Newsweek Magazine once called Rabbi Wolpe the most influential rabbi in America. He is the Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and he’s the author of eight books including one about King David and another gem called Why Be Jewish? I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed preparing for an interview so much. I’m named after King David, but until this interview, I hadn’t explored the history of my name in more than a decade.
This interview touches on various parts of Judaism including how rabbis should interpret the Bible, what we can learn from King David, and how Judaism anchors us when a loved one dies. There were two parts that I’ll always remember. The first was a discussion about the concept of aloneness in Judaism. On one hand, the book of Deuteronomy says: “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that I have set my heart upon you and treasured you—indeed, you are the fewest.” On the other, community is everywhere in Jewish life and the first thing God called not good in the Bible is loneliness — “It is not good for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18).” Secondly, I enjoyed our conversation about repentance in the Jewish faith and how you must repent after a loved one dies but also have to stop after 11 months. If this conversation interests you, I recommend his sermons on YouTube and the book I mentioned before called: Why Be Jewish?
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3:15 – How Jews have uniquely struggled with their identity and the way they present themselves.
5:56 – How the heroes of the Jewish culture have changed over time and what makes them heroic.
8:26 – What makes Judaism different from Christianity.
11:39 – The interpretation of the Bible and how Judaism reconciles its eternal nature with the changing interpretations over time.
14:43 – The most meaningful traditions in Jewish people’s lives and why Rabbi Wolpe sees the Jewish mourning rituals as some of the most powerful.
19:24 – Why many Jewish people converted to Buddhism in the Modern era.
22:11 – Why the decline of religious people throughout the world may indicate a decline in art being created.
25:52 – The power of a culture of togetherness and why Rabbi Wolpe believes that Judaism was unique in being welcomed to America with open arms.
29:02 – Yom Kippur and why Judaism uniquely holds a ritual of confession not only for each person’s sin but also from the sins of the Jewish people.
31:01 – One of the biggest differences between classical Christianity and Judaism.
34:35 – What separated Maimonides from other prominent Jewish philosophers.
36:39 – What Heschel meant in that the collapsing of space is seen as the collapsing of time.
38:45 – Why we should always take care of our “big rocks” first before anything else.
44:56 – Why modern life and technology can cause people to lose touch with the transcendent and the world around us.
49:09 – Why Rabbi Wolpe feels that introducing children to religion at an early age is important to their understanding of it.
54:20 – The origin of the Jewish style of dry humor.
1:00:05 – What about King David drew Rabbi Wolpe to study him so deeply.
1:04:34 – Why it’s impossible to change the age of a boy’s transition into a man through a bar mitzvah.
1:07:01 – What it means to Rabbi Wolpe to be a Rabbi.
David: Preparing for this interview has sparked a lot of really interesting conversations. But I think the most interesting one was I called my father and I said, “Why did you name me David?” He said that one of the three reasons was that it was Jewish enough that it was Jewish, but it wasn’t so Jewish that it was obviously Jewish. There’s something very Jewish about naming your kid in that way. In a way that is enough of the tradition that you’re part of the sacred lineage of people going all the way back to the time of Moses. But also something that is subtle and that is discreet because of the oppression that Jews have historically faced.
Rabbi Wolpe: Well, there is among Jews … It’s not unique to Jews, but it’s certainly significant to Jews. There is self-hatred and self-shame of different degrees that has afflicted Jews throughout the generations. Some Jews try very hard to hide it. There’s a great story about Ben Hecht. He was a screenwriter. He was a famous personality in Hollywood. He wrote a lot of famous movies. When Israel was founded, he was a very proudly identified Jew. He went around to collect money for Israel. He went to David O. Selznick, the producer, and he said, “I want you to give money for Israel.” Selznick said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think of myself as Jewish.” Hecht said, “I’ll tell you what, I want you to pick up the phone and call 10 of your non-Jewish friends and say to each of them, am I Jewish?” If any of them says, no, I won’t bother you again. Selznick wrote him a check.
Because even when Jews have tried to hide it, the world thinks of them as Jewish. There is a sort of sadness and a quixotic effort to pretend we’re not Jewish when everyone knows we are. This, I’ll be Jewish, but not too obviously Jewish is one way of Jews saying, “I want to be part of this society without entirely giving up what I am.” That’s a struggle that Jews have had ever since they’ve been a minority in a majority culture.
David: You could call it Jew-ish.
Rabbi Wolpe: Yes. Just so. Jew-ish.
David: Is that something that you see as much in Israel as you see in, say America or in Europe? Or is it something that happens when Jews feel like they’re a real minority?
Rabbi Wolpe: Well, something else happens in Israel, which is not the same phenomenon. It’s a different phenomenon. That is, that a lot of young, especially young Israelis think of themselves not as Jewish but as Israeli. That Israeli is its own characteristics. They’re not religious and they think of Jewish as the religious part, but they are Israeli. There is a different kind of identification that goes with being in Israel that’s not exactly analogous to the way Jews have felt in Europe or in the United States.
David: You wrote in, I believe 1995, a nice little book called Why Be Jewish? My favorite line in there was, if you wish to know the character of a people, look to its heroes. How have the heroes of the Jewish tradition changed since you started practicing being a rabbi?
Rabbi Wolpe: The biggest change I think, I would say there are two. One is that … I’m not sure that this is since I started practicing as a rabbi. But I think in the last 100 years, they’ve changed to a great extent from religious to political. Heroes became Zionist heroes. Or for Jews, not so much today, the more they know about it, but FDR was a hero. Before that, the heroes were generally religious figures. Not exclusively, but generally. That’s one difference. Then the second difference is that Jewish figures, to the extent that they succeed in the secular world become Jewish heroes. Einstein is a Jewish hero and he’s a Jewish hero because he’s succeeded outside the Jewish world. I think that also has changed to some extent, although again, it was always true a little bit. It’s much truer now.
