So the image of people falling out of the building was just horrifying. I think
it was horrid. But as I processed the horror, we were all falling out of
buildings, in that respect. And I felt that, [but] not in the head. I felt that
in the heart. I felt that in my body. ...
In relation to this "shadow side of religion," you've said Sept. 11 has
produced a crisis in you. What questions do you have now about this shadow side
... Sept. 11 happened at a moment in which I was asking some very basic
questions about where Judaism was going, where the Jewish people was going, and
having this feeling that somehow so much of what was going on in Jewish life
was a narrowing. So much of Jewish life and so much of Jewish identity was
being created off of a dismissal or an objectifying of the other. "We're
'not-this.' We're against intermarriage, we're against Palestinians." Whatever
"it" was, it's against something. ...
But 9/11, I think, ratcheted it up for me. All of a sudden, I said, "Wow. I
know how dark religion is." I've been teaching for a long time that religions
can do a lot of damage. In the early parts of my rabbinate, the 55-year-olds
(and I was 25 at the time) would say, "Rabbi. You know religion killed more
people than anything else." I probably heard that for the first four, five, six
years of my career. Then I didn't hear it. I didn't hear it.
When 9/11 happened, it's the first thing I thought of within those first few
days: "Wow. Religion still is pretty murderous when it comes down to it. It's
really pretty murderous." Then the president used the word "crusade." I'm not
saying he meant crusade that way. But the words that come out of our mouths do
reflect some deep place in who we are. ...
The truth is, in the West, religion got put in its place. It got put in a
private space, away from being able to affect and do any more damage than it
had already done. Here we call it the separation of church and state. We had a
French revolution, an American Revolution. So religion, when it's put in its
place -- in the privacy of your home, not outside in the public square -- then
it's OK. Let it do some nice stuff to your family. But let it out of that box,
and look what it does.
I ask myself, what do I have to start teaching in Judaism? Because it's not at
all clear to me that the way we Jews are living right now, as it's expressed in
the state of Israel and it's expressed in some of our attitudes regarding
gentiles here in this country. No, we're not killing anybody here, but it's the
same impulse. Religion becomes this odd way of buttressing your tribal identity
and affirming your tribal identity. ... It's almost as if you externalize this
God "out there," and then you decide if you believe in that God, you're on the
inside. If you don't, you're on the outside.
I know deep down that that's not true. I haven't had the courage to teach that.
And when I say, "true," [I mean] true to my experience. ...
You've said Sept. 11 was a crisis for you. What did you see, what did you
hear that created this upheaval? ...
... I realized that this is really fundamentally a religious issue, and if
religious people don't confront this, and if we don't confront this as a
religious issue ... that we were going to miss the boat on this, and this would
reappear somewhere else. We will close the window here and it will come through
the door. We'll close the door and it will come through the window.
When the president said, "This is not a religious issue," that's when I knew it
actually was a religious issue. At the same time that Osama bin Laden and that
group of people were claiming this was religious, we were claming it's not, but
finishing every single sentence with "God bless America." I remember every
seventh-inning stretch that had a "God bless America," and my body, literally
... I felt like I was repulsed. I was repulsed that basically all we were doing
is, everybody was trotting out their own God.
So we, in America, were trotting out our God -- that's the God of sports,
that's the God who comes in and says everything's good. You'll score a
touchdown, you'll score, and your army will win. God bless America.
And they were trotting out their God. What really was the difference? Three
weeks earlier, everybody was saying it's all the same God. It's all the same
God, these monotheist Gods. So if it's all the same God, how come one God kills
and one God affirms? I said, "I will never teach about that God again, because
that's what that God does."
It was as superficial to say "God bless America" at the end of the presidential
speech, as it was dangerous to say, "Our God commanded us to fly into the
buildings." I'm still trying to figure out what to do with that realization, in
all honesty, because I can't even pray to that God any more.
