August 31, 2017

Glimmers of Transcendence: Rabbi David Wolpe

By In Interviews

“Love of this world, of one another, is the sole hope in an age when we can destroy the world many times over. There is no power that is only good, that cannot be twisted for evil. Religion is hardly an exception. But while there are many things that can doom us, only one thing can save us. Faith. Not blind or bigoted faith, but faith that pushes us to be better, to give more of ourselves, to glimpses of transcendence scattered throughout our lives.”

– Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, CA. Founded in 1906, Sinai Temple was the first Conservative Jewish congregation in Southern California. Wolpe is also the author of numerous books and is frequently sought for his viewpoints by PBS, A&E, and other television networks. Newsweek has named him the most influential Rabbi in the United States.

Our conversation includes the Rabbi’s thoughts on interpreting scripture, the contradictions of King David, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether we should be worried about rising levels of anti-Semitism.

Selected books by David Wolpe:

[Note: This interview was conducted on August 30, 2017.]

OR: I was hoping to start maybe by just asking a little bit about yourself. I think you grew up in Pennsylvania. As you were growing up what kind of experiences or perceptions did you have which caused you to devote your life to faith and become a Rabbi?

DW: Well the easiest answer to that is my father was a Rabbi, so it was not strange to me even though it wasn’t something I originally thought I would do.

OR: I assume your father was also Conservative?

DW: Yes.

OR: This is probably an ignorant question.

DW: Not at all.

OR: What would you say are the major dividing lines between the different traditions of modern Judaism?

DW: The easiest way to think of it is this way. The Orthodox tends to believe that the Torah is directly the word of God and that the rabbinic traditions that come from the Torah is always authoritative and therefore Jewish law is fairly unchanging. They tend to be the most traditional of the three major divisions.

Being open to change and modernity but still trying to create a traditional lifestyle is the Conservative movement that I’m part of.

Then the movement that places the greatest emphasis on individual choice and on what they would call social justice is the reform movement.

 

 

From top to bottom, believers in the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed branches of Judaism.

 

OR: Is it fair to say, then, that all Jews draw from the same source documents, it’s just a matter of interpretation?

DW: Yes, I think that’s broadly fair to say. Remember that Jews are very much characterized, and have been for more than a thousand years, as “people of the book.” So, much of the difference does come about from how you read different texts, interpret, or don’t interpret different texts as you said because unlike Christianity, which has an ideal life, Judaism doesn’t have that at all. It sees us as fallible human beings trying to live up to God’s word.

OR: What would you say your religious expectations are? In other words, is there a culmination to your faith the same way a Christian might hope to go to heaven?

DW: There is in the Jewish tradition something called ‘olam ha-ba or “the world to come,” although it’s less specified and general than Christianity and less emphasized. It does exist in Judaism as well. There are two major differences. One is that in Judaism everyone who is good can go to whatever it is that exists…that state of existence. I don’t want to call it a place because it makes it sound like it’s a different geographical location and it’s not. It’s a state of existence. You don’t have to believe a certain thing and you don’t have to be Jewish to reach that state. If you’re a good person, you get there.

The second major difference is that the afterlife is less emphasized in Judaism and the emphasis is more on the way you live your life in this world that’s of primary religious value.

OR: I think I mentioned to you when we got in touch that I’m personally an atheist, but I depart in some ways from how what we might call the “new atheists” characterize the God of the Hebrew Bible, which is very, very harsh. One of my favorite books on the Bible was The Book of J by Harold Bloom, which I thought was a beautiful book even though it might be blasphemous to religious Jews because of its claims.

DW: I agree with you. It’s a beautiful book.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, painted by Alexander Louis Leloir in 1865. The account is found in the 32nd chapter of Genesis.

OR: My question to you is, how should someone who is approaching the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament or Torah, for the first time approach it? Some of the stories that are passed on do seem to portray God as violent or indiscriminate in his judgments when you read passages. What are the rules of interpretation? How can we gain wisdom from those stories today?

DW: I just want to make it clear that what I’m going to say to you is not what every Rabbi would say by any means. I don’t want to pretend that I’m speaking for the entire tradition. This is my own way of understanding.

You, first of all, should really study the Bible with a teacher or with a good commentary, because like all classics it unfolds itself very slowly and what you conclude at first reading is going to be very different from the thing that you conclude at the tenth reading.

