Search For Spirituality
Emanu-El scholar-in-residence critiques Reform Judaism.
JENNIFER FRENKEL AND
Special to the Jewish News
hen first asked to interview Rabbi
Lawrence Kushner in anticipation of
his visit to Temple Emanu-El as its
scholar-in-residence, we expected to
engage in a stimulating conversation on Jewish
theology and mysticism.
After all, he is well known as one of the Reform
movement's leading scholars and visionaries and
the author of more than 12 books on Judaism and
spirituality. In this, we were not disappointed. He
was insightful and clear and presented his views in
a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way.
But he did surprise us with his many contradic-
tory, and often critical, views — many which fly
in the face of typical Reform dogma.
Rabbi Kushner, a native Detroiter, was ordained
from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion in Cincinnati in 1969.
"I have always been fascinated
in the idea of truth and the
nature of life," the rabbi said.
"And through this, I was drawn
Rabbi Kushner recalls being at
a service at Temple Emanu-El in
Oak Park when it occurred to
him what the role of a rabbi real-
"I remember looking at all the
rabbis on the bimah and thinking
that rabbis get paid to think about the meaning of
life and to help others think about it as well," he
said. "Rabbis get to be with people on occasions
when life gives them a whack on the head. Being a
rabbi seems like the best job in the world. If rab-
bis listen more than they talk, they can help peo-
Rabbi Kushner has seen the Reform movement
evolve since his childhood. He grew up in what he
calls a classically Reform household, a household
that went to temple on Shabbat, fasted on Yom
Kippur and ate bacon for breakfast.
"Reform Judaism in my lifetime has made a
dramatic turn toward the right: he explains.
"Take kashrut [dietary laws], for example. Reform
people tend to follow kashrut more now, and
when I was growing up, most Reform Jews didn't
know what that meant. Rabbis openly ridiculed
Jordan Magidson is a senior at Michigan State
University majoring in English and journalism.
Jennifer Frenkel is a recent MSU graduate currently
applying to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion. Both are graduates of Temple Emanu-El in
kashrut and seriously consid-
ered having Shabbat services
on Sunday morning."
Hunger For Tradition
But since that time, things
have changed. According to
Rabbi Kushner, Reform Jews
are feeling a hunger to return
to the traditions and spirituali-
ty that are inherently Jewish.
Still, he fears the Reform
movement is shallow and vacu-
ous. "Reform Judaism is not
very deep," he said. "Where are
our great Reform thinkers?
Where is our Reform litera-
ture? If you remove the idea of
tikkun olam [repair of the
world] and prophetic Judaism,
then the Reform movement is
He also worries the Reform
movement has removed itself
from the spiritual teachings of
Jennifer Frenkel and Jordan Magidson
Torah and that many of its
scholars think that they are
everything is an expression of God.
smarter than Torah.
"Free will does not exist," he said. "You don't
"Torah is many layers of editing, but it is also an
have to like it; it is just the way life is. Free will is a
expression of God," he said. "If you miss the
conundrum. We all have an illusion of free will, but
unique, sacred and supreme importance of Torah, it
that is all it is, an illusion. We're not robots, but we
is like going to the movies with a paper bag over
believe we run our lives more than we do. When we
you head — you miss the whole point. It is very
are younger, we think we are making all the deci-
powerful, and you have to assume that it is more
sions, but when we are older, we look back on our
Divine than its creators. It is not enough to believe
lives and see how everything fell into place."
that Torah is 'Divinely inspired.' I think that that is
While Rabbi Kushner often is critical of the
movement, he also acknowledges its virtues,
He suggests we look to the Chasidim for inspira-
including the acceptance of patrilineal descent and
tion and to learn how to bring spirituality back into
our lives. One way, he says, is to live in the continu- the welcoming of intermarried families.
"It has always been our movement that has been
ous presence of the Divine. He believes we can
the edge," he said. "Sometimes, we do stupid
achieve this by doing mitzvot.
and sometimes wise." ❑
"My teacher, Arnold Jacob Wolf, told me, There
is one Judaism, and it is Orthodoxy, but all Jews are
Reform.' Reform Judaism made a mistake in letting
Rabbi Kushner will be the Hamburger Scholar
people choose which commandments and mitzvot
in Residence the weekend of March 19-20 at
to follow. People should do whatever they can, and
Temple Emanu-El. At 8 p.m. March 19, he'll
that's better than the alternative --- which is noth-
speak at erev Shabbat services on "Invisible
Lines of Connection: When God Makes a
"If you drive on Shabbat, make it for the sake of
Surprise Appearance in Ordinary Events."
Shabbat, not the sake of picking up your dry clean-
On March 20, he will lead a study at 1
ing," he said.
p.m. on "Zohar: A Creative Exploration of a
According to Rabbi Kushner, there are three
Great Mystical Text." On Sunday at 9:30 a.m.,
views of God: that God controls everything; that He
he will discuss the "Sinai Revelation Re-
controls nothing; and that He is everything. The
Imagined." Temple Emanu-El, (248) 967-
rabbi believes God can be found in everything: the
sun, the ocean, a cell phone or a textbook. God
doesn't control or make something happen, rather