[I was] a person who got up every morning, every single morning, and put on ...
my prayer garment, and would pray. Now I can't do that, because that God I
don't believe in; I haven't believed in that God in a long time. But I really
don't believe in that God now. ... I mean, everywhere that I go is this
seventh-inning stretch, God bless America. Well, "God bless America" and "God
bless Saudi Arabia" is the same thing. God is God. So we're probably all off on
this God, and now we see what this God does, or we see what belief in this God
That's a pretty serious crisis, since I'm supposed to be teaching.
Now, internally with the Jewish people, I felt another thing. The people who
were believing most clearly in this kind of God and in this understanding of
how the world works -- we ourselves were doing bad things. It was the most
narrow perception of what the human community is about. And I knew that, too.
I've known this for a long time, because I grew up very seriously in a
traditional community. I know the beauty of the traditional community. They
have a sense of community that no one has. But I also knew the dark side of
that community is what it means to be outside that community. If you "buy in,"
you're saved. If you don't, you're damned.
Anything that produces that kind of policy, anything that produces that kind of
feeling, I'm not going to teach anymore. Because every time I taught it in the
past -- and you can teach it lightly and still do damage -- anytime I taught
that, I contributed to this moment. I contributed to this moment. ...
When those planes go in, was that what made you start questioning the dark
side of religion? What is it about this thirst for the absolute, whether you're
a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, whatever? ...
When those planes went in, I had no idea who initially did it, and that didn't
even come to mind. Within about 15, 20 minutes, the TV commentator said, "Islam
...We think this is Islamic terrorists," et cetera. I remember turning to a guy
I was with, and I said, "You see. This is what religion is really about." It
slipped out of my mouth, and this was [to] a person who's contributing to our
organization. That's not good that that's sliding out of your mouth. "This is
what religion really does."
It recalled for me in the last decade or so how many people I have met on a
personal level who have been hurt by Judaism. It went from very, very big to
very, very small. People who have been told they're not part of this community
because they won't observe in a certain way. People who have been told that
they've been traitors to the community because they've intermarried. People who
have been told that they're outside, excluded, peripheral, because they're
affiliated with some institution. ...
Somehow, religion creates these boundaries. ... The experience of religion, or
the experience behind religion -- for me, anyhow, that's why I got into this --
the experience was that there are no boundaries. The experience is that all
those boundaries are an illusion. The experience is that even my life is very,
very temporal. It's very, very insignificant in the larger drama, the cosmos.
So what is going on? How did religion become this? How did it become this? Even
on their side, the Islamic side, OK, it became very violent. But on our side,
it was becoming violent in a different way. It was becoming violent in a way
that abused individual people. ... It became individual. ... I didn't even know
how to go into the organized community after that. I didn't speak in the
community for a month. ...
I actually spoke towards the end. ... I was invited. I had a speech that I was
previously engaged to do. I went in and I said, "I can't teach what I was going
to teach. So here's what I'm going to do."
I chanted the final phone conversations -- The New York Times
recorded a lot of final phone conversations, because we have voice mail now,
and there were some email conversations. I took a chant from the tradition
that's done specifically regarding a piece of Scripture that we recite [about
the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem centuries ago] ... I took that
chant, and I said, "Here's the Torah of the day" and I chanted them. They were
very simple. "I love you." "I want you to always be happy." "Please say
good-bye to our daughter." "Mommy, I want you to know I love you," by a
And I recognized [that] here's where the real Torah is.
At that moment of confronting your death, the real Torah, the real wisdom, the
real religious tradition, the real experience behind religion, is about love.
It is about connection, and it is no more complicated than that. As a rabbi, my
community of rabbis, and I think priests, ministers, monks -- we've made it a
lot more complicated than it is. When you make it more complicated than it is,
you lose the experience. ...
There were about 150 people in the room. ... The weird thing was that, chanting
that, in a very traditional melody, ... within 10 seconds of chanting it, we
were all, including the cantor, weeping. So you recognized, you pushed through
something. This is what the religious experience is about. Now let's go back
and see, from this religion, what actually does that and what doesn't.
That's the cleansing that these religions need to have again. Islam has to go
through a larger one, I think, at the moment. But that's only because it hasn't
gone through the first one.