I think you would be very hard-pressed to think since the death of Elie Wiesel to maybe Sharansky is the only one that I can think of who is a Jewish hero who’s identified for his Judaism that is accepted all across the Jewish world. Very, very hard to find such a person. There used to be a lot of them, but now there aren’t. I think as I said, maybe Sharansky is the only one.
David: Is that something to be worried about, to be concerned about? Because this is something that I struggle with with Judaism. I went to Hebrew school growing up and I so distinctly remember stories about how you have to knock on the rabbi’s door three times and get rejected twice before you can be admitted to the faith. I contrast that with my Christian friends who are so explicit about conversion, some of them. For them, there’s this metric basically like, we are successful in so far as we’re growing the religion. When you take a story like that, on one hand, I’m like, “That’s really concerning.” Maybe Jews were losing this faith. I remember a song that we used to sing in day school. It was, the words in English, I forget what the Hebrew was, it was keep the dream alive. It was sort of trying to keep the religion alive. But at the same time there aren’t those conversion rituals. I’m ambivalent here about how to interpret what you just said.
Rabbi Wolpe: Christianity and Judaism are different. I think that it’s important to understand the difference in order to understand the different approaches to conversion. Christianity is a religion. If you believe in Jesus, you’re Christian. If the next day you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re not. Judaism is not a religion. If tomorrow I tell you that I don’t believe in any of that Jewish stuff, I’m just as Jewish as I was today, definitionally. Judaism is a religious tradition that is familial. I would say tribal, but the word tribal sometimes has negative connotations. We’re a religious family. You can be born into a family and the only way really to leave a family is to choose a different family. But if you run away from home, you’re still part of the family. If you say, I don’t believe in the religious traditions, you’re still Jewish. Therefore, to join a family, as everybody knows who’s ever gotten married, is a harder thing than to just say, “Well, I’m part of a religion because I believe now.”
For Judaism, especially because Judaism was subject to so many strictures and so much persecution and so much difficulty, you wanted to make sure that somebody really wanted to be a part of you before you said, “Okay, you should be a part of us.” Because the one thing that you didn’t want was people who came into Judaism easily and then said, “You know what, forget this.” Because according to Jewish law, once you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish. That’s it. You can’t leave. Even if you convert, in theory, you’re still, according to Jewish law, Jewish. Jews made it hard, and also they didn’t always trust people who converted because some of the people who converted were spying on them and that’s why they converted. Now, for the most part though, the attitude towards conversion in the Jewish tradition was very, very positive and Jews welcomed those who wanted to convert. I don’t practice the discouraging people twice and most modern rabbis, at least most modern non-Orthodox rabbis don’t and even Orthodox rabbis don’t the same way they used to.
Because the world is very different from what it was for most of Jewish history. When someone comes and wants to convert to Judaism, the assumption is not that they’re going to find a religion that is persecuted and driven and difficult and so on. Having said that, it does require a different kind of attitude towards conversion from Christianity because of the different kinds of bonds that Jews feel for one another.
David: Yeah. There’s something embedded in what you just said that I think is a fascinating not that I’ve been trying to untangle within the Jewish tradition. It goes something like this, the Bible is a perfect text, but it is up to the rabbis to interpret the Bible and the interpretations can change over time. Give me a story of a way that our interpretation has changed. Explain to me how you can have a static text, a different interpretation of it and have both of them be the word of, Adonai, God.
Rabbi Wolpe: Well, let me start with the end of the question before I give you an example. The way you can have a text mean both things is because God’s word is infinitely meaningful. That unlike human beings who can only say things with a limited meaning, God can say things that is endlessly unpackable, so to speak. There’s no reason on earth why we should think that God says something and it only means one thing. How have interpretations changed? I’ll give you an example that is a painful one and a powerful one. Suicide is against Jewish law. But the rabbis decided that that means that if somebody meant it and did it compos mentis, that is, they were fully aware of what they were doing. Generally, when someone commits suicide, we say, obviously the fact that they committed suicide means that they were not fully in possession of their faculty or depressed or life had dealt them all sorts of blows and they were …
That is an easy and understandable way of getting out of a tragic situation that wouldn’t allow somebody, for example, to be buried in a Jewish cemetery that now they can be. If you ask yourself did God mean that, well, the assumption of the tradition is, God meant it or it wouldn’t be part of the tradition. That’s a painful one, a less explicable one in some ways, but also is three times in the Bible that says, you shouldn’t see the lamb in its mother’s milk. It never says that you can’t eat a cheeseburger. But the idea that the rabbis took was, it wouldn’t say it three times unless it was emphasizing that there really has to be a distinction between milk, which represents life, and meat, which represents death. There are people who not only have different dishes and different silverware, but different dishwashers for milk and meat and take great pains to make sure that milk and meat are separated. Did God intend you not to eat a cheeseburger?
Well, according to the very strict literalist of the tradition, that’s exactly what God meant. But obviously to someone who is not a literalist, this is the tradition creating a way of life out of the words in the Torah. I’ll let your listeners decide.
David: I remember when I was going through my bar mitzvah training, one of the most just jarring realizations was that the role of a rabbi is to be with people in the times of their life that are the most meaningful birth, marriage, death, and then a bar mitzvah, a transfer into adulthood. Is there one for you that has been a practice that has been particularly filled with wisdom, and what have you learned from it?
Rabbi Wolpe: I think that the Jewish traditions of mourning are extraordinarily powerful and I see again and again how much they mean to people. I think that what I learned from it, if I can put it in these words, is that the only way to live is by a certain betrayal of the memory of those who died. I say betrayal, not because it’s really a betrayal, but because that shocks us to the awareness of what it really means. When someone dies that you’re really close to, you think I never want to enjoy life again. I never want to sit down to a nice meal. I never want to because I’ve lost this person who meant everything to me. Yet you have to. Judaism, the first thing you’re supposed to do when you come back from the cemetery is to have a meal. And the process of shiva, where people come, even though you don’t want to see them. It’s like, “I can’t believe that all these people are invading my house.” The process of shiva is a way of yanking you back into life, precisely because you don’t want to be yanked back into life.
