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Rabbi says moderate middle held captive by opposing poles

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Here’s where we are in America, according to Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president and founder of the New York-based Center for Learning and Leadership, a Jewish think tank: Cable TV shout-fests pass for serious public conversation. Ideologues like Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and Bill O’Reilly of […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Here’s where we are in America, according to Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president and founder of the New York-based Center for Learning and Leadership, a Jewish think tank:

Cable TV shout-fests pass for serious public conversation. Ideologues like Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News entertain their followers by regularly demonizing each others’ camps. Culture warriors on the left and right are in a fixed state of alarm, trumpeting warnings that the other side has nearly completed its plan to wipe away America’s noble past. American institutions are about to be delivered into the hands of either religious fanatics or atheists.

A little overdrawn, perhaps, but that’s the idea: American public life is currently dominated by the clamor of extremists _ secularist fundamentalists vs. religious fundamentalists, said Kula, an eighth-generation Conservative rabbi.

And, he said, religious leaders across the board are failing their own traditions when they do not hold extremists accountable for the self-centeredness and pride that taints their causes.

Kula, 50, is a writer and frequent public television fixture who last year was placed eighth on Newsweek’s list of 50 most influential rabbis in America. He’s the author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” and a popularizer of Jewish wisdom, especially for gentiles.

Kula insists he is not a moral relativist. He does not believe that all ideas are equally good. He believes that Jews, Christians and Muslims are right to hold passionately to their faiths’ wisdom.

Yet he also believes that all the great traditions hold a measure of truth, and that they all rightly caution their members against arrogant certitude in all things. St. Paul famously said as much to his fellow Christians in Corinth when he warned that they saw the world imperfectly, as in a cloudy mirror.

But that kind of intellectual humility, “the ultimate, primary spiritual value,” is largely absent in our politics and social life, Kula said in a recent conversation.

In Kula’s analysis, the fallout from the sexual revolution of the ’60s, the diminishment of marriage, new thinking around gender, sexuality and the role of faith in public life, all have so upended American culture that “we’re in systems overload. It’s freaking out the system.”

In that environment, alarmed fundamentalists at the extremes of both sides shout at each other across a broad but largely silent middle, Kula said.

Both are easy to identify: Religious fundamentalists hold to the most literal interpretation of their sacred texts; secular fundamentalists hold that “you can explain all reality through the five senses, literally, and any other explanation is suspect.”

Each shares distinctive characteristics: “You actually think you’re 100 percent right. And it’s a way of thinking that uses the rhetoric of anger or dismissal of anyone else,” he said.

But Kula thinks there is a broad, moderate majority in the middle.

“Most Americans don’t believe they have THE truth; but they like to think they have SOME truth. Most don’t buy into the views that are now taking up all the oxygen and controlling the airwaves,” he said.

He offers several prescriptions for healing, from the dinner table to the public square to the pulpit.

First, “normal people have to take responsibility.”

At the cellular level of American life, “Who are you `dissing’ at your dinner table? How are you talking?” he asked.

Kula jokes that “nobody is so smart he can be 100 percent wrong.” So “if you cannot talk about at least the partial truth of the other side _ if the only thing you can talk about is what you disagree with, you’re part of the problem.

“Second, we have to demand that political leaders look for `third-way’ positions that seek compromise even where none seems possible.”

Finally, he urges clergy of all faiths “to recover the possibility about being passionate about their own tradition and being open at the same time.”

“Religion does not simply affirm already existing positions,” he said. “If it did, what need would we have of it?”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

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A photo of Irwin Kula is available via https://religionnews.com.