Lawrence Kushner —
Kabbalah and the Inner Life of God

The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah is a rich, magnetic world of thought and teaching. It has resonance with modern understandings of reality — and describes a cosmic significance to the practical moral call to tikkun olam, "repair the world." Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is a long-time student and articulator of the mysteries and messages of Kabbalah. We speak with him in honor of the 20th-century historian Gershom Scholem, who resurrected this tradition from obscurity and made it accessible to modern people.

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is a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. His many books include God Was In This Place & I, i Did Not Know, Kabbalah: A Love Story and I’m God, You’re Not.

Selected Audio

Honoring the Life and Legacy of Gershom Scholem — The Scholar Who Resurrected Kabbalah From Obscurity

Lawrence Kushner was influenced, like every modern student of Kabbalah, by a Jewish historian and philosopher named Gershom Scholem. He was born in 1897 and died in 1982, and literally resurrected this tradition from obscurity. It’s in honor of Gershom Scholem’s legacy that we've created this show. It's in the spirit of Kabbalah — which wraps teachings in teachings, wisdom in wisdom, life within life — that we get to know Scholem through the living ideas of this rabbi in his lineage. But we also offer these other windows onto Scholem's legacy, and we will continue to build on this exploration in coming months.

Dr. Zvi Leshem — Scholem's Fanatic Love Of Books

The director of the Gershom Scholem Library at the National Library of Israel discusses the life and legacy of the man who resurrected Kabbalah in the 20th century. With senior producer Lily Percy, Dr. Leshem talks about Scholem's fanatic love of collecting Jewish books and the "Sholem system" of classification.

Bernard McGinn — The Scholarship of Gershom Scholem

Dr. Bernard McGinn is a historian, scholar, and theologian at the University of Chicago. Senior producer Lily Percy speaks with him on the academic legacy of Gershom Scholem and his impact on modern scholarship of Kabbalah.

Gershom Scholem — On the Confrontation of Man with Himself (1975)

This rough archival audio of the late 20th-century historian and scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, was recorded at the Panarion conference of Jungian thought in 1975 in Los Angeles.

About the Image

Visitors engage with Jim Campbell's "Scattered Light" exhibit at the 2011 Northern Spark festival in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The exhibit features 1,536 LEDs encased in standard light bulbs and suspended in mid-air. The LED bulbs are programmed so that, when viewed up close, they 'play back' previously recorded video footage in very low resolution. From other points of view, the outdoor sculpture is just scattered light.

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Funding was provided in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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It hurts to see On Being promulgating the politicized re-definition of "tikkun olam."

The phrase "tikkun olam" was co-opted by Michael Lerner (of Tikkun magazine) who re-defined it into a pop-culture, left-of-center catch-all meme meaing "social justice".

In his OpEd article "On the 'Tikkun Olam' Fetish" Professor Steven Plaut states:

"The bottom line is that, at the hands of Jewish liberals, "Tikkun Olam" has become a nonsense mantra representing nothing more than the replacement of actual Judaism with a pseudo-theology consisting entirely of the pursuit of liberal political fads."

For a detailed treatment of the mis-use of the phrase see:

For a lighter treatment see:

Oh those pesky "liberal political fads" like promoting peace, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the orphaned and the widowed, and preserving natural resources and the environment. You know, things that Judaism and Jewish text don't discuss at all (/sarcasm). Tikkun Olam, like most ideas in a tradition as old, wide, and deep as Judaism, is bigger than your small mind. While you're busy complaining about semantics and politics, Lerner, as well as Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and progressive-minded Orthodox Jews are out repairing the world.

The correct phrase for all the good things you described that we Jews do to improve the world is "tzeddek u'mishpaht" (righteousness and justice). My sense is that Lerner chose to co-opt the phrase "tikkun olam" because of its mystical connotation and its distance from Torah law (halakha) which is the context for "tzeddek u'mishpaht" and which the liberals reject.

Ryan ;) Avraham Aveinu negotiating with Hashem over Sodom vs. Yona haNavi running away from engaging with Nineveh (the tzaddik keeping warm in his peltz)

And there's this well-written 12-page essay on how the meaning of Tikkun Olam has changed:

Len, "mis" use? uh? why the need to disparage the "olam hazeh" focus? Torah is the balance of olam hazeh and olam habah.

Tzeddek U'mishpaht is all about this world. Tikkun Olam is something else entirely.

What a delightful stimulus this was for one on a spiritual journey. Keep on challenging us Krista Tippett!

Thank you so very much for sharing with us. a great knowledge filled wisdom and love.

Given that God is love, infinite in time and space, and all that exists is unified in the oneness of God, and to God, everything is now, then why do we experience time, trouble, apartness? I think it's because the purpose of this life is twofold: to learn, and to love ("Life after Life" by Ron Moody, about the common message from many near-death experiences). Learning requires sequence, change from before to now, and hope requires linear time in order for our lives to change from now to later. Time is simply a construct that allows us to learn to love, to experience growth and change. Time is both sequential and simultaneous.

