The following is a conversation with Rabbi David Wolpe, someone who I have been a fan
of for many years, for the kindness in his heart, the strength of his character, and
the kind of friends he keeps and talks with, many of whom disagree with him but love him
nevertheless, including the late Christopher Hitchens.
I will have many conversations like these in the future about religion, about Islam,
Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others, looking to understand and celebrate
the culture, the tradition, and the beauty of the people who practice these religions.
I will of course not shy away from the difficult topics.
I will talk both about hate and love, about war and peace.
This conversation was recorded more than three weeks ago.
Please allow me this time to speak on what has been on my mind.
If this is not interesting to you, please skip, I totally understand.
Some people asked me to say a few words on the war in Ukraine.
I think my words are worth little, but perhaps let me try.
I considered doing a long solo episode on this war.
I tried several times, but it is too personal for now.
To give you context, I’ve been talking to refugees, friends, loved ones, in Ukraine,
in Russia, in Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania, even UK, Germany, Canada, India, China, and
of course the United States.
Some of them crying, or angry, or confused, or scared.
I’m helping as best as I can privately, and I’m hoping to help in the future by traveling
to Ukraine and Russia and celebrating the humanity and the beauty of the people in this
This was all set up both for Ukraine and Russia trips before 2022, including conversations
with scientists, artists, athletes, leaders, and just, quote, regular folks, who are equally
if not more fascinating to me.
For now, it has become much more difficult, but I’ll keep trying to find a way.
I was born in the Soviet Union.
My roots are both Ukrainian and Russian.
From today and until the day I die, I am an American.
I’m proud of all of this.
I hope to keep celebrating the culture and the incredible human beings that make up these
nations and humanity as a whole.
We’re all one people.
We’re in this together.
That’s how I feel about the people of these nations.
Now let me speak about those in the seats of power.
I condemn all actions of leaders who play geopolitical games on the world stage disregarding
the costs paid in human suffering on the scale of millions.
For this reason, I condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
And I condemn many of the military interventions by the superpowers of the world, including
by my country, the country I love, the United States, that after World War II has intervened
in over 40 nations with many studies finding that the United States is culpable for an
unfathomable number of civilian deaths.
I condemn all heads of state who needlessly wage wars, watching young men and women burn
in the fires they started.
I don’t understand how humans can be so cruel to each other, or rather I understand, but
I believe in a future world where this is no longer true.
Let me also say a few words of what I hope to do with this podcast.
I want to explore the full complexity and beauty of human nature.
I believe each of us are capable of good and evil, and I want to understand how the mind
and the circumstance lead one to choose the former path or the latter.
And I believe conversation is one of the best ways to work toward this understanding.
For that, I think I have to not only talk to the most inspiring humans in the world,
but also to the most controversial.
I will speak with many people who I disagree with, politicians, activists, CEOs, heads
of state, with very different opinions on the world.
I will try hard to challenge their ideas without closing my mind to the depth and complexity
of their perspective and their humanity.
My presence in the same room with wildly different people will make it easy for the media and
the internet to pick and choose clips and snapshots attacking me for being a shill for
one side or the other.
I can’t defend this point, except to say that I’m a shill for no one, and that I
hope you see the strength of my integrity, that I won’t be influenced by any of them
no matter how rich, powerful, or charismatic they are.
Like the poem If by Roger Kipling says, if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch, if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt
you, if all men count with you, but none too much.
This is a really, really important thing to me that I try to live by, that all human beings
count with me the same.
People have criticized me for wanting to have some of these conversations, like with Vladimir
Putin and Vladimir Zelensky, and for times in the past speaking about them without the
seriousness the topic deserves.
For this, I would sincerely like to apologize.
I’m disappointed, even ashamed, of my frequent ineloquence on these topics.
I will work hard to do better.
When I’m joking, it should be clear that it’s a joke, and hopefully actually funny.
When I’m being serious, I should speak with care and rigor.
I’ve now done many hundreds of hours of podcast conversation.
Despite my frequent failures in speaking, I hope you know where my heart is.
Unfortunately, I think people will take clips of me and use them to attack me.
This will happen more and more.
I guess there’s nothing I can do but send them my love, and in the meantime, try to
be a better person and a better interviewer.
Let me also say that I like humor, especially dark humor.
I like being silly and not taking myself seriously.
I will keep taking risks with that, all with the goal of having fun and celebrating humanity
at its most absurd and most beautiful.
I will occasionally dress up in strange and weird outfits to celebrate the absurdity of
I will hang out, break bread, and joke with all kinds of people.
I don’t have to agree with them to laugh with them, in order to escape for a brief
moment the tension, the conflict, the hatred in the world.
Humor just might save this little chaotic little civilization of ours.
I love the Ukrainian people.
I love the Russian people.
And of course, I love my fellow Americans, Californians and Midwesterners, New Yorkers
I love humans.
I love life.
And I want to share that love with others.
If I mess it up, I’m really, really sorry.
I’m trying my best.
I have no agenda and no one telling me what to do.
I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have all these opportunities, and I’m
deeply grateful to be alive and to share that joy with other amazing people around me.
Thank you for your support.
For all the love you’ve sent my way, I will work my ass off to not disappoint you.
I love you all.
This is the Lex Friedman Podcast.
To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, here’s my conversation with David Welby.
Let’s start with a big question.
According to Judaism, who is God?
It’s difficult because Judaism, like any tradition that is thousands of years old and encompasses
so many different lands and languages and thinkers, it doesn’t give a single answer
to even simple questions.
And to large questions, it certainly doesn’t give a single answer.
Although Judaism was responsible for introducing the monotheistic idea to the world, it doesn’t
mean that it’s one idea.
So if you take Maimonides, the greatest sage in the Jewish tradition, a medieval philosopher,
he would say that God is an omnipotent, benevolent, intangible, unimaginable God.
In fact, he said, you can’t say what God is, only what God is not, because you have
to emphasize, could talk more about that, but basically you have to emphasize the unknowability
You have a modern philosopher like Heschel, who says that God is a God of pathos, a God
of deep feeling, which probably would make Maimonides shiver if he heard such a description.
And if you look in the Bible, God is always regretting or having human emotions.
So there are so many different kinds of depictions and ideas, and there is this tremendous tension
between transcendence and imminence.
That is, in the Jewish tradition, God is exquisitely close, God is imminent.
In the Talmud’s words, God is as close as your mouth is to your ear.
In other words, whatever you say, God hears it.
And yet at the same time, God is unfathomably distant.
Sometimes when I speak to high schoolers, I will say, in the Jewish tradition, think
of it this way.
When you were two years old, you had no idea what it was to be a 15 year old.
Not only did you not know, but you didn’t know what you didn’t know.