When you look at this shadow side of religion -- Christian, Jewish, Islamic
-- do you find the shadows both in the text and in their history as
Yes. In the texts, ... these dark sides didn't know exactly what evil is and
exactly what good is. ... Evil is always someone else. ... Evil is always the
infidel. Evil is always the person that's not believing what you're believing.
[That] is in these texts at the core. And the reason that they're in the text
at the core is because they're in us at the core. ... Ideally, they're in the
text so that we could recognize them in ourselves, and do some of the cleansing
internally, right? Instead, we very often use them as "legitimations" for what
it is we're feeling. They're not legitimations. They're supposed to remind us,
"Whoa. This is what human beings are capable of."...
We have it in our text. ... When we entered Israel, there's a story that we
tell. We tell our kids this story. We wiped out all the Canaanites because they
didn't worship our God. So we wiped them out. Now, you tell a "wipe out the
Canaanite" story for enough years and then the fact is, when you have the
opportunity to wipe someone else out, someone in your community will make the
analogy between Canaanites and whoever you have to wipe out now. So those are
inside of every tradition. Every tradition has someone who's damned. Those are
the shadow sides.
Focusing on the Judaic tradition, what are some of the darker stories that
trouble you personally?
One of the dark stories in our tradition that we celebrate every single year,
which I will not be able to celebrate this year, actually comes in March. It's
a festival called "Purim." Purim is a festival in which the Persians wanted to
kill the Jews ... [and] we wound up winning. At the end of the Scripture, the
scroll of Esther says in the ninth chapter, "And we went to war. And we killed
75,000 of them. And there were no casualties on our side."
That fantasy of destroying the "other" as a way to deal with your own
powerlessness is fine, I guess, when you're powerless. But when you're
powerful, that's a tradition that needs to be cleansed. You simply cannot teach
that tradition, chant that tradition, in the same way. If you're very
traditional, you can chant the tradition, but then you've got to address it and
say, "This is something we will never do again, and that's why we chant it." If
you're not traditional, and you want to eliminate it, I understand that you
have to eliminate it. But you simply can't chant it in 2002 the same way you
chanted it a hundred years ago. ...
One of the things that's happened to me since 9/11 is texts that I don't think
I was sensitive to, holidays that we celebrate that I don't think I was
sensitive to -- the full dimensions of the dark side of those holidays, or the
dark sides of those texts -- all of a sudden are kind of lifted out and
exploding around me.
I'll give you an example. Passover, right in the middle of the Passover
celebration, the Passover seder table, Jews fill a cup of wine and we chant a
paragraph that says, "Pour out your wrath on the nations of their world." Well,
I cannot say that this year. Because saying, "Pour out your wrath" to a God is
really an invitation to me and to my people to pour out our wrath against the
people that we think are the nations of the world that are against us.
That is not the way we can deal with things, with the kind of power and the
kind of technology, the kind of capacities that we have now. We have to find an
alternative way to deal with each other. That's not what the genuine religious
experience is about, anyhow. No one comes out of a genuine religious experience
and says, "Now I have to kill the other."
... So all of a sudden, at least for me in my tradition -- and I recognize that
other people are going to read it differently -- whether it's a text in the
Torah that talks about killing the other, whether it's a holiday that
celebrates our victory on the backs of someone, or whether it's a Passover
seder in which we give over our greatest fantasies that all of our enemies be
killed, it's also very dangerous. You have to know who your enemies are before
you say something like that. ...
Take us through four sort of archetypal stories that you have been thinking
about differently since Sept. 11.
... To start right from the very beginning, because one of the first Torah
portions that came post-Sept. 11 in the cycle was the very beginning of
Genesis, in which you have Adam and Eve. They disobey and you have a God that
casts them out. However we minimize those in our traditions and we try to make
it nice, the basic text is that you have a God who gets angry and who casts you
out. I can't teach about a God who casts out anymore, because I know what's
going to happen. We'll interject it and bring it inside of us and we'll begin
casting out people from the Gardens of Edens that we think we created.
So I can't teach that anymore. It just creates bad karma, to mix a metaphor.