But, the second thing I would say is that I see the Bible as a humanly written document in response to God’s revelation and therefore a lot of the ways that people depict God in the Bible is the way that human beings see God as opposed to whatever God is. The way that God actually is. And so the same kinds of anger and darkness and real insight into human nature that the highest writing has is in fact found in the Bible and therefore seems to often be problematic and difficult when in fact I think if you see it as human beings trying to seek God’s essence in each other’s essence it looks very different.

The Sacrifice of Isaac, painted by Michelangelo Caravaggio in 1602. The account is found in the 22nd chapter of Genesis.

OR: So, then would it be fair to say, and I understand that this might be your personal view, that a lot of passages in the Bible are really depicting the fear that humans may have when they’re in contact with the Divine rather than an intended feeling from the Divine itself. If that makes sense.

DW: I think that’s beautifully put. Yes, I really do think that’s a lot of it.

OR: I also mentioned to you that I think you’re a terrific writer. I really enjoyed many of your books. I think your book on David was your most recent.

DW: Yes, it was.

OR: If you consider the Bible as literature and put it in that category, you can certainly see David as the most complete character that’s ever been put on the page, real or imagined.

DW: You know that I think that’s true, although not as many people know that or think it’s exactly the case.

OR: You make the point very well that we see David encountering and adjusting to almost every aspect of humanity and life. I’m sure that was not unintentional when it was recorded.

DW: Without question I agree with you. I think it was written by a great literary artist.

OR: Some of the ways that David is portrayed in the book surprised me some even though after reflecting on them, I think they’re accurate. For instance, David is very much a survivor. You don’t see him express the kind of love to others that they express towards him and he does use people at times. To me, there’s a great parallel to Jacob, probably my favorite character in the Bible, ecause he was also very much a complete person and a survivor and someone who uses people when he needs to.

So, my rather long setup is for this question: if these men were meant as precursors to the Messiah or a window to God himself, what does that tell us about God when these men could not always be trusted or schemed for their own advantage?

DW: I think it shows that people are imperfect reflections of God. In the case of David, he was not only enormously complicated, but an exemplar of the characteristics that exist in our world. We understand that when human beings seek to view each other, even things that seem negative can have a certain charismatic allure. David was one of those people who had that magic and you can feel it come through in the writing of the person who records his life.

I’m sure if you said to him [the person who recorded David’s life], “Would you like God to act like David?” he would say, “No.” But, he is magnificent. The details of the encounters that he has with other human beings, women and men, is just stunning in that you have such a portrait of an entire life of a complex man from thousands of years ago much more than people who haven’t read the book would expect.

King David in Prayer, painted by Pieter de Grebber in 1635.

OR: I think the original know for the Hebrew God, Yahweh, effectively means that he can become whatever he needs to for the sake of his people.

DW: That’s one interpretation. It’s an indefinite statement of being, so sometimes’ its translated as “I will be what I will be.”

OR: Is that partly what we’re seeing from David as a reflection of God?

DW: What you see in David is the fullness of possibility in the human, which means, in part, the enormity of possibility that God has placed in use and in that sense yes, the fuller the human being is the fuller the revelation of God that a person brings into the world.

OR: You talk a lot about how David had a divided heart. In fact, I think it’s the subtitle of the book. His heart being divided was part of what made him human, yet God says many times that he’s a jealous God and that he wants exclusive devotion from his followers. How do we reconcile that fact with the fact that David had a divided heart, but was certainly beloved by God? That’s what his name even means.

DW: It’s a beautiful question. What I would say is that any party who believes in God and understands what God asks of us will realize that it’s impossible. That’s part of the design, that we’re not supposed to be able to fulfill God’s expectations in this world. But, that’s not a failure, its’ a destination. If you could actually perfect yourself then we would all be done and that would be it. Instead, the best we can do is improve ourselves. I don’t believe God looks for perfection. God looks for the willing and striving heart.

OR: Is the primary lesson, then, that the more we understand humanity, the more we understand ourselves and the more we understand about God, since we are created in God’s image?

DW: Yes. That’s basically my theology in the book. David has the greatest realization of the range of the human that he covers as much of the penumbra of human characteristics as any single human being. That gives us the greatest insight into the multitude of God’s creation.