You feel like it’s a betrayal to be yanked back into life. Yet it is essential and it is the only thing that allows life to continue. There’s a gradation of mourning. There’s seven days of shiva, there’s 30 days of something called shloshim, and then there’s 11 months for a parent, which is the longest period of mourning. Basically a year. Then you have to stop. You’re not allowed to keep saying the prayers of mourning after 11 months. You’re not allowed to. The reason you’re not allowed to is that that is a betrayal of life and of the fact that God has still chosen to allow you to live. Therefore, you have to take advantage of that. I think that there is almost everyone that I have witnessed to go through this process is astonished at how powerful it is and what deep wisdom it holds. I would say more than anything else, again and again and again, as a rabbi, that has impressed me by its depth and its meaning.
David: Yeah. Unfortunately, one of the things that I think living in cities does is, it takes us away from the supernatural. I’ve only had a couple moments that I have wanted to be more engaged with my own faith. One of them was when my dad’s brother died. He died quite young and his burial, it was bizarre because he’s usually has so much composure and same with a lot of people in the family. I was watching … I think it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. What I really appreciated about that day was the structure and the tradition and the sturdiness of the Jewish faith actually allowed us to soak into the pain of that moment, but in a good way. Soak into the grief because we didn’t have to be in control. The faith was in control. It sort of acted as guardrails so that we could just be there and watch the grave go into the ground.
Rabbi Wolpe: I think that’s beautifully said. That’s why more than any other time, people ask me at funerals, “What am I supposed to do?” Because at a time of meaninglessness and chaos, which is what death is, we all want the structure that allows us to say, “Okay, now I do this. Now I do this. Now I do this.” That’s a deeply human reaction to gazing into the abyss, is that you want to hold on. As you said, you want to have guardrails.
David: Yeah. Moving onto something a little lighter. I think that one of the things that I got by just spending the last couple of weeks absorbed in your work through your podcast, through videos, through books is this constant reminder of the wisdom of the immaterial world. I think that after Marx, I think that Marx and a lot of his contemporaries they were very materialist in nature. I think that a lot of science has a lot of this materialistic qualities. I feel like one of the implicit messages of Judaism, of tradition, of your work too, is to listen to the echoes of the abstract and that there’s wisdom in things that aren’t quite tangible, but they are still real.
Rabbi Wolpe: First of all, thank you. I think that’s exactly right. I also do believe that there is a … One of the reasons, I think why Jews, for example, many went to Buddhism was because they were so taken by modernity. Not so much by Judaism, but by modernity. That they were overwhelmed with the idea of only the tangible is real. What you said about Marx is true. It’s why it’s called dialectical materialism. It’s the stuff of the world that matters. Increasingly, I think, especially as you get older, you discover that’s not true. Even I’ve said many times, I know a lot more than I knew 30 years ago. Not in information, but also just in what I would say is wisdom. But if you say to me, what do you know about life that you didn’t know 30 years ago? I don’t think that I can articulate it. I don’t think I can say I know this. But I know it and it’s inexpressible, ineffable, as you say, intangible, but it’s real. It is real.
That’s true of so much of what we live on every single day, that it’s in some ways a marvel to me that people can really believe that the only thing that matters is stuff when that’s clearly not the case in our own lives. It’s not the case in our relationships with each other, and I don’t think that it’s the case in the world.
David: Yeah. Maybe you can sort of help me navigate this question that I’ve been really struggling with. I think that on one hand, to have the wisdom of science and what it’s given us is this march towards understanding more and more of the world. I think that there’s might be some kind of stubborn attachment to, we can understand everything that is driving a lot of this process. That is the sort of religious belief that might drive the ambitions to learn about the world. But at the same time, there’s this weird correlation between what I would consider … I think this is a fairly controversial belief, but maybe not. What I would consider the rise of science and the decline of art. I think that as science begins to continue and we stop making art for God or for some transcendent power, it has become much less beautiful. I’m struggling here between wanting to understand and explain as much of the way of the world that I can. But at the same time, having this humility that the world is so grand and expansive that it’s beyond my grasp.
Rabbi Wolpe: It is true, certainly that we have these sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary drives. One is to be overwhelmed, and the other is to understand. Also, to manipulate, which is part of what the drive to science is. It’s not just understand, but it’s to manipulate, to create the world in a way that we can control it for reasons good and bad. Not only for bad, but for a lot of good reasons. I mean, technology, medicine, all those things. But the creation of art is, as you say, in some sense, even though the artist may not be humble, the creation of art is an act of humility. It’s, here is an expression of something greater that comes through me. I think that that’s true that it is in a technological age, there are profound effects on the idea of art. That’s one of the reasons why art has become … Where art used to be a public medium. I mean, art didn’t start off in museums. The whole idea of having museums … Which the Romans didn’t have museums, they had statues on the streets.
Which is where art is supposed to be because art is part of the atmosphere of living. But once it becomes in museums and once poetry, for example, to take an easy example, there was time when poetry was something that everyone recited. It was easily understood. It rhymed, it had rhythm, and so on. Now, poetry is a specialized pursuit and only certain people read poetry. When you do, it’s not easy to understand, and it has to be explained. It becomes more and more and more recondite and more and more and more specialized and more and more and more abstract as you say, and less a part of the common currency of life. The only art right now that’s really part of the common currency of life is mass media, is movies, television. Which can be works of art. I think there’s no question that you can achieve art on a screen as well, but it’s much harder. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t have a common culture, the way we used to. It’s much harder though to get art that everybody is a part of.
I think that science has some part to play in that, but so do certain social developments have a part to play in that. Maybe, by the way, also to some extent, I suppose, writing. Some novels strike a larger chord. But even there, there was a time when a book came out and everyone had to read it. That doesn’t exist anymore, and certainly not for fiction. Not so long ago in American history, there were certain novels that when they came out, everybody had to read them. Not now.
