Irwin Kula on Finding the Sacred in the Secular

Irwin Kula
Finding the Sacred in the Secular

We have mislabeled the sacred and the secular, said Irwin. The “tikkun” or challenge of our times is to rename our experiences. So for an hour, he shared with the audience of Federation activists how their lives were already entwined in sacred experience and how reconnection — recognition — of the social activism of the Federation with the symbols, metaphors, and stories of the culture could reinvigorate the Jewish people, our religion, the connection to Israel, and the deeds themselves.

Irwin began by describing the scene at a Temple festival 2800 years ago. His descriptions included the ordinary motivations of the people who came for a holiday, how they had fun or played music in addition to giving sacrifices, and how they left after the festival and went back to their lives renewed. Then, having made a piece of sacred mythology “secular” (that is, accessible), Irwin invited participants to notice how what they thought was a secular gathering — their meeting room at the Convention Center — was actually sacred and how they, too, would be reinvigorated and hopeful after their time together. “If we can’t imagine that these days are those days and those days are these days, then all the money we spend on Jewish education will be wasted, ” he said.

But how to foster that imagination? Using what he called a “sacred technology”, the chanting of a niggun, Irwin began to sing and invited the thousands of people present to join in the chant. “If this people (us) loses the capacity to feel joy,” he said after everyone had chanted, “this people will die.” It is that capacity to find joy and sanctity that is the biggest challenge, not pluralism or other issues of the day. He quoted Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav who said that when depression takes hold, the Shechinah goes into exile.

In fact, Irwin noted, it is precisely that capacity to feel joy together that signifies a family. We are, he said, on the verge of a journey. And he wanted everyone in his “family”, even the people he didn’t like, to come on the journey. “That’s because, we love everyone in our family — even when we don’t like them,” he said.

Taking his shoes off to further create a holy space, Irwin invited the people on a journey of his own life. He told how, as a Yeshivah boy, he had never heard of the UJA, the Federation or any of the Jewish social agencies; and how rabbinical school students today still have no knowledge of the Jewish social philanthropic organizations. He likened this ignorance to trying to learn medicine without studying anatomy. His own sensibilities began to form during the Six Day War when the normative reaction at his modern Orthodox day school was to pray over the situation. When Irwin, in fifth grade at the time, told his teacher, “Gee, I sure hope this isn’t what the Israelis are doing,” he was lifted up by his ear. “It still hurts, ” he remembered.

Twinkle Twinkle Theology

He noted that, in his experience, people came to speeches to either agree or disagree with the speaker. His intent was to satisfy both. And so he told what appeared to be a joke, concerning a rabbi and an astrophysicist who met on an airplane. The astrophysicist told the rabbi, “Religion is great. It all comes down to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “What you do is great too,” the rabbi replied. “It all comes down to ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…'” And so Irwin proceeded to give his “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” version of where we are in Judaism, and it, too, took the form of a joke: On the way out of the Garden of Eden, Adam turned to Eve and said “Honey, we’re living in an age of transition.”

In this age of transition, Irwin said, people tend to fight about their self-definition. It’s not only happening in Judaism, it’s happening everywhere. In America, for example, people don’t take the central mitzvot– voting and taxes — seriously. In Bosnia, they’re fighting. The only people who don’t fight about who they are are dead people. “It’s very calm.”

Likening 3200 years of Jewish history to a single lifetime he asked what an individual would do, if, in the space of a year or two they had experienced their greatest catastrophe and their greatest triumph (as we have with both the Holocaust and the formation of the State of Israel in a single century). And if, in addition, everything around them was changing very rapidly. That individual would probably be in therapy, he said.

The Jewish Message: Things Can Be Different

He noted the great contribution of the Jewish people, the great insight of saying that the way things are is not necessarily the way things have to be. Calling this “amazing” he pointed out how this insight makes us partners with God in the creation of our world and our lives.

Life, he noted, leads to life — and Jews have become expert at developing methodologies to stay alive. He noted the destruction of the Temple when holiness in “space” was transmuted to holiness in “time”, and the act of sacrifice was changed to the act of prayer. As Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi said, Irwin noted, “We went from lamb chops to words.” And yet, what wonder and power those words provided. “What an incredible thing, to get up every day and repeat the prayer (Mi Chamocha) that Moses said at the Red Sea.”

It took the rabbis 500-700 years to reengineer Judaism, marveled Irwin, noting that the rabbis were ahead of modern management consultants who talk about reengineering companies. That transition saw David, a warlord, turned into a rabbi. It turned what was, in essence, a national barbeque, like Pesach, into a home festival that still depended on good smells and sensory experience.