I say that a little bit reluctantly because this isn’t so much what this is about, but I remind my students all the time that when you were two years old you couldn’t possibly imagine what it is to be a teenager and no idea at all what it is to be a twenty-year-old or a fifty-year-old. In the Jewish tradition, the distance between God and us is infinitely greater than the distance between a two-year-old and a fifty-year-old. So, every time I make a statement about God, I’m aware of my own insufficiency.

To those who are either atheists or believers who also believe in evolution, which I wouldn’t say I’m a believer in, I would say that I’m convinced of because of the overwhelming evidence of evolution, that if you think about the human brain, it’s sort of a jerry-rigged mechanism for survival by evolution. The idea that we can discover truth is a very strange idea because our brain isn’t designed to learn abstract truths, it was designed to survive on the savannah. Given that there is a God, my ability to comprehend God is going to be pretty inadequate.

Moses Views the Promised Land, painted by Frederick Edwin Church in 1846. It is based upon the account found in Deuteronomy chapter 34.

OR: I think I read that they were making a movie from the book. Is that still the case?

DW: In theory, yes. It was purchased by Warner Brothers. They had a script and then they had another script. Such things go on in this city apparently all the time. I don’t know whether a movie will ever get made, but maybe one day. You and I may be retired before it happens, though.

OR: Switching gears somewhat, you’ve traveled to Israel quite a few times and led groups through there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most complicated situations of our time and it feels like we’re moving backwards there rather than forwards.

DW: When I first started to go to Israel, the relations between Israelis and Palestinians was actually better than it is now and there was more interaction than there is now. I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anybody who’s witnessed the radicalization of some of the Islamic world that it has happened unfortunately among many Palestinians as well. There are two problems: a minor problem and a major problem.

The minor problem is that it’s important to be self-critical because often Israel has not done as much as it could to promote better goodwill between the two peoples. But, that’s not the major problem. The major problem is that I think a large majority of Palestinians don’t believe that Israel has a right to exist and certainly not to exist there.

Many times I’ve been involved in discussions and debates with advocates for the Palestinian cause and I pose them the following question. If tomorrow the Palestinians had the firepower of the Israelis and the Israelis had the firepower of the Palestinians, how long do you think it would be before every Jew in Israel was massacred? I have never had anyone say to me, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.” As long as that’s true, then the world has to realize that Israel has little choice.

How do you empower a people if you know that many of them have the deepest wish of destroying you. You can say that Israel should do this or that, but it wouldn’t change the basic reality that you can only make peace with people who accept your existence.

 

Scenes of the Israel and Palestinian conflict. Top, two Palestinian fighters with a young boy. Bottom, an Israeli soldier fires at protesters near Bethlehem in the West Bank in 2015.

 

OR: I think that’s self-evident. I wouldn’t disagree with much of that. I grow a little frustrated with Israeli settlements, but I agree with you that the other side is very hard to come to terms with even though it’s not all Palestinians who feel this way.

DW: No, not all. But too many to take that risk. If there was a jihadi state on the Mexican border or the Canadian border, what do you think America would do. We know exactly what America would do. One of the things we would not do is endlessly negotiate. After all, don’t forget that Palestinians are two different entities. There’s the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and there’s Hamas running Gaza. Hamas in their charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

OR: It’s a heartbreaking situation. I don’t check Hamas’ website often, but I think at one time they had the Protocol of the Elders of Zion on the front page.

DW: It would not surprise me.

The Hamas Culture Minister, Atallah Abu Al-Subh, reads from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The text is a fabrication that originated in Russia in the early twentieth century and then exported to various areas of the world, including Nazi Germany and later, parts of the Middle East. The document claims to record the meeting minutes of a Jewish plan to take over the world through control of the press and economy. It is believed that the individuals responsible for the Russian pogroms of 1903 to 1906 also fabricated the document.

OR: The sad thing about the situation is that like in most situations, there’s a lot of innocent people who are dying for the sake of somebody’s idea. And that’s very sad.

I read that you have a decent sized Iranian contingent in your congregation.

DW: Yes.

OR: I wanted to get your thoughts on how the congregation related to each other or discussions that took place that might have come about in the last few years regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

DW: It’s interesting. The majority of my congregants who are Iranian were opposed to the nuclear deal because it they did not believe that the government with whom we were negotiating was trustworthy and they thought that they would find a way around the agreement and they were especially concerned as I was because the agreement was front loaded. They got a tremendous amount right at the signing and that lowered the incentive to keep complying with the agreement.