David: One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is aloneness. There’s two things that come to mind. One is a line from Deuteronomy, another is a ritual that we have. When you’re at synagogue and you do your silent prayer, you can stand for as long as you want. There’s always one person who every week stands there for as long as possible and every synagogue has one. You don’t say anything to them. There’s a line of Deuteronomy and it says, it is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that I have set my heart upon you and treasured you, indeed you are the fewest. Those two, I think, are this frame around the Jewish faith.
Rabbi Wolpe: Well, let’s start with aloneness. First of all, it’s the first thing that’s called not good in the Bible. At the very beginning of the story of Adam and Eve, God says “it’s not good for a person to be alone.” Aloneness is a human dilemma, and togetherness is a human need. I’ve thought of that line many, many times during the pandemic for obvious reasons. It’s a real trial. As you know and as everybody who’s listening knows, mental health experts will tell you that rates of depression are up and various mental diseases have been triggered or retriggered by this because you need other people. The paradox in Judaism isn’t so much the aloneness of the individual and the people, because you have to have a minion. You have to have 10 people to say many of the prayers. Many to most ritual practices in Judaism presume other people there. But the people itself is called the people that dwells alone. What has happened throughout most of Jewish history is that Jews were isolated.
Part of the reason why they developed these very powerful bonds with one another was because the outside world didn’t want them. When the outside world would accept them, it would only be on the terms that you’re no longer practicing as Jews. This is one of the things, by the way, that however you feel about America, and I know that this is a complicated subject, especially at the moment, Jews have enormous reason to be grateful to this country. Because it never said, “In order to be accepted here, you have to cease being Jews.” That was our experience almost everywhere, either explicitly or implicitly. It said, “You can be part of the polity and still be who you are.” Which is why we didn’t have to be alone here as a people to be part of America. That’s what makes this moment so complicated for Jews. But the single individual, I think that that’s just a syndrome of certain individuals as opposed to our tradition, reflection of the Jewish. That’s my take on it.
David: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about Yom Kippur. Humility is really hard. It’s hard to tell other people that you have wronged them when it’s just kind of comes out of the blue. But every year growing up, we used to go to the water, we used to take bread crumbs, and we used to throw them into the lake as a symbol of basically repenting for the sins that we’ve done wrong. Talk about that tradition. Talk about Yom Kippur and this year, what it’s symbolized to you. Then I want to get into the Jewish versus Christian interpretations of sin in a little while.
Rabbi Wolpe: The ceremony you’re talking about, which is called Tashlikh is a representative casting off of your sins. The sins of in Jewish tradition they’re of two kinds. There’re individual sins and there’re corporate sins. That is, you confess not only to what you have done, but also confess on behalf of the Jewish people. That’s why, again, Tashlikh is rarely done alone. It’s almost always done with other people. The intent of it is to say, I know that I don’t live in isolation. When sins are done, I’m implicated in the sins of my society, in the sins of my group, in the sins of my people. You cast bread into the water in the hope that you will be able to sort of cast your sins off in the same way and make that an internal cleansing by a symbolic ritual action. That’s the hope. That it will be cathartic and I will feel as though I didn’t lose this opportunity to purge myself of both my sin and the sins of my people.
Now, I should say there is a confessional in every morning service. It’s not like you only do it once a year. The reason that that’s so, is because the assumption is you’re going to sin every day. Which I think is probably a pretty safe assumption.
David: Yeah. Well, that’s, I think leads into a lot of the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity. Let me give you my interpretation of it. You can tell me where I’m right, where I’m wrong. Judaism does not look at every human being as automatically sinful in a way that Christianity does. Christianity says you are going to sin, you have sinned. Judaism, it seems like sin is, I want to say, more of a choice, but there’s probably a more precise way of putting that.
Rabbi Wolpe: Now we’re speaking about classical Christianity. Classical Christianity based on Augustine, who won this argument with Pelagius, who didn’t feel this way. Augustine said, we are born in sin. It’s called original sin. Ever since Adam ate the fruit … It wasn’t an apple by the way. But that’s a separate question. Ever since Adam ate the fruit, human beings are essentially sinful. Therefore, it is only by the sacrifice of Jesus, by an act of grace, that we are permitted to have salvation. It’s one … An analogy that I once used in a class about this is, it’s like you’re in a 300 foot hole. It doesn’t matter how high you jump, you can never get out. Someone has to come down and get you and bring you out. That’s the function of Jesus. Judaism doesn’t see human beings that way. In fact, every single morning, in the morning, prayer, we say a phrase that says, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.”
Now, I have no doubt, although I done research on this, but I have no doubt that that line was put in there specifically to say, we don’t believe in original sin. Instead, in Judaism, we believe in what I would call original splitness. You have good and evil inclination in you. No human being manages to make it through life, much less not even a day, without some evil inclination, some sin, some … I mean, I love the story of Heschel. Where Heschel was a great Jewish theologian. He was once talking to someone who said to Heschel, where he said, “I’m going to synagogue.” The guy said, “I don’t have to go to synagogue because after all I’m a good person. I don’t hurt people. I’m nice.” Heschel said, “I envy you.” Heschel said, “I’m always saying the wrong thing. I’m always not saying the thing that I should have said. I’m always inadvertently wounding people. I really envy you. You must be so special.” Now, of course, Heschel knew quite well that he was at least as good as this person was.
But the point is, Heschel had much greater ethical sensitivity and he took things that this other guy thought that no big deal as serious. If you think about it that way, every single day goes by when we say things in irritation or we’re unkind, or we don’t reach out when we could. Therefore, it’s not like Judaism believes that people aren’t sinful, but it’s not encoded in your DNA. It is a product of your actions, not your nature. You really can do repentance and you really can change who you are. It’s not an instant process that all of a sudden you are saved. Rather it is a daily … At every moment, says Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher and legalist, at every moment someone should see themselves as perfectly balanced between good and evil. What you do now will tip that scale.
David: Yeah. As you were talking, I pulled up the Solzhenitsyn quote. The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not through classes, nor through political parties either, but right through every human heart.
Rabbi Wolpe: Exactly.
David: What is it about Maimonides that made him so great?
