S.F. rabbis latest book looks at religion from inside out

You can’t serve as a pulpit rabbi for three decades without picking up a few tricks of the trade.

Just ask Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, since 2002 the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Before that, he spent some 30 years as head rabbi at a congregation in Massachusetts, where he saw it all, heard it all and put up with more than one know-it-all.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Throughout those years, the rabbi –– who is also a prolific author, with many books to his name –– wrote down his reflections on congregational life, both the sacred and mundane.

And two months ago, Kushner, 67, published those reflections as a collection of stories and essays in “I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego.”

Taking a recent break from his scholarly and teaching duties at Emanu-El, he was eager to talk about the book, starting with the title — which recalls the 1970s “Saturday Night Live” catchphrase “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.”

Beyond that, the title implies that Kushner believes personal ego can mess up a good thing when it comes to spiritual fulfillment. “The goal of all spiritual life,” he says, “is to get your ego out of the way. Outwit the sucker, dissolve it; shoot it; kill it.”

In various chapters of the book, Kushner covers topics such as Jewish religious practice, mysticism and holiness. He also recounts his day-to-day experience as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass.

It wasn’t always pretty, but neither does it seem that he ever had a boring day. A few of his aphoristic conclusions about synagogue life from the book: “Beware of any meeting run by ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’: These rules do not appear in any Jewish book. Robert was not Jewish.”

Or: “Responsive reading is dumb.” And: “Family services are just a euphemism for ‘puerile.’ ”

Says Kushner, “This [book] is written by someone who spent maybe 25 years trying to keep Jews awake during a sermon.”

Ordained as a Reform rabbi by Hebrew Union College in 1969, Kushner emphasizes that God is, or should be, paramount in religious life, a message that may challenge more liberal, less God-centric Jews.

It’s part of the ego-driven religious attitude he chides in “I’m God, You’re Not.” Kushner insists it is incumbent upon Jews to learn all they can about their faith and tradition, and to embrace what makes sense to them.

“My teacher [the late Rabbi Arnold Wolf] said it best:  ’There is only one Judaism and it is Orthodox, but all Jews are Reform.’ I think that’s brilliant,” Kushner says. “Reform Jews, if they do it right, are supposed to be super educated, making highly sophisticated decisions about religious observance.”

For him that includes a wide span, from believing in a Jewish messiah (something mostly Orthodox Jews believe) to calling for drastically more converts (something mostly liberal Jews support).

In 2002, Kushner (and his wife, Karen) left the East Coast so he could take a scholar-in-residence job at Emanu-El that he now calls “the best rabbinic job in America.” He says the “only verb in my job description is to teach.”

“Every semester it’s a different group, cohort and [course] title,” he says. “It couldn’t be a better job for somebody with my skill set. I may teach parents of kindergartners, or, like this year, teaching Martin Buber to adults.”

He also teaches a Shabbat morning study group and continues to lecture widely. And write and write. So far, he has 18 books to his credit, including a string of children’s books, some co-written with his wife.

As for living in the Bay Area after so long in New England, he says, “The biggest culture shock was a positive one: figuring out the Jews in San Francisco are not looking over their shoulder for anybody. Jews here are completely comfortable with who they are, and in a strange way not neurotic.”

That helps them when they take his classes.

“I’m a  combative teacher,” Kushner says. “I love to grab people and say ‘That’s a dumb idea,’ though a little more politely.”

“I’m God You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (228 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $21.99)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.