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Making a Godly Mess

Review of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Loewenthal (Hyperion, 2006).

The book jacket notes that Rabbi Kula is a regular guest on "Oprah" and, for the most part, the chapters read like a talk show guest appearance. Today, we're going to talk about the yearning for love, so let's have a big hand for our good friend, Rabbi Kula. And, to show you some love, look under your chair, you'll find a dozen roses. If "Oprah" is part of your TiVo menu and she's your overall spiritual counselor, then you might like this book. I was somewhat less enamored.

It's not that Rabbi Kula is unreadable or incomprehensible. Far from that. He's very chatty and informal like a good guest panelist, but he can also be a bit rambling which is distracting and sometimes annoying. It seems that he dictated the chapters without the aid of a good editor or TV host.

And it's too bad because he's got a lot to say and he's very articulate and learned. For example, to buttress his points, he can reference the Old Testament, the Talmud, pop psychology, and his life (more about that, later) equally well. Some of his supporting anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully while some seem peripheral to the topic. There is also an occasional over-kill to his examples. To illustrate his point, he might offer an interesting parable from the Bible or maybe a lovely moment with one of his daughters. And, then he'll offer another illustration. Then, throw in another one. By the time he finished making his point, I had lost track what it was.

His overall point seems to be, yearnings are good for us; they animate us, they drive us. If any of you feel bad about wanting something or someone or even two some things, this is Rabbi Feelgood for you. Yearning is good for you or, as he says in the book's introduction, "our desires themselves become a path to blessing." In other words, if you go with the flow, you'll grow.

While he is clear that personal longings, whether they are for Truth, Love, Happiness or Other Big Ideas, are positive, he's ambivalent about consequences. Almost every point he made was balanced by its counterpoint. Every ying had a yang. "Continuity comes in the guise of discontinuity." "Faith can't exist without doubt." "Accomplishment and escape… go together." He covered all the bases so well, that sometimes I wasn't sure what the point actually was. Part of the problem, I think, is organizational. I never quite got the rhythm of his writing. The book is about yearnings, what humans long for, their drives, and their desires. I just felt stylistically, the book was uneven and it seemed that my biggest yearning was some through-lines, some kind of continuity.

What does save the book, besides the underlying message, of course, is that he's a good conversationalist. He's not just a regular on "Oprah," he's also the host of a PBS show, "The Wisdom of Our Yearnings," and he recently wrote an advice column for the Forward. He's informal, he's witty, he's amusing; I can't believe that anyone has ever dozed off during one of his sermons. He's Freud channeling George Carlin. I'd play a round of golf with him any day!

At his best, I found his anecdotes, especially those drawn from his own life, moving. In the chapter titled "Transcendence," he talks about confronting the death of a congregant for the first time. Sam, a contractor, was a gruff, strong personality, not so likeable and was dying slowly of diabetes. Rabbi Kula was a bit afraid of him and who could blame him? Sam was not a teddy bear that you wanted to hug. Dutifully, the rabbi visited him regularly but he never really connected to Sam. One day, Sam finally said, "I think you are more afraid of what is going on with me than I am." Of course he was right and of course, Rabbi Kula learned valuable lessons from a gruff, dying man who never surrendered to death and fought it until the end. This was a personal story, told well.

Rabbi Irwin Kula

However, speaking of personal stories, and I hesitate to mention this but I think it's relevant, sometimes the rabbi gives us, as my teenage daughter would say, TMI--Too Much Information. I guess if you're a regular guest on TV and you're used to sharing your personal life with a few million people, you may begin to think that it's OK to say anything, as long as there's some kind of moral behind it. I found myself feeling self-conscious as the rabbi confessed some of his life, especially his vulnerable moments. When his future wife confided that she didn't want to have children, he "gasped, repressing the urge to literally get up… and run." At the age of 42, visiting a church for the first time, he looked at the crucifix and was horrified with "thoughts about centuries of Christian persecution of Jews. I wanted to run away." The night before taping his first PBS show, he was anxious and "lay in my bed sobbing." OK, we get it, he's metrosexual.

Even sex isn't a boundary. It's just another way to illustrate yearnings. On Sabbath, on top of a cliff overlooking Big Sur, the rabbi likes to do it (and tell us about it). Once, after his wife chastised him for always wanting to be the center of attention, he decided to clam up at the next party they attended. Surprise, she came out of her shell, he was entranced and "when we arrived home, we made love like new lovers." He must have been the greatest kid ever for show-and-tell.

I realize that it may be doing the rabbi a disservice to dwell on his candor (which I usually find a virtue) and his use of three examples when one good one would suffice. He really is an interesting person and I have focused on his form, not his substance. But, in reviewing a book or a movie, as Roger Ebert might say, it ultimately comes down to thumbs-up or thumbs-down and, in the end, I think I'd rather watch Oprah.

Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Ron Lux

Ron Lux is a writer who lives in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles with his wife, Betsy and his children, Mara and Ethan. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, the Animation Writers' Caucus and the Golf Writers Association and has written for television and national periodicals, including articles on Jewish communities in Brazil, Ireland, Wales and the Bahamas.

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