Rabbi Wolpe: Yeah. Maimonides was born in Spain and he was born during the time of an Almohad persecution, of a Muslim persecution. His family fled to Cairo. Whereby the way also Muslims were, but a much more tolerant Islam was ruling actually at a place called Fustat, which is a sort of suburb of Cairo. Maimonides grew up to be the greatest physician of his age. He treated the Sultan, but also the greatest legal authority in Jewish history, and the greatest philosopher in Jewish history. He was a titanic figure in the middle ages and took from Arabic philosophy. He wrote, by the way, his philosophical works in Arabic because that was the language of philosophy in the middle ages. Which people don’t always know. Also, influenced some Arab philosophers, but especially Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Church. His great task as a philosopher was to try to reconcile Greek wisdom with Jewish philosophy. That was because Greek wisdom was the philosophical wisdom of the time, Aristotle, Plato, especially Aristotle.
But also, Maimonides tried to create a law code that Jews could read so that they didn’t all, because he knew they wouldn’t, study the intricacies of the Talmud. They could just open it up and find out what to do. His law code is extremely influential to this day, but of course, as happens over hundreds of years, people disagreed with this, took issue with that, other scholars argued with him. There’s commentary upon commentary upon commentary. It never ever ends just like it doesn’t in any other field. But Maimonides was an extraordinary landmark so much so by the way, that if you go to the city of Córdoba now, they have a statue of Maimonides in that city where he was. He was, especially considering the very difficult conditions of his life, it’s almost inconceivable what one man accomplished.
David: When you were talking about Heschel earlier, were you talking about Heschel who wrote The Sabbath?
Rabbi Wolpe: Yes.
David: I know you love that book. How come?
Rabbi Wolpe: Heschel, he grew up in Eastern Europe. He left right before the Anschluss, right before the Nazis invaded Poland. He was saved sort of by the skin of his teeth by an invitation to come teach in America. He had a mystical side. He wrote a beautiful short book, very short, you can read it in an hour, and I suggest that you do called The Sabbath. Where he said that Jews were always wandering. They did not build giant cathedrals. Instead, he said they had a cathedral in time. That’s what the sabbath is, it’s a cathedral in time. Because there is an essential deception, he said, to technology. Which is it collapses space, and therefore we think it collapses time. Because I can see people on the other side of the world, I forget that I still have the same amount of time in my life. That wasting an hour is wasting an hour, whether I do it by watching people in Calcutta or by watching my cat play on the couch.
The sabbath is this pause in time where you get to actually appreciate the fact that there is rest in the world and you’re not always driven by what you have to do next and what you have to achieve and what you have to accomplish. But you can just be. Now having said that, like any masterpiece, I have not begun to do justice to the beauty of the sentences and the richness of the insights of the book. I urge your listeners to get on Amazon or wherever they buy their books and order Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, The Sabbath. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
David: That’s a beautiful idea. The way that by collapsing space, you also collapse time. It certainly seems true. I mean, if I were to describe what technology has done to time, it’s we keep inventing things to save us time. As we do, we feel like we have less time.
Rabbi Wolpe: Yeah. I find one of the disorienting, but probably helpful features of the technology that we all share, is every now and then the iPhone will tell me how many hours I spent on it every day.
David: Too many.
Rabbi Wolpe: It is not good. The other part of it is that the immediate, the urgent drives out the important. I can be sitting and studying something or reading something that’s really deep and profound, and then my phone lights up. I feel like I have to look at that even though the truth is … There’s a wonderful analogy that I try to keep in mind and I like to … It’s not a Jewish teaching, but it could be. I think I first saw it years ago in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But he quotes some professor who went in front of his class. If it’s not in that book, forgive me, but I think it was. He quotes a professor who goes in front of his class and he takes a glass and he puts three big rocks in the glass. He says to the class, “Is the glass full.” They all say yes. He goes, “No, no, no, it’s not.” He pours gravel over the rocks. He goes, “Now, is it full?” They go, “Well, now it’s full.” He says, “No, it’s not.” He pours water over the gravel.
He says, “Now, if I had poured the water first, I would never have been able to put in the big rocks.” “If you start …” he says, “with the little things, you never have time for the big ones. But if you do the rocks first, you will always have time for the gravel and the water.” I try to remember that in the morning when I’m studying or writing. I try to think, I will answer all the emails. I know I will. But if I answer all the emails, I will not go back and do the writing and the study. You got to do the big rocks knowing I promise you that you will have time to put in the gravel and the water. But that’s a hard discipline to stick to because technology tries to make the gravel and the water increasingly attractive, and the rocks take work.
David: That’s beautifully said. I mean, it’s hard to really sit and study things because it’s not just … I mean, even if you take reading, different kinds things that I would call rocks, the internet has this way of … I love what you said. It drives out the urgent and gives you … Or it drives out the important and it gives you the urgent. Even with reading, it gives you the new, the novel, the recent. There’s this certain class of ideas. I really struggle with this, where there’re things that later in my life, if I wasn’t studying them everyday now, I would severely regret them. Yet every time I sit down to read them, it’s not the highest leverage thing I could be doing right now.
Rabbi Wolpe: Whenever somebody says, you have to read this. I say, “No, I don’t.” Unless you want to say, you have to read this it’s Anna Karenina or it’s War and Peace. But if it’s the latest post from CNN, or it’s an opinion piece in The New York Times, I might want to read it. I’m sure it’ll be interesting. It might be illuminating. But believe me in a year, you won’t remember that you read it. Maybe in six months, maybe in a week, maybe in a day. Every time someone says, “This you have to see.” My immediate reaction inside my head is, “No, I don’t.” I never send something to someone and say, “You have to read this.” Because I know that that’s just not true. We so saturate ourselves with ephemera that we have lost, to some extent, the ability to pay attention to things that really matter. One of the ways, by the way that I suggest you do this … By saying, I suggest you do this, is one of the ways I do it. It may not work for you.
