book. Nevertheless, he heartily recommends your book in the Foreword. Why does he do that? I love this section of your book, so let me read from it. In his Foreword, Schulweis writes about “a teacher in a confirmation class who asked how many of the students believed in God. No hands were raised except one young person. Asked how she had come to believe in God, she answered casually, ‘I don’t know. I think it just runs in my family.’” Then, Schulweis concludes, “In our days, God-talk is unheard around the table, in the classroom, or even in the seminary. That theological silence must be broken. Old questions must be renewed, and new answers must be tried.” Finally, he praises you personally for understanding “that we have nothing to fear but rigidity and emptiness itself.”
I think about that jam-packed meeting hall near Central Park in New York City where hundreds of young men and women from around the world gathered to hear a couple of people—Lisa and Rob—talk about the theology of heaven. To me, that’s the strongest endorsement that these issues truly and deeply matter to people.
LISA: I hope we can open up honest new discussions. I hope we can argue and debate with each other so that we all can better understand our own thinking, our own faith. I think that a public forum is really an important part of wrapping our heads, hearts and spirits around these concepts. If we sit back in isolation and try to figure this out on our own, we’re not going to get anywhere. But if we can rise to the occasion of honest conversation, then I think we can create a place in religion for all sorts of people who now feel disenfranchised. I want to see everyone in the room.
Come back on Friday for the final story in our Passover / Holy Week series! As it turns out, the Adventure Rabbi actually tracked down Rob Bell to complete this circle of conversation. On Friday, we’ll tell you what happened when Jamie met Rob.
NOTE: PHOTOS TODAY are courtesy of photographer Jeff Finkelstein for Adventure Rabbi
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.