An Introductory Interview with Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum
How did Judaism become so central to your life?
In college I began to look for meaning in life. In the early 70's, the Vietnam War caused a crisis that brought my search to a head and made me reconsider all my life choices to that point. At the same time, I began to reconsider my assimilated status as a Jew and my lack of interest in my Jewishness. For the first time in my life I became open to investi- gating Judaism. These two situations came together when I discovered that religion was the address for answers about life's meaning and that Judaism answered the questions I was asking.
What is your denominational history? How were you raised?
I was raised as a fairly typical Conservative Jew. Like many of my generation, my bar mitzvah was not the beginning of a living Jewish connection but the end. When I returned to Judaism in my mid-twenties, it was through Shlomo Carlebach and Lubavitch.
What denominational affiliation do you currently hold? How important is denominationalism to you personally and to Judaism as a whole?
I am traditionally-oriented but radical. I am not affiliated and no longer identify myself denominationally. I sometimes call myself a "spiritual Jew." I believe that we must deemphasize denominational identification and labels. The term "post-denominational" has steadily become more important to me. I believe that is the way we should go and that is the future. Judging and disapproving of others leads to nothing positive. Denominations are perhaps necessary, but they should be deemphasized so as not to be divisive. We have to support each other in our Jewish spiritual paths. What interests me is that a person be sincere and spiritually-oriented. Let each person seek Truth and God in the way he or she finds best. If we love each other, we will all grow and teach each other as we progress along the Path. If a sincere person is going in the wrong direction, he will find out in the course of time. Whatever path a person does follow, though, let it be for real. That is what is most critical -- to be real. Shlomo said in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe: God only loves what is real.
Judaism rests on three things: God, Torah and Israel. How do currently understand each of these?
I believe in the traditional God of Israel. But I accept Jewish mystic ideas of God also. I am a devotional (as well as intellectual) type and God as a Person is important to me. I can love God and be loved and talk to Him (to me God is usually a Father but Mother is good too!). The most complex "thing" we know in the universe, at this point, is the human being, the human personality. What parable or metaphor is most appropriate, then, for God? An inanimate lifeless object, like a stone? No, that is a mistake of idolators. A force, like the wind (spirit) or an energy, like electricity? There are uses for that idea, but it is too limited. Ruach HaKodesh, the holy spirit or wind, is a traditional concept but God is more than that. The human personality is the best metaphor for God. I am a person, you are a person; God is, then, at least a person. God is more than that, but at least that. If I can think and communicate with you, can't God, who created us both, also communicate?
I also view God from a more kabbalistic perspective: According to the mystics, nothing is separate from God. Neither is this world separate from God. There is nothing but God. Rather, there is, so to speak, God separate from and beyond this world and God within this world. In the usual conception people have of "God and the world," what they ordinarily call "God" is only a part or an aspect of God. Jewish mystics call the transcendental God: the Holy One, blessed be He (the root meaning of "holy" is "separate") and they call the immanent God: the Shechinah, the indwelling Divine Presence. But the two are actually one. The mystics teach that the Holy One, blessed be He, is our Father and the Shechinah -- the Soul of the world and of humanity -- is our Mother. They also teach that God, the Torah, and Israel are one, meaning that the worshiped, the worshipers, and the scripture that connects them are mystically one.
The Torah is the Tree of Life, the meaning of life. Although there are different ways to view the Torah, it is always the perfect Word of God that is a source of eternal life.
The People of Israel is a holy people, chosen by God. This does not mean that other religions are not true. Each religion has something to contribute. But one of the main contributions that Judaism can teach the world is how to sanctify the powerful phenomenon called peoplehood. As individuals, some other nation may be more religious at this time than the Jews, but as a people their nation has no connection to God (at least from my knowledge about other religious communities). The Jewish people gave up their nationhood to God at Sinai. Judaism is not to aggrandize our nationality, but to devote it to God. The prophets did not tell us how to become stronger or more powerful but how to override, if necessary, narrow national interests to serve God. Over the centuries, some Jews have misinterpreted our chosenness in an ugly way (partly a reaction to persecution); our mission is not to lord it over others, but to teach other nations how to become what we are -- a holy nation. We are the first-fruits.
What do you believe to be the central challenge facing contemporary Judaism?
The central challenge facing Judaism is assimilation; sad as it is, the majority of Jews have no living relation to Judaism. But the only way to solve this problem is by fixing the difficulty on the "inside of the inside," as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would say. The answer is spiritual, not a matter of social workers, donations, or the Federation. The current denominations have not solved our problem. Sometimes they have even contributed to it, because there are people who use denominations to divide us. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach showed us that love transcends denominationalism.
We need something new. We need a true revival. How does that happen? A real religious revival is rare and difficult to achieve. What we most desperately need are people who can reestablish a link to the divine; we need people who have the holy spirit, as had the prophets and the great hasidic rebbes. God talks to people. Only God can solve our problems. We need people to aspire to holiness and to bring down holy wisdom from heaven and lead. We have to encourage people who have this potential to fulfill it! Until that happens, we must muddle along, conserving the tradition to the best of our ability and trying to create new forms to help in our spiritual journey, using the best of what the various denominations have to offer.
How are you addressing that challenge?
I am teaching and trying to pass on what I have learned, spiritually-- mostly from the teachings of the hasidic rebbes and from my rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach-- over the last many years. I have s'micha as a maggid (preacher, storyteller) from Shlomo; I teach Jewish mysticism. I am a "spiritual storyteller" and I often teach through storytelling. One of my main interests over the years has been in hasidic stories. I have read most of the books of hasidic stories published in Hebrew.
I am also writing. At the present, my writing is more central to my activity than anything else. I have published
Aside from teaching and storytelling, my main effort has been in writing. I have nine books in print:
Real Davvening; An Open Heart: The Mystic Path of Loving People; A Tu BeShvat Seder; A Person is Like a Tree; Jewish Tales of Mystic Joy; Jewish Tales of Holy Women.; Jewish Spiritual Practices, The Life and Teachings of Hillel, and Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism.
I am a publisher of The Jewish Spirit Booklet Series. The idea is to make Jewish spirituality available in an easy way. The first volume is Real Davvening: Jewish Prayer as a Spiritual Practice and a Form of Meditation for Beginning and Experienced Davveners. The second volume is called An Open Heart: The Mystic Path of Loving People. It is about the connection between mysticism (God-consciousness, etc.) and religious humanism, what Hillel and Akiba said was the essence of Judaism: loving your neighbor. The third volume is A Tu BeShvat Seder.
I invite people to contact me with proposals.
What three things do you want people to know about you?
1. I'm traditionally oriented, but radical. I'm a mystic. The essence is to reach God and we have to do whatever is necessary to achieve that. I'm non-judgmental about people trying to find their path.
2. I believe that love of God and people is the essence. I seek, for myself and for others, to have devotion and fervor toward God and love toward people.
3. I've been studying Torah, particularly hasidic teachings, for about thirty years and want to share what I've learned; I also want to share the spiritual experience I have from many years of trying to be a Jew.
It is often true that teachers have an essential message they wish to impart. What is your core teaching?
The goal is God and people, the goal is love for God and people; do whatever you have to do to get there.