Rather than finding what the answer was, because I don't think I have answers
yet, I would open up these texts and say, "Look. Here's what I can't believe
anymore. It's not true to my experience. My experience is there's no God out
there who casts me out of Eden. My experience is it was a great moment of
enlightenment in which Eve had to grow up and Adam had to grow up. What do we
think?" What's amazing is how people are ready to take a text more seriously
when you open it up and don't teach either a literal interpretation or a
conventional commentator's interpretation. ...
Another text that was very difficult to teach was the binding of Isaac, or the
near-sacrifice of Isaac, in the book of Genesis. Here we were, reading this
text just five, six days after 9/11. The most obvious or overt interpretation
of that text, and there are tons of interpretations, is you have a God who
commands Abraham, as a sign of faith, to kill his son. [That] reads all the way
to Kierkegaard, that this is the great moment of faith. That's in all of our
You wonder, post-9/11, is that what you want to teach? Even if you could find
the justification for it? Commentators across the board have always found
justifications. I, in previous years, found justifications for it. I came to
the congregation and said, "I want to tell you, here's the justification I used
last year. Here's the justification I used the year before. But I have no
justifications now. Is this the world we want to live in?" ...
What's another story that's very troubling post-Sept. 11?
Well, I think, for me, post 9/11, there is a whole other category of stories
that is specifically for the Jewish community. That's all the stories that deal
with the conquering of the land of Israel, when we enter the land post-exodus,
post-Sinai, post-wandering Sinai. All of those texts tend to be very violent
texts. They all revolve around the Israelites entering the land and having to
wipe out people who disagreed with them. People who worshiped "Baal," ... or
the Canaanite gods.
While I understand that text and I used to teach it, "Well, it was a different
age. We really didn't kill everybody. We now know from historical analyses that
these texts were not literally true." The very fact that we teach a text where
conquering another land and wiping out another people is something that is
considered appropriate and good and even commanded by God -- I think we can't
teach that anymore. Or, if we teach it, we have to teach it with critique. We
have to teach it with wrestling against it. We have to teach it, not as
precedent, but something to get better at.
Specifically, for the Jewish people right now, we've returned to our land.
We've returned to the land of Israel over the last 50 years. You can see that
the full range of possibilities in these texts that couldn't be played out for
most of Jewish history can now be played out. You could begin to think that an
Arab is a Canaanite, or a Palestinian is a Canaanite. It's not a small leap to
see them as the enemy -- mythically, psychologically, existentially. ...
Let's go back and touch on something else, which is the dismantling for a
lot of people -- not everybody -- of their own personal image of God, with the
attributes they give God: the God who saves; the God who consoles; the God who
intervenes in history; the imperial God; the weak God. I know that words are
inadequate. ... But before Sept. 11, what was your idea of God in the most
personal way? How did you conceive of him or her?
Actually, nothing really changed between 9/11 and post-9/11 regarding how I
felt about God. What changed is what I was willing to be courageous enough to
teach. This is both incredibly disheartening in some ways, and also liberating.
Before 9/11, already for many, many years, I did not believe in the popular
voyeuristic God who watches what we do from outside. That died. That image died
for me a long time ago.
What I believed in is the experiences that we name "God." Those experiences
were the experience of love and experience of connection and the experience of
caring and the experience of feeling both small and large. The experiences of
connection, fundamentally. Those experiences, I recognize, are what I call
"God." I want as many of those experiences -- I'm hungry for those experiences,
I'm even greedy for those experiences -- because they make me a better human
being. They almost always have been in relationships.
Pre-9/11, I knew that. I never taught that. I always equivocated. I always
found ways to say, "Well, that's not the important question right now," when
people asked what I believed. I knew that, within the community that I teach,
if I actually said what I actually believe. ... If I actually said that, I
might actually be thrown out. I'd be told, "No. No. You're not really a rabbi.
Rabbis have to believe in God." I believe in God. I just don't believe in the
God you believe in. So 9/11 has given me the courage, in an odd way, to
actually teach what I experience, as opposed to teach what I think I'm supposed
to teach. ...
There will be people in your congregation who would say you're an
Right. ... I mean, it's funny you should say that, because actually I've been
called an atheist quite a few times in the last 10 weeks. You have to develop
some pat responses to "atheist." What I say to people is, "I have an atheism,
but it beams with holiness."
