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Exclusive Interview with Rabbi David Wolpe - A Spiritual Leader for the Modern Age

America's Most Influential Rabbi joins Shalom Life for an intimate conversation

By: Teri London
Published: November 5th, 2012 in Culture » Society » Interviews
Rabbi David Wolpe

TL: That’s truly the way the message reaches the masses in the modern era, social media.

RW: Yes there is no doubt about it.

TL: Absolutely. You’re a conservative rabbi but you often write, speak, and debate about modern Jewish thought. Is it difficult to apply traditional values and beliefs into contemporary society, on social media, for example, without losing sight of your core principles?

RW: It can be but, I think a lot of rabbis do it very successfully so I try to model myself along the people that do. My first and still best model is my father who is the rabbi of Har Zion temple for many years. And I saw how he used the tradition to speak to the congregation week after week. And I realized you can absolutely use traditional messages in part because everything changes from the time of The Bible. You know language, technology, where we live, and the sort of envelopes of circumstances surrounding our lives. But the one thing that has not changed is human nature. People laugh and cry and fall in love and pray and hope and dream just the way Abraham and Sarah did. So if you steal the essential messages from tradition, they still apply just the way they always did. And it doesn’t matter if you put a message on Twitter or in a study house, the message you're saying should touch people in much the same way.

TL: Given all the changes to our modern society that you were just discussing, why do you think it’s still so difficult for conservative Jews to accept the biblical criticism?

RW: I think that it’s very hard for people at the same time to feel the tradition that has deep roots and divine and yet understand how much of it is a product of human creativity. That’s a difficult balance so; it’s easier to think, it’s all G-d or its only people. And if it’s only people then I can discard it anyway I want. If it’s all G-d then I can never ever think of changing no matter how much the modern world may demand it. But I believe that Conservative Judaism represents this idea of ongoing dialogue between people and G-d and just like friendship many many important things are said but there’s always a possibility to say a new thing. So for me that’s the most exciting wonderful model, but I understand that it’s a model that for some people is difficult because it puts all of your life in a sort of dynamic balance so you can’t rest in one place too easily.

TL: You’ve been featured in various newspapers, television shows, news shows, and participated in several public debates with renowned scientists and spiritual leaders about your beliefs; was there ever a moment during a conversation or a debate that you yourself questioned your Jewish faith?

RW: There was never a moment that I questioned my Judaism. There were many moments in my life when I’ve questioned my faith in various aspects, absolutely. I think there are probably people who are sort of gifted with faith the way Mozart is gifted with music, and they never doubt G-d's presence in their lives for a moment. I have not been so blessed and I certainly do feel sometimes, not necessarily in the moment of the debate, more often in quieter moments I sense doubt, I feel, I understand regret. I mean you know what Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav said, he said “He was a moon man, his faith waxed and waned.” And I feel that sometimes, there are sometimes I feel it more, there are sometimes when I feel it less. But I had never doubted the value and the worth of the Jewish way of life. That to me, I’ve seen it in evidence so often in so many places and I believe Judaism has contributed so much to the world, that for me that’s not something I ever ever doubt.

TL: That’s beautiful. You stirred up some controversy about 10 years ago; when you told your congregation that the biblical description of the Exodus was not correct.

RW: Yes, yes.

TL: More recently, you’ve stated that recent archaeological digs could prove that small groups of people had left Egypt and influenced the Canaanites. Have you discovered any new evidence in the last 2 years, since this statement?

RW: Well I, even at the time I thought it was very unlikely that some Jews left Egypt, but the biblical account is not intended to be and shouldn’t be taken into historical account. I still think that’s true. But what I had said at the time is that that will not always matter. That we don’t turn to the Torah for factual history, we turn to it for a sense of spiritual history. That is empowering to human soul and G-d’s work in the world. So it’s easy for me that I see that everything is confirmed in these conclusions. I mean every now and then someone will send me “have you seen the latest evidence of Exodus” and it always proves to be the hack work of amateur or professional archaeologists or that historians don’t accept it. This is taken for granted in every university in the world outside for, specifically, religious institutions. If you study the bible in archeology anywhere between Hebrew University and Harvard, you’ll find essentially what I said in that sermon. I think the best Judaism can withstand that scholarship, we shouldn’t ignore it or belittle it or close our eyes to it, because you know -החותם של אמת אלה - The seal of Goddess Truth.

TL: Beautiful. I want to make sure I cover this before we run out of time here...

RW: Sure.

TL: You’ve previously stated that it is a mistake for a rabbi to endorse one candidate or another in regards to the upcoming election, and that your role is apolitical…

RW: Yes.

TL: You’ve mentioned that you would happily bless the Republican Convention as well as the DNC, etc. However later you mention that this election you were a single issue voter and that issue is Iran and their access to nuclear weapons. With the election less than 3 weeks away, do you think one candidate has made a stronger case for the issue?

RW: (Laughs) You are trying to trap me!! You heard me exactly correctly; I said that thing about being a single issue voter because I think of the possible annihilation of a large part of Israel, as much as all of that is painful with the question of nuclear weapon, I think it is foolish to think that if Iran has nuclear weapons then we are rest assured they would never be used. I have very astute, thoughtful, and I think well informed members of my congregation. As well as political pundits who fall on both sides of this issue. For me to tell you what my conclusions are would be suggestive somehow as a rabbi I have more political insight than they have. I don’t think that’s true and therefore I don’t offer a political opinion because I think it’s an illegitimate use of the authority Rabbinate to say this is the guy or that’s the guy. So no, I wouldn’t say one or the other, I think that’s for everybody to search their conscious and search the two men’s records and then decide.

Related articles: rabbi, rabbi david wolpe, david wolpe, sinai temple, los angeles, judaism, jewish, jews, la, hollywood, Israel, social media, Facebook, election, Iran, election 2012, obama, romney, progressive, la times, jerusalem post, jewish week, newsweek, dnc
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