Irwin Discovers Sanctity at the State Department

Irwin’s sensibilities were broadened during Operation Moses. As a young rabbi working in St. Louis, he was sent to be part of a group meeting with Secretary of State George Schultz to discuss Jewish rescue. He was sent because no other rabbis wanted to go. What he discovered, was a sense of the holy in George Schultz talking about gathering in the exiles. He came back, in fact, so imbued with the mission that he became campaign chair in St. Louis, an unusual role for a rabbi, and worked 24 hours a day until they reached their goal.

Such examples of sanctity in things we think are secular are all around us, Irwin suggested. He pointed to a time when the combined Federations essentially mortgaged the future to provide loan guarantees for Operation Exodus. Remembering the bound volume of legal documents that had been created to accomplish the task, he noted how the documents were, in effect, new Torah. The shame, he said, is that those who are currently studying the book of Exodus don’t know about the Federation activities and the lawyers and investment bankers who are carrying out the activities don’t tend to read the Torah and recognize the sacred creation of their own actions.

At this point, using a ritual pairing he first tested at Aitz Hayim, Irwin took out and put on his tallit, emphasizing the holy nature of the nuts and bolts work it takes to really gather in the exiles, and, at the same time, the responsibility that comes with wearing the tallit. The audience was visibly emotional as he did this.

Our Task: Connect the Metaphors

There is a discontinuity between the metaphors of our culture and our perception of Torah and the sacred, he said. The task of our time is to reconnect them. For example, he asked the women in the audience who wore the Lion of Judah, a symbol of Federation participation, to each consider her pin as though it was a tallit, and to say a bracha over it when she put it on (thus managing a secular/sacred relabeling, an egalitarian stroke, and the tallit connection between words and deeds together in a kind of message triple play.)

In the same vein, Irwin said that the role of the State of Israel for us, is not the “safe haven” often referred to. “We’re safe here in America, folks” he said, noting the vigilance of the various organizations keeping watch. Instead, the role of Israel for us is the opportunity to discover whether what we’ve been talking about for 3000 years works in a country where we are in charge and powerful. It’s a lot harder to live by a set of principles when you’re in public office and dealing with the multiple pressures of reality, than when you’re just thinking about what is right and what is wrong, he emphasized.

Taking this even further, Irwin took the audience on a journey of what might be. He asked the people to imagine what life would be like if two things happened: 1) if we were “normal”, that is, if the fear of anti-semitism didn’t affect our policy; and 2) if our goal was not to be different, but just to be who we are.

As examples, Irwin offered what he called Ma’aseh Shehayah (a phrase from Gemorrah meaning “stories that happened”), which he also called “Stories Towards a New Judaism” — stories that both mark our path and help to take us where we’re going…

The Doctor from Nantucket

Irwin noted how he likes to vacation where everyone isn’t Jewish and he can go “incognito”. One summer in Nantucket he began to talk to a man who he characterized as the exemplar of the self-hating Jew. When he found out Irwin was a rabbi, the man began to say everything he thought was wrong with Judaism, how Judaism is shallow and vain and how it was epitomized by his mother who wore a mink coat to services.

(This prompted a side comment from Irwin. He noted that, for the generation of Jews who began to be affluent in America, the ability to buy a mink coat was not a symbol of materialism, but was instead a symbol of dignity. If the rabbis had linked that insight to saying a bracha over the coat or other possessions, the children would have understood the holiness of the moment. In turn, they would not have turned away, but would be inspired to use their own wealth in positive ways. The materialism, as such, would not have gotten out of hand.)

But back to Nantucket — After the man finished his diatribe, Irwin asked what he did. He was, it turned out, was head of fertility at a hospital. “What does that feel like?” Irwin asked. “Sometimes,” the man said, “when I’m very very lucky (secular speak, said Irwin, for “blessed”) someone comes into my office who thinks they have death inside and when they leave they have life.” And so I asked the man, said Irwin if it just wasn’t possible that his reverence for life had anything to do with his coming from a culture that revered life? After a while…the man began to cry. Said Irwin “This is the beginning of the tractate of doctoring.”

The Gynecologist from New Jersey

Irwin had been having conversations with another doctor, a gynecologist from New Jersey. One day the doctor called him up, excited, his voice barely understandable on a portable phone. “A woman just told me, ‘I’ve never been examined in the way that you examined me,'” the doctor said breathless. “What’d you do?” asked Irwin, suppressing an “oy”. “I remembered our conversations, and it occurred to me: Usually when we examine patients, we have them take off all of their clothes. Now I’ve been thinking that that might not be respectful, so I’ve been having patients only uncover an area of the body as I need to examine it.”

