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Old ideas for a new age

THE BALTIMORE SUN

First came the reports that celebrities like Madonna and Roseanne Barr were dabbling in the mystical Jewish tradition called Kabala. Then Moses became an animated hero in "The Prince of Egypt." Now comes the Joseph Lieberman vice presidential nomination, which has further awakened interest in the religious beliefs and practices of observant Jews.

"There's a sense in which America is looking to authentic Judaism for some sort of pure spiritual direction," says the noted author and lecturer, Rabbi Harold Kushner. "This caught the Jewish community by surprise. I think we're flattered, but also a little bit nonplussed and overwhelmed. We weren't quite ready for this."

But, says Kushner, be not afraid. Jewish wisdom, developed over millennia, does have something important and relevant to say. He will offer his thoughts on what that is when he visits Baltimore tonight, for a sold-out lecture at Chizuk Amu-no Congregation in Pikesville.

Kushner, author of the hugely successful "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," will discuss "Three Ideas Judaism Can Teach the World." While that might sound like a simple topic, coming from Kushner it is anything but.

This is the Conservative rabbi, after all, whose best-selling book took on Orthodox Jewish philosophy by seeking to counter the notion that suffering could be attributed to the will of God. In the nearly 20 years since its publication, Kushner has taken heat for its theology, which does not see God as all-powerful, in control of all aspects of reality. Instead, it compromises God's power in favor of affirming God's goodness.

"Congregational ministers, for the most part, are very appreciative of my book," he says. "But the Orthodox are very unhappy with me and some fundamentalist Christians are very unhappy with me. Some professors at seminaries like to point out where my theology is wrong.

"But you know something?" Kushner says. "I don't care about that. The book helps people."

In a similar vein, Kushner's thoughts on the essential ideas Judaism has to offer are clearly rooted in Jewish tradition, but not in any particular orthodoxy. Ask him, for instance, for a good example of the kind of person whose actions reflect the values of Judaism, and he suggests Sigmund Freud, although the father of psychoanalysis did not have much use for organized religion.

"I look at Freud and I see a person whose every waking hour was dedicated to helping people feel better about their lives. ... I think that's a very legitimate Jewish tradition," Kushner says. "I've been a congregational rabbi in favor of people going to synagogue, obeying dietary laws ... but there are so many ways to be a faithful Jew." Instead of doctrine, Kushner says, what Judaism has to offer is fundamental concepts that apply to Jews and non-Jews alike -- its sense of community, its sense of the spirituality found in everyday life and its notion of what prayer should be.

In Judaism, tradition holds that "community is more important than theology, that religion is about who you share your worldview with rather than what the details are," he says. "In Judaism, you can form a congregation with people who don't necessarily believe the same things. In Christianity, you form a new denomination."

Kushner draws a distinction between religion based on revelation, like Christianity, and religion based on community, like Judaism. Religion based on revelation, like the revelation that Jesus is God made human, sent to the world to redeem it, "means if you believe you're right you have to define everyone else as wrong," he says.

But if you define religion as community, "then we have our community and they have theirs."

"I am free to say 'my religion is so important to me that I am free to appreciate how important your religion is to you.' There is no statement [in Judaism] of how you should believe," he says.

Kushner acknowledges there are normative beliefs in Judaism, and notes that some synagogues do set up standards of belief and would not allow a Jew they considered nonobservant full participation in their services. "But I think that's where some Orthodox deviate from authentic Judaism," he says. "The overwhelming number of Orthodox synagogues welcome any Jew, no matter what his beliefs or behavior patterns."

The second major contribution of Judaism to the world, he says, is "the science of taking the ordinary and making it holy."

"Religious moments are found not only under conventional religious auspices. Anything can be turned into a religious moment," Kushner says. "Lunch can be a religious moment if you observe dietary laws and begin and end it with a prayer."

Third, Kushner says, Judaism offers the potential to modify our notions of prayer. However, he adds, this is a lesson even Jews must learn from their own tradition.

"One of the problems of trying to be Jewish in the United States or in the Western world is you end up living out your Jewishness in translation," he says. "The English vocabulary for religious behavior misrepresents the ideas in Judaism."

"In the Western world, prayer is seen as asking, which I characterize as confusing God with Santa Claus," he says. "Jewish prayer is not asking. Jewish prayer is, first of all, gratitude. Jewish prayer is study and Jewish prayer is simply inviting God into your life without God having to give you anything in the process."

If prayer is seen as solely a petition to God, it can lead to a serious crisis of faith. What happens when a child prays that her mother will survive surgery, only to find she died on the operating table? The Jewish approach to prayer "gets out of the situation of asking, 'I prayed so hard for my mother to survive the operation. Why wasn't my prayer answered? Was I unworthy? Was my mother unworthy?'

"You end up being very angry with God because he didn't give you what you asked for," Kushner says. "What you're praying for is that you not be alone as you await the outcome. That God is with you."

Kushner, who gave up his pulpit in Natick, Mass., a decade ago to devote his time to writing and lecturing, has two projects soon to be published: a commentary on the Torah, co-authored by fellow Conservative Rabbi Chaim Potok; and a new book, yet to be titled, on "a good person's struggle with his conscience, on the conflict between doing the right thing and doing what you need to do in order to be successful."

Although Kushner has published many works, it's still the book he wrote 20 years ago that people ask about most. Kushner says he doesn't mind.

He recognizes the book's impact. Now, Kushner says, in the face of tragedy, ministers and rabbis are more likely to say, " 'I don't know why this is happening to you. I can't believe God wanted it to happen.' " At funerals, you're more likely to hear "God is weeping with you and not that God has his reasons your human minds can't fathom.

"To this day," he adds, "I get letters from people every week that say it changed their lives."

Using a camera as her paintbrush, Lynne Sachs has created a place to quietly confront our need for constant clamor.

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