We conceive of God as being more, the distance between God and human beings is far greater
than the distance between a two year old and a 15 year old.
So when we speak about God, we have to acknowledge how limited we really are.
So okay, you laid out a lot of fascinating things on the table.
So one, the nobility of God, then this idea of deep feeling, which again, can God operate
in the space of feelings too, so not just the mouth and the ear of the senses, can God
Can God be felt by this three year old in the analogy versus the teenager?
So I will take refuge in a beautiful phrase from Martin Buber, another Jewish theologian.
He said, God cannot be expressed, God can only be addressed.
In other words, you can speak to God, you can feel a sense of God, but can you begin
to comprehend or know God?
Yosef Kaspi, I’m pulling in a couple of early Jewish philosophers, he said, to know God,
I would have to be God.
But can we get close?
Is it useful or is it a distraction to visualize things, to embody, to create, to attach to
the stories some kind of visualizations in our mind?
For example, gender, he versus she, things like this, or old man in the sky kind of feeling.
So it’s almost inevitable, but I think ultimately you try to transcend it.
This was the great, we just read this actually in synagogue, the story of the golden calf.
And the story is that human beings found it impossible to not have a visualization because
they had just come from Egypt and in the world of pagan worship, everything is…
It’s not that pagans thought that idol was actually God, but it represented visually
what God was.
And along comes this idea that God is actually not capable of being visualized, which is
very difficult and it stretches the bounds of human comprehension, maybe even breaks
So would you say that the proper way to operate as a human in relation to God is humility
in that you’re screwed, you’re not able to basically know anything, almost anything?
Well, the reason that the salvation of this is that you can’t, I was going to say the
reason you’re not screwed, but then I thought somebody might be upset at a rabbi saying
So I didn’t say it and have not said it.
But the reason you’re not is that you don’t have to have a comprehension of God.
You have to have a relationship to God and those are not the same.
I mean, to draw an analogy that is not far from perfect as most analogies are, but this
one especially, you have relationships with people who are mysteries to you.
You’re a mystery to yourself.
You can live and love somebody for 50 years and they can say something that surprises
you because ultimately we are trapped in here.
And when a child first says I, we call that individuation.
But what that really means is I now know that I am cut off from the minds of all other children
and all other people.
And so you have with God a more intimate relationship because you can believe that God is, you are
known by God and you have a relationship to God despite the fact that you can’t know
God just as you can’t know others.
And some would say to have a good relationship, you want to be constantly surprised.
You don’t want to know the thing.
Well, the world, yes, the world that God created is constantly surprising.
And by the way, the caveat to this, you know, when I had all these debates with Christopher
Hitchens and he would always say that God is a greater tyrant than North Korea because
it continues after your death.
And the idea of being known by God is after all frightening if you think God knows what
I think and so on, if your image of God is unloving.
Can we jump to this?
You had friendships and conversations with a lot of the fascinating figures of the past
20, 30 years of the great intellectuals, one of which perhaps one of the greats is Christopher
What have you learned from your conversation, your friendship?
So there are a lot of views he held that I really did not agree with, but he was a remarkable
That was a good line about North Korea.
He was full of incredibly good lines.
Well, one of the things I learned was you can’t win a debate with Christopher Hitchens.
One of the reasons you can’t win is because he has this British baritone and this ready
wit that you can’t triumph over laughter.
It doesn’t matter if your argument is better, if your quip is better, you win.
And so I remember once we were arguing about free will and he said, well, I choose to believe
And everybody laughed and that was despite the fact that that’s not really an argument.
Or like I have free will because I don’t have a choice or whatever.
And people should watch your conversation with him.
I mean, it’s a kind of David versus Goliath situation and you’re quite masterful at using
charisma and sweet talking Christopher Hitchens.
I also genuinely liked him.
I mean, I spent a three hour limousine ride with him from one debate to another, from
LA to San Diego.
And the entire time he said, we just can’t talk about religion.
So we talked about literature and he gave me a long lecture about scotch.
He was inexhaustible.
I mean, not only did he, I began, I wrote a couple of obituaries about him and one I
began with the historian Keith Thomas said, there are two ways of achieving immortality
by doing things worth remembering or saying things worth remembering.
And by that standard, he did both.
I mean, he went all around the world to all sorts of danger zones.
He knew like the best bars everywhere from Kuala Lumpur, you know, to Beirut, to LA.
And he could drink all night and write a 2000 word essay on the poetry of Yates and go to
I remember before one of our debates in Boston, he was at the bar and he said, come have a
And I said, I’m not going to have a drink before I go to debate with you.
What are you crazy?
And he said, just have a beer, it’s water.
So he was, he really was a constant, inexhaustible fountain of intrigue and interest.
What kind of things, if you can remember, if you can mention, if you can admit, to have
him enlightening you or helping you change your mind about something in this world.
So I think, unrelated to Scotch, yeah, unrelated to Scotch.
He convinced me that the idea, I mean, I had my doubts about it and have my doubts about
it, but he convinced me through many debates and not only he, that the idea that religion
makes people better is not, it’s not ipso facto wrong, but it’s a much, much more complicated
argument than I wished it to be.
So he is, however you conceive of the term beauty, he’s one of those, one of the more
beautiful humans, this weird little earth produced.
So how do you explain the atheism combined with such a beautiful mind?
So from your perspective of a man of faith, how do you think about that?
So of the atheists that I have debated, I think about all of them somewhat differently.
So I think that in some deep way, for example, Sam Harris is a religious personality.
I don’t even think that he would, he wouldn’t like the word religious, but I don’t even
think that he would take issue with that.
I think that he would say his is a purely material based spirituality.
But I mean, his orientation towards meditation and appreciation of Buddhism, there’s something
deeply seeking spiritual about him.
With Hitchens, I honestly, and I know that some of his fans will really not like this.
It’s not that he was any kind of closet believer, certainly not at all, but I almost feel as
though he was less a passionate arguer against religion than he was, first of all, extremely
upset by the forms that religion took in this world.
And then once he trained his intellectual howitzers on a target, he had so much fun
inventing new arguments and attacking it that I really believe he gets carried away sometimes
by his own eloquence and intellectual range.
So for example, the idea that you would call a book that religion poisons everything, I
think he did that deliberately provocatively so that he could defend a proposition that
obviously is indefensible, that it poisons everything.
So I don’t know, I think he had tremendous joie de vivre.
That’s really what, that’s what sums him up.
This guy loved life in all of its manifestations and arguing against something that someone
else believed was one of his greatest joys.
Yeah, and of course the practical aspect of that, he just saw the powerful and he challenged
them with humor and so on.
And you know, you could argue perhaps that humor is the highest form of what humanity
Like sometimes maybe us little humans take things a little too seriously, then sometimes
we need to just laugh at it all, laugh at ourselves, and that’s probably the purest
form of wisdom.