“That,” said Irwin, ” is the new halacha of ts’niut — modesty.”

Religious People Aren’t — and Vice Versa

Stories like these come from people who don’t tend to think of themselves as religious and who may, in fact, tend to distance themselves from their idea of religion. “Anyone at the end of the twentieth century who says I’m not religious probably is and those who say they are probably aren’t,” Irwin said. He called it the “Chasidic Revolution” at the end of the twentieth century, as though, once again, the people, rather than the stale structures and teachers around them, were consciously taking control of their spirits and their spiritual lives.

The Housebuilder from New Jersey

Irwin found himself talking to a man who was a housebuilder, a man whose first comment on hearing Irwin was a rabbi was — of course — to say he was not religious. He explained to Irwin how he went about building houses and, in his description, he came to the finishing touches.

“Rabbi, do you know what a mezzuzah is?” he asked.

“Uh — yeah…” said Irwin.

“Rabbi, a mezzuzah is a wonderful thing. Anyone I finish a house for, I give them a mezzuzah when I give them the key.”

Irwin, noting his own lack of integration, asked what he called the stupid question, the demographic question (Demographics being another example of something we think is important, but often isn’t…) “Do you give them to intermarrieds?”

(For the first time, realized Irwin as he told the story, he understood the prohibition against counting Jews. “The mitzvah,” he said in another side comment, “is not to count Jews– but to make Jews count.”)

“Rabbi, the housebuilder said in a tone that indicated that Irwin just didn’t understand, “a mezzuzah is for everybody.”

“Well, what do you tell them when you give it to them?” Irwin asked. “A house is a big purchase, a significant event. So I tell them that it means they should remember to treat each other with love whenever they walk through the door.”

“Oh…” said Irwin. “So where do you get the mezzuzahs?”

“Well I used to get them at the Jewish bookstore, but last year I needed 65 mezzuzahs so I decided I should go to Israel.”

“You go to Israel! How long do you go for?”

“I just go for three days… There is an artist on the edge of the Jewish market — do you know the market?


“I go and I sit there and he makes me the mezzuzahs and I bring them back and put them on the houses.”

“Who puts the mezzuzah up?”

“I do, with them. And Rabbi, do you know, there is a blessing you can say when you put it up…”

“What’s the blessing?”

The man proceeded to recite the blessing for Irwin, added the Shecheyanu, and said “And I say it in Hebrew and English so they know it’s authentic.”

“And what happens when you give them to the people?”

“They always cry!”

This man, Irwin noted would score as “peripheral Jew” on a demographic test. And so would the astronaut who quoted Jewish blessings from outer space and so would John Zorn, a musician who mixes jazz and klezmer. And so would the Jewish comedians who routinely embody Jewish values and a reverence for life in their jokes.

Gabi’s Story

When Irwin’s daughter Gabi was about 6 (she’s 9 now) they were in the Korean grocery on their corner. Gabi became excited when, in the multi-cultural food mix she found tomatoes from Israel. (By that time, she’d already been to Israel several times). “Abba, look tomatoes from Israel. We have to buy them.”

Irwin, noting his own lack of integration in comparison to his daughter replied. “But Gabi, they’re $2.99 a pound. That’s three slices of pizza!”

“But Abba — they’re from Israel. Don’t we love Israel?”

So Irwin bought the tomatoes. He took them home and told Dana (Irwin’s wife) that they shouldn’t cut them up for the salad, but should place them separately on the table. When their guests arrived that Friday night, they asked “Why do you have the tomatoes hanging out by themselves on the table?”

In other words, prompted by the symbol, they asked the question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

“Because we love Israel,” said Gabi. The tomatoes had been turned into a Seder plate and the evening into a Seder.

New Rituals

Find the Right Labels

If the UJA-Federations had ten rituals like these tomatoes, said Irwin, they wouldn’t be in trouble. The ties would be too strong. And so he came back to how we need to reconnect the symbols and metaphors of our lives with our Jewishness. “We have to create whole new rituals, he said. We have to ask ourselves: How many ways can we imagine to be Jewish?” The task is not to be different, per se. The task is to be fully ourselves.

He noted the Reb Nachman teaching that we have mixed up the labels. “What is religious is secular and what we call secular is religious,” he said. “We live in a world in which the labels are wrong. And yet, we have the power of “tikkun”, the power to change the labels,” he emphasized. “We have the power of blessing.”

At this point, the words of the priestly benediction came on the screen behind Irwin. Irwin invited the audience to join hands and to “connect” with the people next to them as they, themselves became priests and blessed each other.