But atheism is the greatest cleanser. Atheism may be the most religious posture
in a moment in which either most people think they have to believe in something
they don't believe in, or, the people that actually believe in that God are
doing so much damage. So maybe atheism is the great corrective right now, and
is actually the most religious response.
Anyway, from my tradition's perspective, God was always invisible. God, you
never used words for. Whatever words you used for God never adequately
described that God. So for me, that's actually, I think, a return to the
truest, most genuine understanding of our tradition. We had a God you couldn't
see. We had a God you couldn't name. We had a God whose name was, "Yahweh," or
But I do think that every religious tradition has two levels, you know? The
fancy language is the "exoteric" and the "esoteric." You've always had a part
of the tradition that's taught out to the masses. And you've always had a
mystical part of the tradition that, in almost all traditions, was never
taught. In our tradition, you're not allowed to learn the mystical tradition
until you're 40 years old. Well, the mystical traditions all provide that
For me, that there's something "out there" and that I'm here no longer meant
anything, because every time I thought there was something out there, it turns
into inevitably something opposed to me. Something I have to define myself
against, whether that's God, or whether that's a Christian, or whether that's a
Muslim, or whether that's a Buddhist. And that's not my experience.
My genuine experience of life is that there is nothing "out there." This is all
there is. And when you see the seamlessness of it all, that's what I mean by
"God." Every tradition has that. Every morning, three times a day since I'm
five or six years old, I've been saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God,
the Lord is One." Right? It's one of our few creedal statements, the Shema.
Three times a day, since I'm six years old.
If you ask what 9/11 really did, it made me understand the truth of that. The
truth of that, "Everything is one." Not that there's some guy hanging out there
who has it all together, who we call "One," but that it is all one. We all know
it deep down. We've all had those experiences. whether it's looking at our
child in a crib or whether it's looking at our lover or looking at a
mountaintop, or looking at a sunset. Right? We've all had those experiences.
And we recognize, "Whoa. I'm much more connected here."
That's what those firemen had. They recognized; they didn't have time to think
about it, right? Because actually, if you think about it, you begin to create
separations. They didn't think about it. All they knew is we're absolutely
connected. We're absolutely connected to the 86th floor. Well, that's where God
is. That's not where God is. God isn't anywhere. That's what we mean when we
say God. ...
One thing that happened post-9/11 which actually surprised me was that I really
didn't walk into a synagogue for six weeks. I felt myself so opposite what was
going on in America, because the newspapers were covering in America that there
was this return to churches and return to synagogue for the kind of comfort
that religion can give. And I felt, how could I get comfort, since all
religions are in this together? If one religion really goes off the deep end,
we're related, especially the three monotheistic religions.
I kept asking myself, "If this is happening in Islam, I'm not ready to go to
synagogue to pray. ... We say we have the same God. I'm not willing to go into
that same kind of understanding of what religion's supposed to do. It's
supposed to make us a cohesive group and give us unity and make us feel
connected to a community. I'm not going to do that, because what if religion
actually makes us communities that do a lot of bad things?" So I stayed away
for six weeks.
Eventually, those are my communities, and the Jewish community is my community,
so I did reenter, though it's still been very difficult. I don't go every week,
even to this day. This has nothing to do with whether I pray or not. It's the
role of religion in forming my group identity, and whether that's really a good
thing right now. Maybe a group identity needs to be created by something far
less volatile. Religion is institutionalized spirituality, but is really much
more an individual thing. When it gets connected to the group, it does
potentially very bad things.
Also, for a good four to six weeks, I really didn't go out on the road and
teach. I felt I didn't know yet, "How do I teach this religion, these texts,
these traditions, in light of what happened 9/11?" I can't teach them in any
way that makes us feel special. I can't teach them in any way that makes us,
Jews, feel chosen. I can't teach them in any way that makes us feel extra love,
more than some other community, some other people, some other group. How do I
teach them just from a place that they'll add value to your life? Either
they'll add value to your life, or don't do them. ...