You know, Auden, the poet, said, among the people that I like or admire, I can find no
common quality, but among those I love, I can.
All of them make me laugh.
There you have it.
Speaking of people that make you laugh, Sam Harris, because he actually has a really great
sense of humor.
With a very cold and monotone delivery.
He’s another one that you had, you’re friends with, you have good conversations with.
What’s your fundamental disagreements and agreements with Sam?
Sam believes that religion is intellectually indefensible.
He really believes it, like deep in his soul.
And he gets angry at the idea that a proposition should be unchallenged if it offends his sense
So he cannot move on until this is dealt with.
In fact, I did a podcast with Eric Weinstein, and then Sam did one.
And Sam said, when I heard your podcast with David Wolpe, I learned stuff about what he
thinks that I never learned in my conversations with him because I can never let him make
those unfounded assertions without challenging them, and you just let them go.
And I think that there was something to that was like, he finds it hard to have a conversation
about religion that doesn’t arouse his real ire about the harm that he thinks religion
does in the world.
So it’s more about the implementation of religion in the world as it is versus the
I think he also thinks it’s fundamentally intellectually shoddy and disreputable.
I don’t know how to put this.
I mean, they’re both capable of separating their contempt for religion from the people
that they have sitting in front of them.
You mean Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris?
Both of them.
So let me…
You mentioned Eric Weinstein.
People should listen to your conversation with Eric.
It’s a fascinating one.
It just goes all over the place in this humor and wit.
There’s one interesting aspect that I also learned, perhaps not about you but about Eric,
But Eric has a similar thing as with Jordan Peterson, which is if you ask them, do they
believe in God, I think the answer…
They’re not comfortable answering that question, or they might say no, but they’re usually
just not comfortable answering that question.
But there’s a kind of sense that they would like to live life, a religious life, as if
I think that’s exactly right.
I think, first of all, Eric has a really deep appreciation of the Jewish tradition.
I don’t know Peterson.
I’ve read his stuff and I’ve reviewed his stuff and so on.
But I think that Jungians are in their very approach.
They believe that myth is the way the world works.
And so it’s not that big a leap to God, but there’s still a distance there.
Is it possible to have your cake and eat it too?
Is it possible to have the depth of a religious life without believing in God?
How do you make sense of Eric Weinstein’s devout life within the tradition?
I honestly think he believes in God, but doesn’t believe in God and it’s oscillating like it’s
a quantum mechanical system of some sort.
So I think that he would probably agree with what Elie Wiesel said, that a Jew can be angry
at God or be disbelieving of God, but is not allowed to be indifferent to God.
And I think Eric’s not indifferent to God.
And it’s different than Christianity.
I’ve had this conversation many times because you can be very Jewish and have deep doubts
about theological questions because Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a religious family.
And so you’re born Jewish.
Like if I said to you tomorrow, if I was Christian and I said, oh, I believe in Jesus today and
then tomorrow I didn’t, I’m not Christian anymore.
But if tomorrow I said, oh, I don’t believe all this stuff, I’m still Jewish.
So it’s a more complicated system.
Having said that though, I think it’s very hard to sustain over generations without some
belief that the source of it is beyond ourselves.
And in that sense, as in many others, Eric is unique.
Well, he was actually making that claim that we need faith to propagate this tradition
through the generations.
So without that, the traditions crumble.
It’s a very interesting idea and very interesting argument for devout faith, which is it’s a
thing, it’s a glue that holds a tradition together.
Otherwise like traditions fall apart because you can’t have the intensity of that tradition.
I mean, on the other hand, you do see tradition, I mean, Thanksgiving, one of my favorite.
So I would say traditions that are demanding fall apart, traditions that require Turkey
might not fall apart, but traditions that make demands of you that are countercultural
or are hard, they fall apart.
I think I need to introduce you to some Thanksgiving dinners that are quite demanding, getting
the family together.
You know, there’s a, first of all, I’m a vegetarian, so I’m tough to have at Thanksgiving dinner,
but there’s a comedian, Cathy Landsman, who one year I heard this on the radio and it
stuck with me.
She said that holidays are a chance to renew your resentments afresh, you know, and that’s
basically what people do with their families.
It’s like, I’m going to go home and fight with the uncle again this year.
I apologize to take a dark turn, but you mentioned Elie Wiesel.
I recently saw a picture of Elie Wiesel when he was in the camp, when he was liberated.
For some reason that hit hard, like, you know, I’ve seen pictures in concentration camps
of people I don’t know or whose words I haven’t really felt and gone through, but for some
reason like here’s just a normal person, like a normal body laying there, that just, that
I’ve seen it.
It’s a, and, and you see, you can see his face, but at the same time you see that this
is an amazing, and I think what’s so disturbing about it is exactly what you were saying is
I’ve seen a thousand people like this and I know this one and I know what he became.
So what about all those other people who look exactly like him who didn’t make it out of
I don’t see his projection, but it seemed like this perhaps is also just combining with
man’s search for meaning is it seemed like it was a regular day for them in the picture.
It didn’t seem like, I mean, I’m not sure what I expect to see what suffering looks like,
but it’s almost like there’s no celebration.
I’ve never seen a picture of actually liberation be celebratory.
It’s really true.
So what do you make sense, and I apologize to take a step into that moment in history.
How does, how do you make sense of the Holocaust that, of Nazi Germany that such things could
be committed by human beings to each other?
Is it religion?
Is it the thirst for power?
Is it the madness of crowds somehow carrying us forward?
I mean, for me it’s multi causal.
I don’t think there’s one reason.
So one of the things especially there has to do with the special nature of antisemitism,
which is let’s put that to one side for the moment.
The second is I think human beings are fundamentally split.
They are mostly good except when put under certain pressures.
My first explanation for hatreds is as follows, go to a playground.
What happens when a new kid comes on the playground?
Do the other kids say, oh, let’s go share our toys with the new kid?
They say, oh, who’s that stranger and let’s go get them because otherness is built into
our genetic, I mean, we’re tribal by nature and we see people form tribes all the time
of different kinds.
I asked you before if you were a chess player and when I was a kid and playing in tournaments
and I didn’t do it for that long and I didn’t do it that well, but when I was, it was like
the whole world was divided into people who could play chess and people who couldn’t play
chess, which is ridiculous if you think about it as though that’s the way you divide the
But we tend to do that and the Jews were always the identifiable other.
There were Frenchmen and Jews, there were Russians and Jews, there were Germans and
Jews and the great blessing of America is that there’s no identifiable other quite that
way is that there’s all these minorities and no, there’s not an American and a something.
But once you have that identifiable other and you have a long history of blaming that
identifiable other for all the ills that befall you.
