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.

Pertinent Posts

After a son discovers his father's box of Chassidic folktales, he reflects on his upbringing, the enduring importance of tradition being passed down for generations, and the legacy he must carry forward (in translation).

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.

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 "Scholem 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

Gershom Scholem studies in the National Library of Israel.

Photo by the National Library of Israel

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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.

Len, I don't think that you have listened to or read the whole nearly hour long show.

Susan: I've listened to it from beginning to end three times.

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.

Thank you Nancy. I am currently reading Larry Dossey's scientific exploration of expanded consciousness "One Mind" that includes numerous references to "Life After Life" and the universality of near-death-experiences. He goes beyond NDE's to look at similar experiences not related to life-threatening situations. Listening to this interview with Lawrence Kushner it was easy for me to see strong similarities between one-mind and mystical experiences. Regardless what these experiences are called, any opportunity to connect more deeply with the divine is certainly a blessing. Another lovely and thought provoking interview Krista Tippett, thank you!

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.

I enjoyed reading about the the uses of fertilizer. I met a person at an art opening who has horses. Our garden soil is not very good so I asked him about his manure. He said I could come and dig some up and that is what I did last autumn. . Now that warm weather is on the way I will be asking him again if we would share

What ever brings me closer to God.

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.

Re Gershom Shalom and the Kabala, I strongly suggest listening to the scholar Yeshayau Leibovich:

In my view, considering that God is in everything - from soil to Hitler, is equivalent of saying there is no God at all, which is fine (as I am an atheist anyway), but the danger is greater - losing the rational for the necessity of moral.


thank you for posting this beautiful video

As a member of a Jewish Renewal Congregation in Seattle, which embraces the teachings of Kabbalah in our practice, thanks to Krista and Rabbi Kushner for this interview and making the Kabbalistic framework for G-d more accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike. Our founder, Zalman Schacter Shalomi, z"l, and others have brought these teachings to Judaism when they were most needed. And I believe we need then now more than ever.

This interesting episode illustrates perfectly that the more one tries to lock God into words, the more one drifts away from the experience of one-ness and at-one-ment we usually call “God”.

Yet, not all is lost in drifting, because the funny thing is that after drifting so far away into rationalizations, throwing bits and pieces of definitions and notions and metaphors along the road like Hansel and Gretel's crumbs, suddenly comes a story and "boom!": Here is God!

This is how it happened to me as I listened to this episode: Your guest started by carefully defining "Yesh" as "everything that is but of which one knows that it is not all there is", then he defined "Ein Sof" as "NO-thing", i.e. nothing is particular but the common substrate or essence of all things. Then he proposed the image of the mystical experience as a transient dissolution of the boundaries of a small circle (I) contained inside a large circle (God).

We seemed to be drifting so far away that, when it came to Hitler, the need was irrepressible to question the wisdom of "A" God that would allow such a "bad" entity to exist... The limits of reducing God to “A” circle were indeed reached, and the small circle started asking Big Brother for explanations! Job did it before us! It actually signals that the small circle has drifted OUTSIDE the large one!

And so we drifted and drifted until, an entire "baguette" of concepts having been sprinkled as crumbs along the road, came THE story that constitutes a perfect metaphor for the human spiritual quest: School children are told by the rabbi that, in two weeks, they will be shown what is behind the curtain of the prayer hall.
"What can there be behind that curtain?" naturally becomes the subject of much speculation among the children in the following days and the teacher witnesses and reports to the rabbi these four guesses:
"There is nothing behind the curtain" said one child;
"There is a Jewish Holy thing" said another;
"There is a brand new car" said a third;
"There is giant mirror" said a fourth.

I beg to differ from the singling out, by your guest, of the fourth answer as the most profound, and I especially disagree with his forecast that the first child would become a professor of nihilism.
To me the four answers are right on!

Since "Ein Sof is NO-thing", the first child is already a mystic; the second is obviously a fundamentalist, “right” in his own trivial way, but stuck to the surface of things; the third is a spiritual soul longing to be "transported" home; and the fourth is a contemplative discovering itself as a nut in a shell shaped as a small zero (o) reflected in a big One.

Thank you for On-Being!

The purpose is to help us see ourselves.

