Rabbi Brings Jewish Wisdom to the Public Marketplace of Ideas
BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times January 10-16, 2007
by Philip K. Jason
One day, Rabbi Irwin Kula had a question put to him by a supporter of the organization that Kula leads – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership headquartered in New York. The man asked what he planned to do with his life: “What’s your vision for the organization?” Rabbi Kula did not have an answer at first. But after a few weeks of discussion and questioning, he knew: “I decided that the mission of the organization would be to take Jewish wisdom public, to offer a philosophical, spiritual, and psychological life-approach that could benefit everyone, whether they were Jewish or not.”
Many projects followed from this decision. These included writing and being featured in the documentary Time for a New God, hosting the 13-part national public television series “Simple Wisdom with Irwin Kula,” and becoming a public figure through appearances on The Today Show, Oprah, and many other local and national broadcasts on both radio and television. In the process, Kula gained a reputation as one of the new leaders helping to shape America’s spiritual landscape. He is an iconoclast who explores the wisdom of an ancient tradition and brings it to bear on the challenges of modern life.
Recently, Kuka was named one of the “Forward 50” – Jews who are making a difference, as determined by the newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward.
Says Kula, “The freedom and openness of America invites us to bring our traditions to the marketplace of ideas. The challenge is in translating these wisdoms into American idioms that are accessible.”
Kula’s latest attempt to meet this challenge is the book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life published by Hyperion. There is also a related 2-hour PBS special, “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings,” that is being show across the country as scheduled by local PBS outlets. In both the book and the broadcast, Kula draws upon ancient wisdom texts, Old Testament and Talmudic teachings, Buddhism, modern literature and contemporary life stories, explaining how to celebrate, embrace and grow from the paradoxes, contradictions and “sacred messiness” of life.
For Kula, it is important for us to realize that we are imperfect, striving creatures who nonetheless have much to celebrate if we will open ourselves up to the inevitable friction we encounter in pursuing our goals. He asks us to find a balance or creative oscillation between the extremes of defeatism on the one hand and an illusionary perfectionism on the other. Kula asks us to experience fully the striving itself, to embrace it, for that is where we will find – often enough to sustain us – the joys and satisfactions we seek. Our yearnings are not our problems but our means to fulfillment. “Our yearnings generate life. Our desire animates us.”
In Yearnings, Kula explores these seven fundamental areas: Yearning for Truth, Yearning for Meaning, Yearning for the Way, Yearning for Love, Yearning to Create, Yearning for Happiness, and Yearning for Transcendence. Each section of the book examines these issues by meshing often neglected aspects of traditional wisdom stories and teachings with everyday struggles in intimate relationships, child-rearing, job performance, and almost every problematic aspect of contemporary life. On several occasions, the real life dilemmas confronted in the book are Kula’s own. In sharing them, in identifying with his readers, Rabbi Kula demystifies the process. He, too, is working through and with the yearnings we all experience.
Rabbi Irwin Kula will be speaking in Naples on Tuesday, January 23 at 7:30pm. His presentation will be held at the G & L Theater, Community School of Naples, 13275 Livingston Road, just north of Pine Ridge Road. A reception and book signing will follow the talk. An $18 donation is suggested, and copies of Yearnings are available for advance purchase as well as at the event. For more information and to make your reservation (seating is limited), call the sponsoring organization, Beth Tikvah, at 434-1818 or visit the website bethtikvahnaples.org.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at firstname.lastname@example.org.