Of course, people still do try to form, you said America, they still try to form other,
I mean, immigrant versus been here for a generation.
There’s so many ways to slice it.
We still try to find ways.
It’s just more difficult in America because there’s so many sub tribes, hierarchies of
tribes and upon tribes.
You’re absolutely right.
And I was moving fast because I didn’t want to get bogged down in all the very difficult.
You’re hoping I wouldn’t mention that tribalism happens in America.
Skating, you know, when you’re on thin ice, your safety is in your speed.
So I was trying to move fast.
But for most of history in Eastern Western Europe, not obviously in the, in Asia, but
in Eastern Western Europe, Jews were the ones who like, they’re not like us.
They’re clearly not like us.
And so, and in addition, there was, there’s a peculiar quality and I don’t know, I wonder
what you’ll think of this explanation.
There’s a peculiar quality to antisemitism that is unlike any other hatred that I know
of, which is Jews are both superhuman and subhuman.
The Nazis thought of them as vermin and yet they control the world.
And there was an English scholar named Hyman Maccabee who said the reason that that’s
so is the myth that Jews killed God.
They killed Jesus and to kill a God, you have to be superhumanly evil.
You can’t just be bad, otherwise you can’t kill a God.
So there is some like supercharged evil sense that people got from that about Jews that
still in here.
Yeah, that’s true.
A lot of the way we formulate the other in terms of tribes is often they’re subhuman
and they’re here to steal our resources, like on the playground.
But to be both is a fascinating construction.
Do you agree with Solzhenitsyn that all of us have the capacity for evil?
A hundred percent runs through every human heart.
I have no doubt about it.
And I know as you probably do, but I probably know more both because of what I do and because
I have lived a lot longer than you.
I know a lot of religious leaders who people thought or think are above the human and they
are emphatically not.
Some of them have done horrible things and they’ve used their position to do horrible
And it’s because there is no perfect saint.
There’s no, you know, I mean, all through history you discover all these saintly characters
that we worship, the people who actually knew them around them, some liked them and some
People are complicated, all of us.
And the tough thing is, the thing that’s the toughest for me is it’s not very always clear
what is good and what is evil.
Because certainly if you just look at history and it’s not always propaganda, I, you know,
I really believe that some part of Stalin thought he was doing good, legitimately.
And it makes you ask a question of yourself.
For those of us who want to do good in the world, am I actually doing good?
And that’s a really difficult question, like in the technology sphere, for example, in
this dream of creating technology that will do some good, am I actually doing good?
So I have a question about that myself.
Not about Stalin.
I’m sure that Stalin thought so.
Stalin does not strike me from what I know of him as somebody given to a lot of self
But the question with AI to me is actually, it goes back to the God question, which is,
if we have an appreciation of the limitations of our own intelligence, that we know that
just like we can only hear certain things and see certain colors, how much of the world
is inaccessible to us because of the way our brains are constructed, how can we possibly
have any confidence that we can create things that in certain ways are far more intelligent
than we are and control them the way we think is best, seems to me a hubris that might end
up being destructive.
Well, any sentence with the word hubris in it is going to end badly when implemented
But there is also beauty.
So if you approach it with humility, there is a sense, I don’t want to over romanticize
it, but there is a legged robot right behind you, which is hilarious.
So there’s a magic, I don’t have kids, I would love to have kids.
But there’s a magic to bringing robots to life that it feels like you are a mini God,
because you just breathe life into an entity that operates in this world, especially when
they have legs and they move in this way, that’s in the case of the four legged robots,
like a dog that I think, I don’t think I’m over romanticizing it.
The feeling is like you would with a child.
You just gave birth like, holy crap, this is a living thing.
I wonder what he or she are thinking about.
By the way, I’m not at all insensible to how remarkable it must feel to create that.
I’m actually worried in part about how remarkable it feels to create that because to maintain
humility and perspective when it’s such a fantastic thing is what’s difficult.
And I think also because creativity is both part of what it is to be human and it’s very
much part of the legacy of Western civilization and the legacy of having a creator God.
If you have a tradition where God is known primarily through what God creates, so the
first debate I ever had since we talked about humor and God and creating, let me give you
my one God creating joke.
Because the first debate I ever had on religion and science was with Stephen Jay Gould and
it was wonderful because he had a deep interest in religion and his interest was actually
not to say religion is terrible.
But I started with this joke and I think it made the debate go a little bit easier.
So the time has come when human beings can do everything that God can do and a scientist
looks up at heaven and says, God, look, you were great in your day and we thank you for
everything you did, but now we don’t need you.
And God says, really, you don’t need me?
He says, no, we can do everything you did.
God says, everything?
And the human being says, yeah, we can do everything.
God says, okay, can you create a human being?
And the scientist goes, yeah.
God says, from dirt?
And the scientist goes, yeah.
He says, okay, let me see.
The scientist reaches down, scoops up some dirt and God says, uh, uh, uh, get your own
But the idea is that a creator God impels us to create too.
But let me bring up Nietzsche, who proclaimed that God is dead.
Is belief in God slowly disappearing from our world, do you think?
And what kind of impact does that have on society?
You wrote that religion is not our enemy.
Before the Western faiths captured the heart of our world, there was cruelty, carnage,
In the 20th century, when religion ceased to be a force of international politics, the
scale of human slaughter was far beyond anything human beings have ever known.
What is the world like when we take religion out of it?
I mean, I think Nietzsche was largely right.
You know, it wasn’t a statement about God.
It was a statement about God’s presence in the world.
And I think that that’s largely true, that God is not a force in a lot of Western society.
And I believe that if the force of nihilism has no clear counter without an idea that
we’re all here for a purpose and that our lives are inherently meaningful and that there’s
a God who wishes us to be better.
So I worry a lot about it, and I think that the sort of optimism that things are just
going to get better and better is what one philosopher called cut flower ethics.
That is, we’re still living off the morals that religion gave us, but now that they’re
separate from the soil that gave birth to them, I see them wilting.
So this kind of optimism for the future of human civilization, you think, is in part
grounded in a religious society.
I really do believe that.
I mean, it was religion that the Greeks look back at the golden age of the past.
It was the Jews who said, no, the golden age is in the future, right?
It’s the Messiah.
And I think that that idea that we’re moving towards something better, which I really believe
humanity can do and absent destroying ourselves will do, you know, I mean, I’m very excited
about the technology that I won’t live to see.
I think it’s fantastic.
And that excitement is a kind of religious excitement because there’s a reason to preserve
this whole thing.
Because I really think, I know this sounds absurdly anthropomorphic, but I really think
God is cheering us on.
I feel like this is why we’re here.
We’re here to grow in soul and to grow each other in soul.
