Joining The Spiritual Conversation


Rabbi Irwin Kula, Jewish scholar in Manhattan, received an e-mail message this week from a stranger in Albany, someone with a clearly non-Jewish name. The writer complimented the rabbi for a lesson about the symbolism of the glass broken at a Jewish wedding.

The lesson came in a television show, "The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula," which was carried on Sunday on Albany’s public television station.

"I don’t know why I watched you on PBS instead of football like I do every Sunday," the stranger wrote, "but I appreciated your message and never thought twice about the touchdowns I might have missed."

That e-mail, says Rabbi Kula, 48, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, showed that the program, which will premiere on Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. on WNET-Channel 13, reached its intended audience: Americans, Jews and non-Jews, who are receptive to Judaism’s spiritual messages.

The TV special, which is being carried on various dates this month by public television stations around the country during their annual fund-raising season, grew out of the rabbi’s recent book, "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life" (Hyperion). The program, which mirrors the book’s central message, that yearnings for such ideals as love and meaning are the most "defining human experience," marks the first such show on public television devoted to Jewish teachings, Rabbi Kula says. He appears as an in-studio guest during the program’s four fundraising breaks, taking part in discussions with WNET representatives; he’ll participate in similar live discussions this month at nine other Public Broadcasting Systems stations around the U.S.

"It’s never been done on public television," Rabbi Kula says. "It’s the first time Jewish wisdom is being taken public at this level." About 90 percent of public television stations are running "Hidden Wisdom," he says.

Rabbi Kula follows in the theological footsteps of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the multimedia star, of TLC’s "Shalom in the Home" who has packaged Jewish tradition in American argot, neither halachic lecture nor interfaith dialogue.

On the show, filmed in a Chicago auditorium last spring before a religiously and racially mixed audience of nearly 900 people, Rabbi Kula talks about intimacy, happiness and self-fulfillment: the staples of New Age-style self-actualization. He talks about Torah, or about Torah concepts, but without the Torah label. "You have to translate [the Hebrew and Aramaic language of Jewish thought] into the American idiom," he says.

Take the glass-breaking, which occurs under the chupah at the end of a standard Jewish wedding. In an Orthodox setting, Rabbi Kula says, it’s presented in terms of the appropriate laws to be followed; in Reform circles, of egalitarian precedents to be set. On the show, he discusses "the practice" (a less-threatening term than "mitzvah," or obligated act) as a symbol of shattered relationships that characterize most people’s lives. He shows the universal relevance of the broken glass, which had "simply belong[ed] to the Jewish people."

"Any successful teacher translates [unfamiliar language] into the cultural idiom," says Rabbi Kula, who defines himself as an "eighth-generation rabbi … a yeshiva boy … a spiritual teacher … just Jewish."

He says the idea for the book and the TV show came to him after the 9/11 attacks on the United States five years ago, attacks that were done in the name of the Muslim faith.

Growing fanaticism in the Islamic and Christian communities was collectively giving God a black eye, Rabbi Kula says. Judaism, he thought, had a message of tolerance, of spirituality, of universality.

"Love is not an [exclusively] Jewish question. Happiness is not a Jewish question. Self-awareness is not a Jewish question," he says.

But, he says, "we’re not part of the spiritual conversation in America." Jewish leaders, he says, were either teaching a narrowly parochial, performance-based type of Judaism, which had little attraction for most Jews and non-Jews. Or, on the other side of the religious-political spectrum, they were teaching a universal vision of the religion divorced from its Jewish roots. For nearly two years he worked on his book. During that time he was approached by JTN Productions, a Los Angeles company that produces a wide variety of Jewish programming for networks in this country and several foreign countries.

Rabbi Kula, who appeared in a PBS Frontline program, "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," that featured spiritual responses to 9/11, has been giving frequent speeches about his philosophy since his book came out, and has been a guest on the "Today Show" three times.

"It’s clear there is a yearning" for spiritual answers to the problems of society, he says.

"Rabbi Kula does not seem to be courting celebrity endorsement, although his book has received accolades from such leading authors as Rabbi Harold Kushner, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Mitch Albom," the religious Web site reported this week.

Rabbi Kula says he will send an e-mail message back to the stranger in Albany. He won’t discuss the details of breaking a glass at a wedding, the rabbi says. He will tell the stranger about his book. He will ask about the stranger’s life. "I’m going to wish him well in his relationships."