I think the garden is the best metaphor for dealing with evil, suffering - all things difficult. All plants need good fertilizer to grow. Those difficult things in our life are nothing more than fertilizer which enables us to grow and become what it is we are called to be! This metaphor is used again and again in Biblical understanding beginning even with the creation stories.

This episode was beautiful and mind expanding. Thank you so much.

1st--just wonder-full, engaging and...writing as a 'Christian Buddhist' (let's call me a 'Mertonite') that several of the central Buddhist teachings from my particular 'School' pretty closely match what the Rabbi is discussing, e.g. 'not one not two', Coemergent Wisdom
just name a couple--easily 'unpackable' into m u c h more, and the William James material for those of us who have been fortunate enough to encounter one or another of the 12-Step Programs started by AA and Bill Wilson. I suspect there is only one 'truth, but
what that might look like- and given the fact that 'truth' (vs Truth) is a created thing and therefore subject to 73 I keep being gently confronted by 'no coincidence' and 'I don't know.

While on my way to lead a small, rural Christian congregation in worship this morning, I tuned into "On Being." The subject of the intimate conversation between Krista Tippett and Lawrence Kushner caused me to slowly drive around this village several times so that I could hear the whole interview. I must confess. I retold Rabbi Kushner's story of what was behind the curtain. Of course, I gave credit in the retelling. What was profound for me was insight I gained about the person of Peter who, in the weeks following Easter, looked into the mirror as his inner healing began. Such a gift for me, for Peter and I hope for some of God's children in this small congregation..

Wow, sounds like one of many a high conversation from college, complete and replete with the host's giddy laughter of a high college student. We had more Walter Benjamin in it though.
Astounding commentary on our contemporary society that this radio piece considered erudite at this time.

The big hole in Rabbi Kushner's presentation is that mysticism never disappeared from the Orthodox world. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin recounts, for Orthodox Jews Scholem was an "accountant" - he knew where the treasure was but it wasn't his to use. In many ways Scholem was superfluous for the Orthodox.

I absolutely loved this interview with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. I'm Jewish and this interview totally speaks to me and my journey of the past few years. It's what I don't find at my local synagogue service. I'm happy to have his thoughts dovetail with other spiritual ideas I've been learning about that resonate with me that also say that everything is connected, and there is no time. It's nice for me to hear these ideas within a Jewish context. Thank you for this wonderful interview.I'm eager to digest the reading list you posted.

שלום עליכם
Thanks for an excellent episode.
The Sefer Yetzirah 1:7 refers to "the One without a second", which is the only reference I am acquainted with in the Abrahamic traditions. The Vedic traditions have plenty of references to it. While Yechidah is said to be indistinguishable from Ein Sof, the assertion does not seem to be quite so direct as "Atman is Brahman". Of course in other traditions circumspection is even more prudent, as in the case of Mansur al- Hillaj.

Thought provoking interview and it is very interesting to get a basic understanding of Jewish Mysticism and see the parallels to Zen Buddhism. It is refreshing when there is open nonjudgmental dialogue.

Delicious... I laughed... and cried.

Thanks so much .

What an exquisite talk. The interconnectedness aspect brought forth captured me. I am so grateful for this conversation and for the opportunity to hear from a reliable source about the Kabbalah. I have always been interested in learning about it and I loved the little stories......especially the one on the holy darkness escaping by accident and the scattered light filling everything.....the purpose of our existence....the collective responsibility, the excerpts used to clarify. Hope there will be more on the Kabbalah.

Near the end of this marvelous interview, Rabbi Kushner humorously concludes that the child who surmised that nothing lay behind the curtain was a nihilist.
“Everything in the world is made of Ein Sof. Everything in the world is the wave of which the Ein Sof, or God, is the ocean.” “It has no beginning, it has no ends, it's not bordered by anything, it has no definition, it has no spatial coordinates. “
It is from the nothing that creation takes place. “The Zohar says that the aleph is a seed in which is enwrapped the entire Torah, and what it means to be a religious person, is to spend your life unpacking that seed.” Perhaps it is the moment each day we awaken to our worlds. It is the click of a curtain drawn back, “the noise that your larynx makes as it clicks into gear.”
“God experiences the past, the present, and the future as one present continuous reality.” We do not have the attribute of infinite wisdom that springs from “no time.” Before one can reflect, one must act. Create. From nothing, a universe in which we can see ourselves.

where is this concept from "....the noise that your larynx makes as it clicks into gear.?"

I liked Kushner's definition of a mystic: "A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity."

Kushner’s quote is great, but is definitely from a Neo Platonic perspective. The gnostic in me would conclude, “might reveal a cosmic brokenness”

Great episode.

Thank you for your program of May 15. I have read several of Rabbi Kushner's books and was delighted to him speak. He is truly a blessing.

Beautiful, to say the least...

Excellent interviewing by both Krista and Lily for this fascinating subject. Thank you.

look this is very goods.

Comment on how in "revealed religions" new thought has to masquerade as commentary. On the other hand, we live in an age where many of us feel we've discovered a new way of thinking, writing, expressing ourselves creatively - and yet, given the nature of Creation... aren't we all engaging in a form of commentary? Just saying - it may be a valid metaphor even as we see clear boundaries of the thought models that gave rise to that thinking.