So what do you think the world, so if you just think of this force of nihilism that’s
contending with the force of faith based optimism, what do you make of the atrocities in the
Do you think at its core, it’s part of human nature and has nothing to do with religion
or not religion?
Or do you think you can assign this kind of nihilistic view of the world?
I think it has to do with a religion that doesn’t make ethical demands.
That is, for Stalin and for Hitler, they both had religions, in a sense, but they were religions
that didn’t make ethical demands for the other.
I mean, 36 times the Torah talks about the stranger.
The point is, it’s trying to educate people away from their natural inclination towards
distrusting and disliking the other.
And it’s a lot of work that’s really difficult to do.
But if you have a tribal passion and not a universal ethic, then you’re in trouble.
Well, the Jewish tribe is a very strong tribe.
So how do you make sense of this mention of the stranger versus the power of the tribe,
which is the whole point, not the point, but the mechanism of tradition propagates the
So it’s both.
I mean, the Torah does not start with Jews.
It starts with Adam and Eve.
That’s a way of saying, yeah, this is going to be a story about a people, but understand
that prior to a kind of people, there are people.
I’m a human being before I’m a Jew.
And in fact, the Jewish New Year, the Muslim New Year starts with Muhammad’s journey.
And the Christian New Year starts with Jesus’s birth.
The Jewish New Year starts with the creation of the world because the idea is, yes, this
is a particularist tradition, but it makes a universal statement, which is all of humanity
is a child, are in the image of God, are children of God.
I think that the idea of Judaism was to try to exemplify a certain way of making that
statement over and over again.
And I want to say one other thing about chosenness that’s very name droppy, but when I tell
you how I got there, it won’t be as name droppy.
So my brother is a professor at Emory.
And so is the Dalai Lama actually teaches at Emory, although he no longer does because
he’s too old to go to Emory, but for many years taught at Emory.
And so my brother brought us, he’s the head of the bio of the ethics center at Emory.
He’s a bioethicist.
So he brought a bunch of students to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama.
So I went to India, I was on sabbatical then anyway, I met my brother there and we had
a chance to meet with the Dalai Lama.
That was the name drop.
So we’re sitting in the, before he speaks to the students, he was speaking to us, but
not because I just wanted to make it clear, not because he said, oh, I got to talk to
We just happened to be, I happened to glom along with my brother.
We sit down.
The first thing he says is he points at me and says, what’s this about the chosen people
So, and he had, by the way, he had asked that I give a lecture, which I did later to, to
them, to his monks about how Jews survived in the diaspora.
So it’s not like he doesn’t know about Judaism.
He knows a lot about it, but he says to me right away with, so I said, yes, Jews believe
that they were chosen for a certain mission in this world, but that doesn’t mean other
people weren’t chosen for other sorts of things.
They certainly, I mean, it seems to me that other people believe they’re chosen for things
They burst out laughing and said, yeah, we also think we’re chosen.
So I think it’s universal.
The idea is that no tribe is better than, from a Jewish perspective, you’re chosen for
a thing, but that doesn’t make you better.
The only place where the betters came in, honestly, if I’m going to, historically, if
I’m going to be honest, was not with the idea that you, but it was when Jews were small
The way that you take this sort of psychic revenge is by saying, no, we’re better than
our persecutors even.
But the idea is, yeah, different people have different missions, which is, I mean, like
there was a Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who used to say, he didn’t know very much
He used to say, Judaism is the sun and Christianity was the rays of the sun.
Like Judaism introduced the idea of God and Christianity brought it to the world.
Can you speak to this difference?
What is the difference and similarities between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
The religious family part is different.
And the greatest difference, which I talked about in the Eric Weinstein podcast, is that
Islam and Judaism are more similar in a lot of ways than Judaism and Christianity.
And the reason that that is so is Christianity in its core is not a religion of law.
The reason it’s not a religion of law is because it grew up in the Roman Empire, so law was
taken care of.
I mean, Jesus didn’t have to create civil law because you had Roman law.
Muhammad and Moses created a religion in the desert where there was no law.
So you have to create a religion of law, otherwise you have anarchy.
And that’s why in a lot of ways, there was never a separation of church and state in
Islam or Judaism.
That was a gift that Christianity gave the world.
And it could do it because of render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
But when Moses came along, there was no Caesar.
When Muhammad came along, there was no Caesar.
So historically, the traditions shaped differently.
But all three of them have this core, I think, the single most important statement and insight
in all of human history, which is that every human being is in the image of God.
And if you really believe that, that’s a transformative belief.
So that means you should love thy neighbor as yourself.
Which comes from Leviticus, comes straight from the Torah.
So I don’t know if you know, I’ve been chatting with Omar Suleiman, I don’t know if you know
who that is.
He’s an imam in Dallas, a great guy.
I enjoy his interfaith dialogues that he engages in.
And do you ever do that kind of talk with Christians, with Muslims?
I mean, I do whenever I at least listen to them in the context of these kinds of conversations.
There’s so much love and humor and empathy and appreciation, and also ability to make
fun of the quirks of the little…
Of one’s own.
Of one’s own communities.
So it’s not necessarily the depths or the details of the traditions, but these are communities
and they’re full of people and they’re full of weird people, because we’re all weird.
And so there is very particular flavors of weirdness that emerge and they can make fun
And in that way, they can talk about some beautiful ideas.
So I mean, I don’t know, do you engage in these kinds of things?
What do you learn from them?
So one of the things I learned is exactly what you said, that personalities that you
think are unique to your own community, in fact, they exist in all sorts of communities.
And religious communities in particular draw, I think, some interesting personalities.
And also that the, especially as clergy, some of the pressures that you feel are shared.
And it’s weird, again, it has to do with that tribal association.
There’s almost like there’s an understanding among clergy because they have similar…
And it’s a strange role in the following way.
It’s one that you never escape.
That is, you’re not my lawyer at the supermarket, but you are my rabbi at the supermarket.
I mean, it doesn’t matter why you’re there, that’s not an escapable role.
And every religious leader is aware of that strange assumption of stepping into something
that you can never step out of.
But you’re also the source where people go to think about the deepest question of our
lives and our universe.
And so that’s some heavy, when people are suffering, they look to you for answers.
I mean, every privilege comes with a cost of one kind or another.
The reason you get to be in that role is exactly because you get the privilege of being there
at crucial moments in people’s lives.
I mean, the fact that I get to marry people and get to give eulogies for people and come
to the hospital, it’s inexpressible.
I have this joke with people that I know that like when I’m sitting on the couch and it’s
Saturday night, I don’t wanna get up and go to a wedding.
I really don’t.
I wanna sit there and watch Netflix like everybody else.
But when I’m actually doing the wedding, I always love it, always, always, always.