I didn't know how to teach from that place, because so much of my training, and
so much of my thinking about Judaism, and so much of what compelled me to teach
Judaism, was to try to make you more Jewish; not on the evangelical side of
going to non-Jews and trying to make them more Jewish, but to Jews. ...
Did you go to Ground Zero? ... Take us back to that and what you saw, and
how it affected you.
That Friday -- this is interesting, really -- I felt that I could not go into
the Sabbath without going to Ground Zero. I felt the Sabbath was, in some
respects, the exact opposite of what Ground Zero was. For me, the Sabbath is
where life wins out. The Sabbath is where all the good possibilities in life
are there. In our tradition, it's a commandment to make love on the Sabbath. So
that's what the Sabbath is about.
But Ground Zero was a hundred blocks from where I lived. How could I be in the
same place? Not only that. By that day, on the upper West Side, we were already
smelling -- I don't know what it was -- the terrible, terrible odors, all the
way on 104th Street. This was very shocking. It's one thing when you were down
So I said, "I have to go to Ground Zero." I went with a friend, a colleague
from the office. I think that we started off as tourists, in a way, and felt a
little guilty about being tourists, and this was before it was really touristy.
Of course, we couldn't even get down close. We wound up walking kind of side
roads and then saying we were rabbis, so we got into Ground Zero about two
blocks away from Ground Zero.
I do not remember anything but standing in the same place and crying. I don't
remember one thing. I can't tell you now, really. And I went back after about
two weeks later. But things were already quite different after two weeks. I
don't remember what I thought. I don't remember what I felt. I just remember
standing in the exact same place and weeping until somebody, some policeman or
something, tapped me and said, "Are you OK?" Then my colleague and I walked up
70 blocks. I don't remember anything. ...
Could you just indulge me? ... I would love to hear you sing that particular
Torah of the last words. ...
These are final conversations that were recorded on cell phones, recorded on
voice mail. They seem to me to be incredible texts, because they were at the
moment of confronting life or death. They're so pure about the expression of
love between husband and wife, between mother and child. ... When I read them,
I just felt they were texts as sacred as the text that we end up having
recorded, that we transmit from generation to generation.
I read these every single morning now, or most mornings, because they remind me
that whatever my tradition is about; it's about this. It's about being able to
express love. It's about being able to understand, taking care of our children.
It's about being in real, genuine friendships. They just seem so real to me.
I know all these chants, because my father is a cantor. He transmitted all
these ancient Jewish chants to me, so they almost naturally came out in chant.
I realized, "My God, the chant that we use to read one of the Scriptures that
tells the story of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the burning
down of that temple, those chants fit this perfectly," although that's not how
I thought about it. The chant came and then I said the chant worked, which, of
course, is the way a good tradition works. The chant has made them even more
alive to me and then links these new texts to my traditional text, even though
I don't know these people. But the fact is, we all knew these people in our own
"Honey. Something terrible is happening. I don't think I'm going to make it. I
love you. Take care of the children."
"Hey, Jules. It's Brian. I'm on the plane and it's hijacked and it doesn't look
good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you, and I hope to see you
again. If I don't, please have fun in life, and live life the best you can.
Know that I love you, and no matter what, I'll see you again."
"Mommy. The building is on fire. There's smoke coming through the walls. I
can't breathe. I love you, Mommy. Good-bye."
"I love you a thousand times over and over. I love and need whatever decisions
you make in your lives. I need you to be happy, and I will respect any
decisions you make."
When I chant these, there's this mix of real sadness, because I think how many
of these people probably, like me, didn't say some of these things prior to
that moment. Then the second thing I think is how -- I get goosebumps, actually
-- when you chant a text from the Torah, you have to get it just right, because
it's holy. Getting it just right means you have to take it seriously. So when I
chant this, I think about, "Well, what it would mean to actually make sure I
feel this and say this?" post-chanting it. ...
It's incredibly life-affirming, because it's knowledge from the Ground Zero.
It's knowledge from real experience, and that's what religion always was about
to me, [and] I think I got away from that. That was from the head; 9/11 is
about being from the heart.
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