The IAEA, which is the international body that watches such things, just issued a report that Iran is substantially still in compliance with the agreement. So, I don’t know how that will be received by most. Most of the Iranians in our congregation lost everything in 1979 and 1980 when the Shah fell. They are deeply suspicious of the probity and decency of the Iranian regime and for good reason.

OR: Perhaps there are some parallels to the Cuban community in Miami?

DW: I have been told that that is a valid comparison. I don’t know the Cuban community well, only what I read about them. But, I’ve been told by people who know both communities that there are a lot of similarities.

OR: More recently I’ve felt as though maybe I’ve been a bit naive. Anti-Semitism and racism that we saw in the past, I hoped had been relegated to the fringe. The recent events in Charlottesville were quite disturbing. I wanted to get your thoughts on that and understand if you feel we’re at risk for resurgent anti-Semitism.

DW: I would say that the most disturbing thing about Charlottesville and what the future may hold is that there were anti-Semitic groups on both sides. Obviously there were Nazis there. For me, they are the greatest source of dismay and disturbance, but it’s not as though everybody who opposed Nazism also opposed anti-Semitism. So, yes, it’s worrisome. I don’t believe I have a great deal of faith in the solidity of the American system and one of the reasons why I don’t believe that anti-Semitism will take hold here the way it did in Europe is that all Jews were always the single identifiable minority. There were Frenchman and there were Jews. There were Germans and there were Jews. But, in America there are so many different minorities that it acts as a protection against every minority because it’s not as though all of us are gang up on that one minority.

Anti-Semitism is the most durable hatred in the history of mankind and is always something that deserves watching. I really do believe that in America Jews have many, many serious, thoughtful, and courageous allies. I’m both optimistic and also vaguely grateful that in the long history of Jewish suffering my Family and I were lucky enough to be born in this nation.

OR: As far as anti-Semitism on the left, do you think that’s stemming from such a visceral critique of the nation of Israel that is spills over into how some people view individuals?

DW: I would say that if your critique of Israel is disproportionate, if you don’t have anything to say about the Chinese in Tibet or what’s going on in Myanmar you don’t care what Hindus and Muslims do to each other in India, but you think everything Israel does is an outrage, then there’s only one explanation to me about why Israel gets treated differently. If it’s not anti-Semitism, then I’m at a loss to figure out what other motivation there could be for this almost unimaginable disproportionate condemnation.

OR: It’s surprising to me that the achievements of Israel are not acknowledged more than they are. Just surviving would be an achievement in that environment. But, out of almost nowhere a country came into existence and in just a generation has some of the finest universities in the world, extraordinary tech research, a very rich artistic and literary tradition. I don’t think many people know that.

DW: Outside of the United States, the greatest number of software start-ups in the world is in Israel and Israel has a population of eight-and-a-half million people. It has more software start-ups than Russia or China or India and it’s about the size of Los Angeles. It’s an extraordinary country and it’s been one under the constant threat of destruction. It gets you thinking about what it means to live every single day knowing that when you grow up you are going into the army because there’s no choice. These are not normal circumstances.

The writer David Grossman, whose son was killed in the Lebanese War and is himself a noted leftist in Israel wrote in The New Yorker that before our children learn the facts of life, they learn the facts of war.

OR: Do you have any thoughts on Prime Minister Netanyahu at the moment and the corruption allegations against him?

DW: I have many thoughts. What I would say is that ultimately democracy is fragile and I hope that whatever becomes of the accusations that the Israeli democracy will emerge robust. Many years ago in Israel, the president was accused and convicted and jailed for sexual harassment. The judge who sentenced him was a female Arab judge. Where else in the world would you see that? So, I have a lot of faith in the integrity of the Israeli system. It doesn’t mean it always works well, but on balance it’s an extraordinary place.

OR: Before I let you go, would you mind if I asked about you personally and how your health has been?

DW: That’s very kind of you. I’ve had a couple of bouts of cancer. I had a brain tumor and I’ve had lymphoma. But these days, I seem to be doing just fine. So far, so good. I’m trying to not think about it so I can enjoy my life every day. Should it recur, I’ll deal with it when it does. After all, I certainly do believe that my life has been far more showered with blessings than with challenges.

OR: I’m very glad to hear that. Thanks so much for the conversation and best of luck to you.

Rabbi Wolpe speaking about his book on David.

 

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