And the reason is that I don’t think, I mean, yes, people go to you for answers in calmer
Like if you asked me now, like what’s my theory of why God allows evil, I could give
you a conversation about it.
But they really go for presence and comfort, not really for answers.
When someone’s suffering, an answer doesn’t make them unsuffer.
It’s just they wanna know they’re not alone.
To be heard and just to feel things in silence together.
In terms of weddings and marriage, what’s the role of that whole, I need to take some
The role of a rabbi?
The role of marriage in human existence.
It is first of all to teach you how to care for someone unlike you, which could be anyone
And I think it’s to create a home and a family.
So there’s a commitment to it, so care for a long time.
And also when couples come to me and they say, we don’t need to be married because it
really won’t change how we think about ourselves and our relationship.
I say to them, that’s true, it might not, but it will change how everyone else looks
And because it changes how everyone else looks at you, it changes you.
Because it’s one thing to say, this is my partner, it’s another thing to say, this is
You say this is my husband, that means we’ve made a real commitment to this.
What do you, do you worry that there’s a dissolution of that as well in terms of how, you know,
as religion dissipates, like it loosens its hold on society, loosens its impact on society.
Do you worry about that?
I worry about it.
I do think that it is possible that we’re going, rather than a dissolution, we’re going
through a transition.
That is different kinds of families and different configurations of families.
That is, I see some of that, but I also do see a, it’s less a dissolution of marriage
than it is of the idea of commitment.
And I’ll give you like a simple example.
When I was growing up, a player on a sports team was always on that team.
And you rooted for the team because you knew the players for 20 years.
Now there are very good reasons, starting with Curt Flood, why people got free agency
and they can move around and it’s better for the players.
I understand all that.
And I am not, I’m not saying, oh, they should continue.
But just like people move jobs and they move sports teams and they change careers, they
And there is a, there is a diminishment of the commitment to commitment that I actually
think has serious societal consequences and that I am worried about.
There’s a cost to that.
I don’t know what it is about commitment that’s beautiful.
Like through, because like some of the deepest friendships I have is when we’ve gone through
some shit together.
And so like the hard times, going through hard times together, especially when the hard
times are between the two of you, that, that if, I mean, that’s always a risk, but if it,
if you can find a way through that can bond you stronger, that’s the fascinating thing
about human relations.
There’s no question.
And even if it doesn’t keep you forever, you still have a connection that doesn’t, that
So I can give you one where you said, what is it about commitment?
I’ll give you one, I think beautiful answer.
Someone once asked Rabbi Soloveitchik, who was a great thinker and leader in the Orthodox
community in the 20th century.
They said, you know, I go from religion to religion.
I just take what I think is beautiful in it.
And his answer was that you’re treating religion like a nomad.
He said, nomads go from place to place and they eat what they want and they move on.
He says, farmers stay in one place.
The difference is farmers make things grow.
And I think that that’s true also, when you think about the relationships you have, things
have grown out of the relationships that you’ve invested in, that you farmed basically, that
can’t exist in fly by night relationships.
Can you talk about, can we talk about the Torah?
What is it?
And is it the literal word of God?
Well, the Torah is the five books of Moses written in Hebrew.
I like most, I think modern rabbis, non Orthodox or non literalist rabbis will tell you that
it’s a product of human beings.
And I believe that they are inspired by God, but it’s clear to me that it’s a human product.
And I think that people who study modern biblical criticism, it’s really hard to study modern
criticism, it gives a wrong impression.
I would say modern scholarship on the Bible and not appreciate the fact that it even has
levels of language.
I mean, it’s just like if you read today, somebody writing like Shakespeare, you would
say this isn’t, it’s like English has developed.
It’s not the English we speak today.
And if you study the Bible and you know Hebrew well enough, you even see that this was written
over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.
It is a holy book.
And I like the idea that it is, what you say in Hebrew is Torah is from heaven, but it’s
not from Sinai.
So it has its origin beyond us, but it has things in it that I think, and this is one
of the things that was a huge controversy at my congregation when I started to do same
There are some people who try to argue that the Torah does not forbid them.
Whether it does or not, it seems to me, we understand things that were not understood
in the ancient world about gender and sexuality.
And so you think that in the scripture, in the words, you can find the kind of spirit
that supports the idea of gay marriage.
Well, that’s yes.
That’s my argument is that you criticize the Torah by the Torah.
That is, it gives you the understanding that you use to evaluate its own claims.
And I think that Judaism, by the way, has always done that because it’s clear that there
are things in the Torah that the rabbis changed, altered, grew, expanded, diminished.
I think that’s what it is to be part of a living tradition.
You wrote in your book, Why Faith Matters, quote, Walt Whitman wrote that in order for
there to be a great books, there must be great readers.
For a book to remain powerful throughout generations, it cannot have a single meaning.
Scripture like great poetry is not reducible to other words.
That is, one cannot paraphrase it and capture the totality of its meaning.
So how the heck do you capture the meaning of the words in scripture?
Is it an ongoing process through the centuries?
Is that essentially what it is?
It’s a continual conversation of sages, scholars, readers, strugglers, seekers, mystics, visionaries,
all of them making a contribution.
I mean, I write a weekly Torah column for the Jerusalem Post.
Now what is there left to say?
But every week what I do is I start opening books and seeing what people say and it starts
to percolate and you realize that you’re entering this conversation that’s been going on for
thousands of years with remarkable minds and it’s constantly fertile in new insights.
So yes, that’s what it is to be part of a tradition.
Why do people keep writing love poems?
We should have figured out love by this point already.
I use the analogy sometimes of diet books.
If any diet worked, there would be one book, there’d be one book and you’d be done.
You mentioned this fascinating story that you were a part of.
You were a part of several controversies in your life.
I’ve had a few.
For someone who walks with grace through the fire, you sure have found yourself in a lot
One of them, can you tell me the story of your views on gay marriage, the underlying
principles that led you to fight this battle of defending gay marriage in the Jewish community?
So I’m part of a congregation that is really politically split and split not only politically
but split in terms of origin.
We have a lot of Jews from the Middle East, from Iran, a lot of Persian Jews, a lot of
Jews from Israel, some from Mexico, from other places and many that grew up in LA.
Do you have any Russian Jews, the best kind?
I have a few Russian Jews, not as many as I should, but we’ll work on that.
What happened was increasingly I became uncomfortable with people who would come to me and say,
this is the only kind of person I can love.
It’s not the same question as an intermarriage, as a Jew marrying a non Jew, because you could
find a Jew to love.
You may not have found, but you could.
That’s a whole separate question.
But I would have men in my office primarily, a couple of women, they would say, this is
the only kind of person that I can enter into an intimate relationship with.
How can it be that my religion has no room for me?
And that was very persuasive to me.
But I knew that it was going to be explosive in my community.