I take walks early in the morning and I listen to books on tape. I put my phone in my pocket and I turn my notifications off, so I have no idea if someone’s texting me or they’re not texting me. I’m just listening to the book. Until I’m done with the walk, I don’t look at my phone. I’m just walking in the morning listening to the book. Amazingly, I’ve done this now on and off for years and years and years. Guess what? I never got a text that said, you won a million dollars and the Nobel Prize if you react within three seconds. Every text I ever got, it was okay that I answered it once I got back to the house. I’m telling you, it’s actually possible to do. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do. You just have to get in the habit of doing it. Also, you have to educate the people around you. It’s usually just a few people who always expect an automatic answer that at certain times of the day or for certain reasons, you might not answer immediately.
That’s because you’re doing something else and you’re allowed to do something else. You’re a person. Before there were these phones, we didn’t expect this, that someone would always be at your beck and call night and day. This is a new thing.
David: Yeah. We were talking about space and time earlier, and there’s been another effective technology that Judaism tries to push against. I think a lot of religions do. It is temporality and the way that seasons take the day and they stretch daylight like an accordion during the summer and collapse it during the winter. What we have in Judaism is a year. Every week, there’s a Torah portion that you continually read and you go around in that cycle. You spin around it. It restores the reality of different types of year. Whereas if you are just scrolling your Twitter feed and you’re just looking at the clock and you have lights to illuminate your room and you have air conditioning, the time of year doesn’t actually matter all that much.
Rabbi Wolpe: You said earlier in the podcast that because you live in a city, you are disconnected sometimes from the transcendent. It’s true. When you walk out at night, you don’t see stars, you see the lights of the city. Or if you do see stars, it’s not like you see stars in a natural environment. Buildings are everywhere around us. I live in LA. The cycle of nature is also, we are protected from it. I mean, it still matters, it still exists obviously. Especially in places where there is a real cycle, not so much in LA. But on the East Coast, when winter comes, when snow comes, it’s real. But we have done everything we can to create an artificial environment that detaches us. There was a Swiss writer named Max Frisch, and he said, technology is the knack of arranging the world so you don’t have to experience it. There is something to that.
We try not to experience the world because we want to be comfortable and safe. But there is a counter movement to that. People who go to things like Burning Man, they do that I think in part, because they want to feel the earth beneath your feet is an important spiritual undertaking.
David: Yeah. There’s a word that you’ve used, re-enchantedness. That you need to find this beauty in something over and over again. Talk about that idea.
Rabbi Wolpe: I said in one of my sermons, I quoted John Burroughs, who was a naturalist, who said, if you want to see something new, take the same walk you took yesterday. Everything changes. You change, the world changes, and sometimes in very subtle ways. But you can rediscover things infinitely just like you can rediscover people infinitely. None of us are the same as we were yesterday. All of us have more sides than a lifetime gives us the opportunity to uncover. You can rediscover, reinvent, re-enchant. The idea that anything is exhausted is probably untrue. The world is infinitely rich. The question is less whether you’re bored of something than whether what it is you’re investing in is worth your time. Because if it’s worth your time, then it’s inexhaustible. The same way that you could spend your entire life investigating one field of science or a couple of books or one episode of history, or … I mean, everything has endless ramifications. The idea of re-enchantment is in part to discover a new, how miraculous and wondrous the world really is. Which doesn’t require a new world, it just requires different eyes.
David: They’re sort of being re-enchanted and then there’s the spark of enchantment. What have you found in common among conversion moments? What brings people to the faith and what sparks that first enchantment?
Rabbi Wolpe: I’m not sure that I know of a common denominator. It can be very, very different things. I’m going to sort of cop out by saying the common denominator is something that speaks deeply to that particular soul. For some, it’s a relationship. For some, it’s an intellectual discovery. For some, it’s an artistic discovery. For some, it’s a moment of travel. I don’t know that there’s any single thing that ties them all together other than this is the thing that did it for you.
David: Yeah. I was getting my hair cut about a year ago and it was right before Easter weekend. My barber had three kids and he was talking about what he was going to do for Easter weekend. He said, “We’re going to go to church. We’re going to take the whole family. We’re going to go to church. I got to raise the kids religiously.” I said, “Are you religious?” He said, “I never go to church.” I thought it was funny that, and I know a lot of people like this who insist on raising their kids religiously, and I may even do the same. Yet people like me, people like many others, aren’t actually very active in practicing their own faith. What’s going on there?
Rabbi Wolpe: I think that people feel as though this is something that children should know something about and should have some experience of. I mean, because the truth is, if you don’t give them experience of it, then there’s no chance that they will have any understanding of what it is that religion is about. The only chance that they have of understanding it is if you give them some grounding. It’s like a language, you’ll never speak it quite the same way if you’re only introduced to it as an adult. It’s an opportunity that parents give their children to … You can discard it later on, but it’s much harder to pick it up. I mean, I wrote a book called Teaching Your Children About God. I think it’s a great experience for both parents and children to explore religious traditions together and brings them closer and teaches them a lot about each other and about themselves.
David: Who have you studied in terms of giving sermons? I mean, I think that one of the things that you do particularly well is you draw from a world of basically one minute stories that you have saved.
Rabbi Wolpe: Yeah. In some ways I don’t have a good memory. There are a lot of things I don’t remember. I can read a book and I will forget weeks later what the plot was, who the characters were, but I’ll remember two lines from it and they’ll stick with me my whole life. I have, I don’t know, a weird kind of Rolodex in my head. I have quotes and stories that are endless. I clearly got this from my father who was the same .. He had a better memory in general, but a lot of my stories are from him. He was a rabbi. He was a wonderful, wonderful speaker. I grew up listening to him. I think that there’s no question that anyone else comes far second in terms of influencing me and how I spoke and how I learned and how I think about things. It’s a great gift because, in what I do, the story tends to be more lasting in people’s minds than the idea or than the argument. We are all both storytellers and story consumers.
I mean, if you think about it, everything you watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime and everything you discuss with your friends about what’s happening with their friends and everything you know about your family, they’re all stories. We live in this constant web of stories. Every book you read, fiction or nonfiction, they’re still filled with stories. Very few people read a statistics book. Even statistics tell a story if they’re attached to anything in the world. Stories are just the fabric of every life. If you remember stories and you tell stories, you can influence people in a way that I think nothing else can.
