Irwin Kula is an eighth-generation rabbi who has led congregations both in the United States and in Israel. Now, his congregation is the world. His thoughtful television series "Simple Wisdom with Irwin Kula" addresses the spiritual questions and challenges of everyday life.
Kula is also an award-winning author, and the president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, known by its Hebrew acronym, CLAL. Although the simple meaning of the word clal is 'the whole,' or 'the entire,' Kula explains, "it's also a way of saying that Jewish wisdom can reach and be accessible to anyone on the planet,… especially non-Jews. The challenge of this moment in human history where so many boundaries are coming down is 'Can we actually share our wisdom and can we share our practices with other people?'" He emphasizes that the motivation behind his teaching is not to try to convert Gentiles to Judaism, and not because he believes Jews are a hundred percent right, "but because these practices work for us to help us have better lives."
As an example, Kula points to the Jewish wedding custom, where the groom breaks a glass underfoot, and everyone yells mazel tov! meaning 'congratulations!' Kula says that practice may be Jewish, but its message is universal. "It's saying 'Here, two people have fallen in love. Everything looks so perfect.' But let me tell you the truth about love. Love doesn't remain perfect." He asserts, in other words, that there are going to be "broken glass and broken hearts" in any marriage. "But the real issue is, do you understand that a broken heart can be an invitation to deeper intimacy? This is a practice that has a lesson to anybody. Because every human being wants to love more deeply."
In his book "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life," Kula shows that any truth that we can express or think we know is just part of the picture. This was an idea Kula and his five brothers learned time and again from their mother, whom they often asked to settle their arguments and fights. He recalls, "The only thing that was 100 percent clear was that whatever story you told her, my mother was going to say was 'Okay, that's definitely a partial truth. Now let me hear the other side.'" However, he adds, if one boy's partial truth ending up creating conflict, or caused him to hurt another, "she'd say 'Something is wrong. So go back and figure it out!'"
Kula says that that childhood lesson did not make him a relativist. "I am a religious person," he says, "and I do believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. But I'm a finite human being and so I don't have access to the entire thing."
In 1988, when Kula first began work at CLAL, its sole focus was security – for the Jewish people, their culture and their religion. However, on 9-11, as Kula watched the collapse of the World Trade Center, his first unbidden thought was, "Religion did this; only religion is capable of so much evil and so much good." That realization produced an inner crisis, and – for a traditional rabbi like him – a startling decision.
"I will no longer teaching Judaism again as an identity, as something that helps Jews become more Jewish, more clubby, more tribal," he concluded. "I love the Jewish people. But we need less of that on the planet right now. What is needed, are people who can teach their religious wisdom and practices with love and compassion [in ways] that can help anybody, no matter who they are. And the first person these 'wisdom practices' have to work for is the teacher."
Kula began to sift through the scores of Jewish religious practices to see which ones promoted self-awareness and connection with others. He kept those that did and jettisoned the others. He also began to widen the focus of his organization's teaching to include non-Jews. And when Kula visited a church for the first time, and saw the statue of Jesus on the cross, bleeding heart aflame and encircled by thorns, he had a second life-changing experience.
"I had this intuition all of a sudden of 'Oh my God! What if my heart was so open that I could feel the pain of every single living thing on the planet?'" The immensity of that concept caused him to weep. "I realized 'That's what the 'sacred heart' is!' That's why the heart is exploding and bleeding. It's cosmic mercy, infinite mercy!" Kula stresses that he did not become Catholic that day, "but I realized that there is so much to learn from other traditions."
What's more, that insight enhanced Kula's Judaism. From that day on, he says, the Hebrew word Rachamim – The Merciful One, referring to God – which is mentioned at least 15 times a day in the prayer liturgy, had a profound new significance for him. "From understanding something from someone else's tradition, I became more of who I am."
Rabbi Kula is now a leading voice for religious pluralism, and a Jewish ambassador to the world's other religions. He has conducted a Passover Seder, the Jewish ritual meal of hope and freedom, in the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, and has shared a stage with the Dalai Lama.
He has also held highly public conversations with Queen Noor of Jordan and the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on the subject of "compassionate leadership," which he defines as "compassion that is so powerful, so risky and so fierce, it becomes a story to be told that can transform other people."
Somewhat surprisingly, the man who has been called 'one of the new leaders shaping the American spiritual landscape' says while there are commonalities in all faiths, it's not the commonalities that interest him the most. "What's common is obvious," he asserts with a smile. "What's really interesting is how to live with difference."