Then by the way, it finally happened, it was literally on the front page of the New York
and the LA Times.
It was that explosive.
So it was not a small controversy.
And so what I did was I started to teach classes.
Not that many people came about homosexuality and Jewish tradition and so on.
It’s funny, much, much less about lesbianism, I’m talking about in terms of the sources
and so on.
It’s almost always about homosexuality.
So and then I got ready to send out a letter.
And I said to my daughter, who at the time was maybe 10 or 11, now in her mid 20s.
I said, look, honey, when you go to school tomorrow or whatever it was, I said, people
might be saying bad things about your dad and I just want you to be prepared for that.
She said, why?
And I said, because I’m going to start marrying, I’m going to start doing same sex marriages.
And she looked at me quizzically and said, what took you so long?
And I thought, really her face was like I said to her, I’m going to start marrying blonde
haired people to brown haired people.
It’s like she really did not understand why there was an issue.
And I thought that’s exactly why.
Because I know that this is, it’s generational, people are raised with it, they have a deep
in there, but it’s not really right.
It’s just not right.
But if you could just look back to that journey, how difficult is it to make these decisions
So because you have to think about that in order to think about such decisions you yet
might still have to make in the future.
And I will tell you one thing I did wrong with that and one thing I did right.
The thing I did right was I waited until in the communities where people objected to it,
I had enough people whose kids had come out so that I had parents of kids who’d come out
to refer later on other parents to so that they wouldn’t feel like they were the only
Because once I announced it, as I thought would happen, a bunch of kids came out and
said, now that the rabbi said this, mom, dad, I want you to know I’m gay.
And when the parents came to me, I could say, well, listen, you’re not alone, this person
also you can go to.
That I did right.
What I did wrong was I don’t think the classes were enough and I don’t think enough people
And I think part of the explosion was shock and I should have prepared even more.
The words you used to talk about it, the way you thought about it, was it more scholarly
in the Jewish tradition or did you go to the feeling thing?
No, I went to the feeling.
I said, which means respect or honor for God’s creations and caring for other human beings
It wasn’t scholarly because I knew that the objections were not scholarly objections.
And I had many beautiful and also painful stories as a result, some of which can be
told and some of which really can’t.
But what I tried to impress also on people was how painful it is to not be able to tell
the world, even your own parents, who you are.
And your sexuality is not a trivial part of who you are.
I mean, it’s core to people.
So it’s one of the reasons why I’d evoke such reactions.
But I would say to them, the same reason that you’re reacting so strongly tells you how
Anyway, it was a very powerful experience and for that I feel good about it.
Afterwards, the other thing that I, again, said to my daughter afterwards, after it all
died down and after all the bad things were said, I told her the Churchill one said that
it’s exhilarating to be shot at without result.
If you go into a battle and you make it through and you’re still okay, that’s good.
The problem is when you’re in the battle, you don’t know.
No, you don’t know.
So how did it feel like, I mean, looking back, you’ve been, to use the word, canceled a couple
But I guess when you’re dealing with the most difficult of questions, just as a human being,
for a community that you really deeply care about, some part of it saying that you have
I wasn’t canceled the way…
I didn’t lose my job, didn’t lose my home, but I hurt people that I cared about.
And that was the hard…
I went into this to be someone who brings people together and then I would sit there
and do even now, as you’re well aware with stuff that’s going on now, I sit there and
people are really upset at me who I either am or used to be close to.
Do those people in time come around?
When you look now, because those are real feelings in the moment and we can learn that
about social media, people, especially during COVID, there’s this intensity of feeling about
And have you learned something about the passing of feeling that turns into wisdom?
No question about it.
The sermon I gave this Saturday was about how Moses came down the mountain, he saw the
golden calf and he broke the tablets.
If he’d sat with it for a little while, he probably wouldn’t have broken the tablets.
But the instant reaction is always anger.
And in our age, unfortunately, the instant reaction gets put on social media forever
and ever and ever.
And by the way, once you’ve actually said that, it becomes harder to back down.
If you keep quiet for a day or two, then you can back down because you haven’t put yourself
But once you said, this is terrible what you did, it’s harder to write and say, I’m sorry,
I shouldn’t have said that.
Yeah, so it almost becomes, I mean, I actually, it’s a really powerful statement that the
downside of saying something on the internet is that it actually pulls you into this current.
You both create the current and it pulls you into it, to where it’s actually very hard
So when two days later you feel different, there’s a momentum, there’s now a tribe of
people that feel this way and there’s a momentum with it.
There’s a momentum and also you don’t want to betray your own tribe because then people
will get upset at you.
I really think that a lot of the antagonism is not so much that you don’t want to give
ground to the people who oppose you, it’s that you don’t want to break with the people
who are behind you.
And that’s really hard.
Can you tell the story of this recent controversy, the sermon you just gave?
You went to the Super Bowl.
I think a lot of people would relate to this because to me personally, I apologize to anybody
who was hurt by this.
The absurdity of it is deeply intense.
So here’s the story.
The LA County mandates masking children in school and all of the kids in our school are
masked and many of the parents are extremely upset about that.
I will just leave that at that.
I went to the Super Bowl, there were 70,000 people.
Frank Luntz, whom we know was a wonderful guy, gave me a ticket.
And so I was at the Super Bowl and I maybe saw two masks among the 70,000 people.
I didn’t even think about it, which was foolish on my part, no question.
I took a picture of myself unmasked at the Super Bowl.
And many, many people thought, oh, great, wonderful, glad you’re having a good time,
so on and so forth.
I didn’t diminish at all the many people who said that.
A lot of people were livid.
They were livid.
And they weren’t, what was instructive about it was they didn’t say, nobody wrote me a
private note and said, I think that this was a bad idea, you should have thought about
They were, you’re a hypocrite, you’re a clown, you’re an idiot, how could you do this?
This is a disgrace.
This is that kind of thing.
They say that publicly.
And on my Instagram, you can still see I left the remarks up because I really thought it
If I started, I only deleted the really vile comments because I thought that shouldn’t
But I left them up because I thought like people should see and I should remind myself
what I did.
And I didn’t want to just delete the picture as though it didn’t happen because it did
happen and I did do it.
And I felt terrible about that.
And I felt terrible that I had, not about, I mean, the comments, believe me, weren’t
I didn’t like it.
Nobody likes it.
But I felt worse that I had hurt all these people that I’m close to.
And I defended all these people who were really upset that their kids were wearing masks and
now their kid says, why doesn’t a rabbi have to wear a mask?
Well, first of all, it is tough to be a rabbi.
I mean, the masks to me symbolize these kinds of discussions, symbolize not necessarily
the issues at hand, but the intensity of feeling and people are really struggling.