Mystical experiences has brought me to an awareness that I do not live a life rather LIFE lives me, sometimes I feel LIFE breathing me. The other thing is the oneness of all things. through God, I am not separate from God and God is not separate from me , it is living the REALITY from the words of The Shema

Ms. Christa, I was very disappointed in the intelligence you so clearly displayed in interviewing Rabbi Kushner. You who always profess some vague breathy faith in a mystic vision didn't even know the first thing about one of the top 5 writers on mysticism mysticism in the last at least 200 years!! I can't help but attribute it to a willful ignorance.

Rabbi Kusners wonderful insertion of the cedar was much appreciated.

Unity of emptiness and Cosmos

My nature is identical to that of everything.

There is a sense of separateness between mind and the Cosmos.

By knowing the depth nature of the mind,it may be possible to unify with the Cosmos.

Introspection facilitates impartial observation of the mind.It is realized that the mind is not a fixed entity but a dynamic field of thoughts sustained by interactions.

As the thought field is within,it may be possible to know intrinsic depths through cessation of interactions.

With cessation of interactions,there is cessation of mind accompanied by insight of emptiness.

Emptiness is intrinsic depths of the Cosmos.

The mind and the Cosmos appear to be separate.But emptiness and Cosmos are unified.

The Cosmos is extrinsic form of formless emptiness.

Lovely discussion! I must be wrong about my comment to follow, since I seem to be the only one who thinks this. The question was presented, to paraphrase, "If God is perfect and God made the world, why is the world not perfect?" My reply is, who said that the world is not perfect? Can we really know for sure that the world is not perfect. What of the horrors of our human world was not caused by our belief in imperfection, a belief in the wrongness, badness or evilness of others. Can we be sure that any of our suffering is not caused by lack of understanding.
Can we be sure that our creation and experience of evil is not perfect. God is the first one to use the word evil in God's warning not to eat from that tree, obviously knowing that we would. That would, of course, lead to a discussion of whether he created evil by naming it or if we created it by believing it. Maybe the answer is both/and if, perhaps, we are God having human experiences.
I could be way off on this, but it eases my mind to consider this crazy idea.

Such an inspiring interview. In seminary at Boston University many years ago I studied Abraham Maslow's study of peak experiences as the peak of self-actualization and how these peak experiences are epiphanies of unity and flow and peak creativity. I thought that one might create an inductive theology instead as an alternative to the normal deductive theology - that one might get a hint of God from studying these experiences that all of us can or have had.

Thanks to this program I now have a favorite Jewish story. Not from Mr. Kushner, but from Rachel Remen. Now I know why God is typically characterized as male: No all-powerful female divinity would have been so careless with the Crystal of Light! It also echoes Seane Corn's statements about turning something bad into something good for everyone, and all things. To me, this is what it means to be a son of God, if you are a Christian mystic.

What do you guys think with the thought of everything is God but yet we all have seen pimples, hitler, and other bad things.

I recently finished reading Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air," and found Rabbi Kushner's discussion of mysticism, Kabbalah, and his understanding of God closely aligned with Kalanithi’s struggle to make sense of his death in light of his life. Kushner defines “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.” Surely, Kalanithi’s book was a search for this unity.

Wonderful episode, thank you. Was struck by the parallels with Taoism, specifically philosophical Taoism, which fits Kushner's description of "theoretical" Kabbalah. (Taoism, of course, devolved into magical Taoism which sounds much like his idea of "practical" Kabbalah.) And naturally, moving on from Taoism, Kushner's description of the "unity" of mystical experience sounds essentially like the satori experience of Zen, in which "enlightenment" is that sudden encounter of the universe with your original mind, beyond opposites and dualistic thinking. Really fascinating. Thanks again.

I grew up in a Christian home with parents who gave me a traditional experience but always questioned the idea of God being outside ourself. My father studied at the University of Chicago in the early' 40's and received his theology degree. Now in my 60's, having studied yoga for close to 25 years, I am much more spiritual than religious. I loved listening to this podcast and the idea of living life to experience God. This Bakhti yoga and Karma yoga. Thank you for sharing and providing books that may be of interest. I first heard of Kabbalah thru, of all people, Madonna and found the conversation quite interesting.

"You have been, all along, contrary to all of your illusions, a dimension of the divine". Thank you.