Of Gods and Turtles: An Unpublished Interview
I’ve been giving a few interviews lately. This one, I am told, will not be published, so I am publishing it. I am keeping the interviewer’s name out of it as per his request.
Rumor is that you find Judaism too narrow for your tastes, and too small to hold your spiritual experiences. When did you stop being a Jew?
A Jew can’t stop being a Jew any more than a Chinese person can stop being Chinese or a Navaho stop being Navaho. I was born Jewish and I will die Jewish, and I am quite proud of being a Jew. As for Judaism being too small, all religions are too small.
What do you like best about Judaism?
Its pedagogy. Jews are doubters, arguers. We prefer questions to answers, and as soon as we have answers we think it best to question them. We deliberately misread our texts and in so doing reinvent them.
We don’t believe in fixed meanings. Meaning comes from the interaction of story and reader/listener/interpreter—the three are really one. We have this wonderful phrase, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim. Roughly translated it means: All opinions, no matter how mutually exclusive, are the words of the Living God if their intent is to search out the truth. I don’t know any other culture that values argument and doubt the way we Jews do. That alone makes me want to be a Jew.
What do you like least about Judaism?
Do you worry about the future of Jews and Judaism?
Worry? No. Worry doesn’t do anything. But I am concerned that Jewish education has shifted to the western model of seeking answers rather than the Jewish model of learning how to sharpen one’s questions. We need an old/new kind of Jewish academy that focuses on questions and hones one’s creative, imaginal, and critical thinking skills. What we’ve got are Jewish schools that teach you the rules of Jewish life rather than how to cultivate the genius of the Jewish mind.
I’ve heard you say you are not only Jewish.
Yes. While I am tribally and culturally Jewish, and Judaism is my primary source of spiritual nourishment and expression, I draw from the wisdom and practices of many religions, especially Vendanta Hinduism and Zen Buddhism.
And you find the same capital “T” Truth is all of these?
No. I find useful insights into how to best live my life, and powerful practices that open me to realities beyond those my normal waking mind can fathom, but Truth with a capital “T” is something else. No system can articulate Truth. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the Truth that can be named ain’t the Real Truth.
Most of your time is spent writing. If the Truth can’t be named, what is the point of writing?
I write because I have no choice. When I don’t write I feel ill. But I never write to articulate the Truth, only to share my opinions.
What do you feel is the future of the book?
I think digital books will dominate the market sooner rather than later. I’m not one to make a fetish out of paper, though I do own hardcover copies of those books that have defined my life.
The writings of Camus, Borges, and Edmund Jabes, Kafka, Nachman of Breslov, Martin Buber, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Ramana Maharshi, and Ramakrishna.
You also teach writing and religion. What have you learned from your experiences in these fields?
First, most people can’t write. Second, most people don’t read, which may be why most people can’t write. Third, most people studying the religions of the world are careful to defend their own against any intrusion from the outside. Fourth, some people are curious enough and courageous enough to let their defenses down and actually be touched and perhaps transformed by other religions. These are the people I love to talk with, teach, and learn from.
You work extensively in the field of interfaith. Do you find the same thing to be true there as in the classroom?
Yes. Most so–called interfaith dialogue is really interfaith monologue. True dialogue is unscripted, leaving the partners open to surprise and transformation. Few people are ever changed in what passes for interfaith dialogue today. They are too busy defending their truth to be open to challenging it, let alone changing it.
What about your experiences of the Divine Mother? You have written about this, so it is no secret that you think God is a woman.
God isn’t a woman or man. God is Reality. In Hinduism we speak of God with Attributes and God without Attributes. When I experience God with Attributes my experience is clearly feminine, relational, the voice I hear is that of the Divine Mother. But this is not to say God is a woman. God without Attributes, the most pure manifestation of God is ungendered. It is pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss.
And you have experienced both?
No. When I experience God, I experience the Divine Mother. The pure Godhead is not experienced for there is no “I” to experience and no “other” to be experienced. All there is, I suspect, is the pure I Am of God, Reality in and of itself.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of humanity?
Both. If people change—if we learn to overcome our intrinsic ignorance, arrogance, greed, fear and violence—I am optimistic. If we don’t, I am pessimistic. While we are good at improving the longevity of our lives, we suck an improving the quality of our living. While we get better and better at distracting ourselves; we suck at improving ourselves.
What about global warming? Do you think we will reverse this trend?
No. It’s too late for that. And, besides, I like my air-conditioning and central heating too much to give them up, and I imagine that when one billion Chinese have these luxuries as well they won’t want to give them up either. The question isn’t can we stop global climate change, but can we adapt to it and survive it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I suggest that millions of us will die while millions also survive.
You don’t think we will switch to alternative sources of energy?
Probably not in time to save our civilization. There comes a moment in the life of every empire when they have to choose to embrace the future or cling to the past. Usually they cling to the past. And when they do they begin a long slow and often bloody decline. The American moment is now. We can choose a green future and reinvent our civilization, or we can cling to our addiction to dead dinosaurs and follow them into extinction. Right now dinosaurs are winning.
So you don’t think we can turn things around?
You know the phrase, “come hell or high water?” Well, they’re both coming, and soon.
So how does that impact your work as a spiritual leader?
I’m a teacher not a leader. I don’t like following others, and I certainly don’t like others following me. But to answer your question, my concern is with cultivating compassion and loving-kindness. No one will survive what is coming alone. If we close our hearts out of fear, we will maximize the horror of what is coming, and those who do survive it will be the most heartless of all. But if we learn to open our hearts and work together in love more will survive, and do so with heart and soul intact.
Don’t you think God will intervene? Have you no hope?
Counting on God hasn’t really worked out so well for us Jews, so I don’t do that. But what I said doesn’t preclude hope. I have no hope that we will avoid the hell and high water that is coming with climate change. I have no hope that we will create a just and equitable society in place of the plutocracy we have now, but I do have hope that we can live our dying with love and compassion.
Last chance. Is there no way we can save ourselves at all?
All right, you want hope here’s hope. I have hope in Yertle the Turtle.
Yertle the Turtle? Like the Dr. Seuss book?
Exactly. Though not in Yertle himself, for he was the king. My hope is in Mack, the lowest of things. Dr. Seuss’ story is about a society where the top turtle, Yertle, rests on the backs of all the lesser turtles beneath. Mack, the lowest turtle, complains about this injustice and is told to keep still. Mack burps and topples the entire system. I have hope that some Mack will burp and the whole system will crash.
This sounds like the Tea Party.
Not at all. Tea Party turtles worship the giant tortoise on the top. They worship the system that keeps them on the bottom even as it promises them a turn at the top. Tea Party turtles never burp. The true Macks are those who realize that the entire system is sick, and that maintaining it is wrong. They are mad as hell and just won’t take it any more. Tea Party turtles are mad as hell and just keep taking it. The faux Macks will stay where they are and allow the system to continue to exploit them. The real Macks will burp, and having burped, walk away. It’s like a reverse Atas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand’s novel?
Right. In the novel the creators at the top shrug off the world of the takers at the bottom. In the Yertle version the takers are at the top: the wealthy and powerful, the greedy security-military-government-industrial-financial-media complex whose only concern is with maintaining their own power, and who add nothing of real value to human civilization. In the Rand novel the average person cannot live without the genius of the superior folks. In the Yertle version the powerful cannot live without the Macks lower down. When we Macks at last know our true worth we will burp. And when we do—watch out!