David: What did your dad do so well with storytelling?
Rabbi Wolpe: He had a story for almost every occasion. I learned from him how to draw from not only Jewish sources, but culture, art, music, almost everything. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home filled with books and where he was always reading. My mother read a good deal too, though not like my father. I was the same. I just grew up devouring books and I’m proud to say that my daughter does the same. I’m always ordering books and I’m filled with books. I mean, I look around my shelves and I think, “Oh my God, I want to read that. Or I want to reread that. Or I need more time because I haven’t had a chance to read that and it’s been sitting there.” It’s like, the head of the public radio station here, Ruth Seymour used to be the head, KCRW, she said that she had next to her bed, the shelf of constant reproach. All these books that were looking at her and said, “Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?”
I feel as though I leave in a house of constant reproach, all these books saying, “Listen, I’ll wait for you. Don’t get me wrong. When you open me, I will still be here. I will be very patient, but I’ve been here for a long time already. Why are you … You should open me and read me already.” The amazing thing is … I don’t know if other people have this experience. I’m sure some people do. There are books that have been on my shelf for so long that in some ways I almost don’t see them because they’ve been there for so long in the same place. Yet something, I’ll read a review or something will strike me and I will read them. Then it’s almost as if it reminds me of the kid who used to sit at the back of the class and the whole semester they wouldn’t say anything. Then they would open their mouth and you would go, “Oh my God, what a smart kid? I never knew.” There are books that have wonderful stuff in them, but I just never got to them.
I’m so glad that I did before I can’t get the books anymore.
David: Yeah. It’s funny, we’re talking about storytelling, but there’s a particular kind of Larry David dry humor that is all over the Jewish tradition. What’s going on there?
Rabbi Wolpe: I think that partly this is how Jews dealt with difficulty. I’ve never been able to find this quote though I’ve quoted it many times. But I once heard that Nietzsche said that wit closes the coffin on an emotion. In other words, you’re feeling something and it’s painful and you don’t want to feel it, so you make a joke about it and it makes it go away. I think that that’s how Jews dealt with a lot of painful emotions, is they made it funny. Larry David is a really good example. He’s in all these situations that are really painful situations in lots of ways, but they’re funny so you don’t feel the pain of them. There is no question that that, and also is allied to and in this, I think we’re like some other ethnic groups, I think of the Irish, for example, allied to a certain verbal dexterity.
Which I think comes to the Jews in part, because we wandered and we have to learn so many languages in wandering, but also because we are a tradition of words. The Bible, the Talmud. I mean, Judaism is a web of words. That’s what it is. If you’re verbally dexterous, then humor is likely to find its way in there as well. Well put all that together and you get a long line of Jewish comedians.
David: This word thing is interesting. I don’t if sort of followed that a little. How is beautiful Jewish writing different in Hebrew versus English?
Rabbi Wolpe: I don’t want to say it’s deeper. It’s different. First of all, it’s hard to say which books in English are Jewish. Is Saul Bellow’s book Jewish? I think it is. But I’m not sure that every Jewish writer writes Jewish books. This is how I think of it. Maurice Samuel, who was a writer and translator, he said, the reason that Jews are still around is that they decided they were not leaving until they figured this thing out. I think that there is something about Jews asking fundamental questions of existence because existence has been so naughty and so difficult and so sometimes tragic. That in Jewish books, really Jewish books are not just light humor. They’re biting humor. I think of the difference between Jewish humor and say a P. G. Wodehouse. That’s light humor. It’s not trying to get at the guts of existence the same way, but Jewish humor does. It can be very painful. I know some Jewish jokes that are actually painful to hear because they’re deep and difficult.
David: I wonder if there’s something too about how in Genesis God names things. That is God’s power, to name something, to give it a word. Do you ever named something, and then it has a name and then you try to call it?
Rabbi Wolpe: Yup. God creates the world with words. That God is a word God. I mean, it said, God, doesn’t spin the world on a finger. God says, let there be light and there’s light. In fact, in the morning prayers, we say “blessed be the one who spoke and there was the world.” As soon as you have a God who creates the world by words, you know that words are going to be very powerful for this tradition. The revelation at Sinai is words. That’s what it is. It’s not like God comes down and says, “Here I am.” No, God gives tablets that have words on them. In fact, I wrote, my second book was about this idea. It was called In Speech and in Silence: The Jewish Quest for God. It was all about how words in the Jewish tradition play the role they do. It was inspired by my mother when she was in her early 50s, had a stroke and became aphasic. She couldn’t speak and was that way for the rest of her life.
I began to think much, much more deeply because of her tragedy about what words mean and what they don’t mean. There’s no doubt the more you investigate the Jewish tradition, the more the word is at the heart of it.
David: Yeah. Let me give you two examples. I think the first was, when I was in Hebrew school, we never wrote G-O-D. We wrote G-D. We never wrote the holy name of God. Then whenever we would drop a Torah, you kissed the Torah when you picked it up.
Rabbi Wolpe: Right. That second example especially. That you would kiss something with words, when you kiss the Mezuzah, which people do, you’re not kissing the design, you’re kissing the fact that it has a scroll in it with God’s name. Words along with human life, words are the only other things that are holy. So yeah, that’s why we’re funny.
David: That’s funny. One of the things that I’ve gotten to explore preparing for this, is my own name. I can’t believe I had never had a serious interaction with my name. You wrote a book called King David: The Divided Heart. David is a deeply paradoxical figure. Both of us are named after him. David means beloved, but also there are aspects of David that are evil, that are sinful, but then he was also this magnificent King and husband and a caretaker. You begin by saying that he’s the first human being in literature. What, besides the fact that you were named after him, drew you to studying David and where did that exploration take you?
Rabbi Wolpe: I was asked to write a book for the Yale University Press series. It has a Jewish life series, ancient and modern and so on, and they asked me if I would consider writing a book. If so, who did I want to write about? I thought about it and I thought, I’ve always wanted not to write about David, but to know more about David. The best way to learn about somebody is to teach about them or to write about them. I took that on in part because David is the most developed character by far in the Hebrew Bible. No one else comes close. Second, because as you say, he’s such a problematic character. He is savage and sublime and a poet and a lover and a murderer and repentant and a King and depicted in some ways as a son and as a father and as a lover of women in every sense of that word. Someone who listens to women and pays attention to them and does what they say.
I have to say that the more I studied David and the more I continue to, because this isn’t something that stopped when I finished the book, the more I am amazed at the contradictions of his character and the way in which he embraces almost all of the human of his time. I think that that’s part of the reason why his contemporaries were so fascinated with him, because it is rare to find somebody who’s that large. In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s quite that large a person in the depiction of him. Now, I’m sure … I mean, they’re called the Brief Lives. It’s a short book. You could write a whole another book about David, so rich is his life, and you could come to different conclusions. But I don’t think it is possible to see him and not see what my subtitle was, the divided heart. That David is pulled in many, many different directions at different times. The complexities of his character are stunning and remarkable.
David: A lot of the modern world has this thirst for novelty. Judaism with these sacred texts, we go back. What you’re doing with that book is you’re going back into, I believe the Talmud to study David and to try to pull in a new synthesis of ideas that have existed for a long time.
Rabbi Wolpe: Yeah. I mean, it’s the Talmud, the Bible, later scholarship, medieval scholarship, modern scholarship. It doesn’t end. Archeology, because they’ve uncovered some stuff that they believe is from David’s time. That’s one of the glories of a long tradition. Is that, as I said, look, I read an awful lot about David in English and in Hebrew. I’m sure there are libraries that I didn’t even got to. There’s just been so much, and it is so rich. This returns to what I said before, which is that if you’re bored, you just are not looking in the right place because the world is full of more than you could exhaust in a million lifetimes. One of them is these fascinating characters of history who have so much to tell us and teach us because it’s like what the Greek said about Plato, whatever road of life you walk down, you find him on the way back.
He’d already been there and he could tell you about it. You got to figure, whatever happens to us in this world, other people have experienced something very similar, if not exactly the same thing. If you look in the right place, they have some wisdom to tell you about it.
David: Yeah. I have two more questions. The first one is, I’m just going to give you a thought experiment here. If Jews, and rabbis in particular, have the ability to interpret the Bible and to make interpretations and then change how we do things, why don’t we move the bar mitzvah age back? Let me give you a case for this. What a bar mitzvah is supposed to be is a coming of age. Where as I understand it, you then become an adult in the Jewish faith. In 21st century, I don’t think that being 13 is old enough in order to do that. What if we move the bar mitzvah age back and why don’t we consider that?
Rabbi Wolpe: We have considered it. People would love to do it, but I don’t think it’s possible. But the reason that it’s not possible is because there’s no, even though … The reason that rabbis would like to do it is because it would keep people in Jewish school longer. That’s the main reason. Because right now, generally people’s impression of what Judaism is about finishes at 13. Imagine if all you knew about, I don’t know, anything, mathematics, history, whatever, English stopped at 13. They have a very juvenile conception of what Judaism is, but I’m afraid it’s a no go. The parents won’t do it. The children won’t do it. It’s just logistically enormously difficult. Even though I agree with you ideologically, it would be beneficial. If you want to start the national movement, good luck to you.
David: Honestly, I would consider it. I mean, one of the things that I think that we need is having more time with at least open religious education, where it’s normal, where you can do that until later. That is one of the great things about religious traditions. Where philosophy, if you take that after undergrad, you basically only study it if you intend to become a philosopher. Churches and synagogues, they have a different take on it. They say you study this for your life. Whether you’re Jewish or not, whatever your faith, I think that for the thing that you anchor yourself around, it should be a lifetime study. I strongly believe 13, not old enough to become an adult in the Jewish faith.
Rabbi Wolpe: I agree with you.
David: I was talking to my roommate and I came down. I had finished your book all in one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about these ideas, probably more than any podcast in memory. I just spent just absorbing all the things that you had said. There was something really interesting that I think spoke to the essence of my interpretation of what you’re trying to do with your work. My roommate said, “Are you drawn to Rabbi Wolpe or are you drawn to the faith through Rabbi Wolpe?” I said, “I’m drawn to the faith through Rabbi Wolpe.” I’m wondering if there’s something in what it means to be a rabbi of a custodian of God’s ideas or what is it that rabbis are trained to do?
Rabbi Wolpe: Rabbi means teacher. The main function of a rabbi is to teach, but it is also true that rabbis do a lot of pastoral life cycle events, funerals, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, counseling. But all of it is supposed to be influenced by the teachings of the tradition. It isn’t supposed to come entirely from you. It’s supposed to come through you. That is, whatever it is you’ve learned should come through you. To the extent that it does, you’re more likely to be successful. But in the modern world, rabbis do all those things and also they run organizations. I mean, I run a synagogue, I have a staff, I belong to different organizations, I write, I do consult. I do all that kind of stuff. It’s a job that is really great if you like to do a lot of different things. It is not by any means a 9:00 to 5:00 job. Also, the other point about it is, it is a job that becomes merged with who you are.
You don’t go to the supermarket and say, “There’s the lawyer.” You don’t necessarily go to the supermarket and say, “There’s the doctor.” But you do go to the supermarket and say, “There’s the rabbi.” Because you don’t step away from your role when you step away from the synagogue. There are things about that that are good and things about that that are difficult. But anybody who goes into the clergy has to know they are assuming an identity that they will not be able to shed at their convenience. I can’t say to you all of a sudden, “Okay, don’t think of me as a rabbi right now.” Having said that, I feel unbelievably lucky, really unbelievably lucky to have done what I have done thus far with my life. I wouldn’t change it.
David: Rabbi Wolpe, thank you very much.
Rabbi Wolpe: Thank you.