People are in pain, they’re lonely, the uncertainty of it, you don’t know who to trust.
Everything is under question.
The institutions, even the scientific institutions, and there’s all these conspiracy theories
You don’t know who to believe.
And there’s people just yelling at each other and politics is weaved into this whole thing
in some messy way.
And you’re just getting, I mean, honestly, it’s just like legit, simple, just frustration,
going back to marriage of just hanging out with the kids and your wife, husband, just
distressed, just building up over time, no release.
And just people want to tell you when the rabbi is not wearing a mask, even though it’s
at the damn Super Bowl, maybe you want to comment on the Super Bowl part, which is awesome.
But it released clearly a dam of all the kinds of feelings that you’re talking about.
So how do you then write a sermon?
So what I did was I didn’t answer on social media because I knew that I wouldn’t be able
to formulate it the way I wanted, and I was going to wait, and I was going to be able
to give a longer, I mean, the sermon is 15 minutes, not that long.
But I wanted to be able to give a longer answer as opposed to a tweet.
And so I was really, I mean, I tried to make two points during the sermon, and also I published
the text of it, which I never do because I never speak from a text.
I always speak from either notes or not even from notes.
But this time I thought it was really important that I have a text out there too so that people
could actually look over it.
And I just wanted to make two points, one of which was that I really feel terrible.
And I did, that all these people were hurt and that there is this contradiction between
the way I acted and the way they want me to act.
And I also think, by the way, I didn’t speak about this, but I also think that there are
some people who just don’t like the idea of a rabbi being at the Super Bowl.
It’s like you’re supposed to be doing rabbi stuff.
So I understand that too.
But rabbi at the Super Bowl, I mean, you are also, I hate to say it, but there’s a rock
star nature to you talking to Christopher Hitchens, contending with ideas, inspiring
so many other minds.
I mean, there’s an educational aspect to this.
I appreciate that.
It’s making ideas cool.
I mean, that’s a very powerful…
I mean, that is also the job of a rabbi.
You’re not just supposed to do rabbi stuff, it’s to educate the spot.
Yeah, but I didn’t do so much of that at the game.
But the second part of it was I said that we have to be able to express our anger and
disappointment better than this.
You just have to.
In part because it doesn’t get you the result that you want.
I mean, when you scream at someone, that’s not gonna get them to realize what they did.
And the most painful moment of it was this letter that I got from a Christian pastor
who said, you know, I always admired the Jews so much, I can’t believe they could be so
cruel and especially to a rabbi.
And I thought that’s not how I want my congregation to be perceived in the world.
And by the way, some of them were from my congregation, some many were not from my congregation.
And I spoke about what you talked about, which is that I mentioned before that Moses broke
those tablets coming down the mountain.
And the Torah doesn’t say what happened to the tablets, but the rabbis do.
They say that they were carried together in the ark with the second set that was intact.
And that we all have brokenness, communities and individuals.
We have brokenness and especially now, and we have to learn how to give each other space
to be mistaken and broken and hurt and all of that.
And the cool thing when you give people that space, you feel better.
I mean, you for caring for the community, it feels better when you show empathy and
compassion and kindness on the internet.
You’ll actually feel better a week from now.
You’ll feel much worse if you make some kind of a negative statement of principle on the
It’s almost just exclusively true.
So if you care about feeling good, just be kind first, be empathetic first.
Almost always the case.
So it’s, I mean, it settled down a lot.
The most, really the single best reaction, there are people and you can, again, you can
go on social media, you can see all the criticisms and so on and so forth.
But the single best reaction I got was from a man who came up to me right after the sermon
and said, I have four words for you.
And I thought, oh no, I got to confess, I said, I said what?
He said, you changed my mind.
And I thought, wow.
And I, I said to him, you know, that’s so, it’s like to take so much courage to come
up to somebody and say that in front of them.
And I was so grateful.
And the other thing that it tells me is, look, I’ve been the rabbi of that congregation for
25 years and I taught 10 years before that, I’ve been a rabbi for a long time.
I still, I still have a lot to learn.
We talked a little bit about the difference between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, cause
you maybe talk about the difference between the Torah, the Bible and the Koran.
So there’s the Hebrew Bible is actually what’s called a step canon.
That is there are the five books of the Torah.
Then there are books of history and the prophets.
So books like Samuel, Kings, Judges, and then the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel,
and so on.
And then there are what are called the writings.
The writings are books like Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Migilot, which are Esther, Daniel,
all of those, all of those books, Ecclesiastes.
So in Hebrew, it’s called the Tanakh, Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim, the Torah, the prophets and
And that is the Hebrew Bible.
Sometimes that’s also called the Torah, just to be confusing, but really the Torah generally
refers to the five books.
Then there is the New Testament, which the Jews don’t recognize as a sacred book.
They recognize it as the book of another religion.
And I sometimes say to Christians, in order for them to really grasp this, Jesus has as
much religious significance to Judaism as Muhammad has to Christianity.
That is Jesus, although Jewish, became the founder of another religion.
And for Judaism, that’s not only in as much as Christians and Jews have had a lot of interactions,
but religiously, Jesus has no significance.
Said many beautiful things, said some things I don’t like so much.
Leave your father and mother and follow me.
I don’t like that as a religious model.
Now Christians will say that I don’t understand that, but that’s because Christians like Jews
interpret their texts different ways at different times.
So anyway, the Koran, which I know less well.
I have read it, but I know it less well than I know the New Testament and certainly less
well obviously than I know the Hebrew Bible, is in some ways a, parts of it are, I don’t
say this word, I say this word because I can’t find a better descriptive word, but Muslims
will not accept this, okay, is a takeoff on the Torah in some things.
That is, it’s the same stories as the Torah, but they’re different.
Now Jews will say, and I being a Jew will say this, that that’s because Muhammad heard
those stories from Jews and also heard Midrashim, which are rabbinic interpretations of those
stories and he wrote those down.
Muslims will say, no, the Jews got it wrong and Muhammad came along to correct the record
and tell the real story.
But they’re all telling the story of the same thing.
The Hebrew Bible part, the Abrahamic part, they all tell the story of the same characters,
but tell them, obviously Christians accept the Hebrew Bible as sacred scripture.
The Muslims retell many of the stories in the Bible.
What is common to all of them is that all of them are monotheistic faiths.
Now in Christianity, that’s more complicated because of the Trinity, but as Christianity
has developed over time, it clearly presents itself and thinks of itself and is a monotheistic
faith as well.
What’s the role of the word in each of these religions, in the scriptures?
So in terms of, so first of all, the role of oral traditions, the power of the exactness
of the words in the scripture, does it differ or is it really within the communities it
Just because in Christianity, the words are not all the words of Jesus.
They’re the words of Jesus’s disciples.
None of the books of the New Testament were written by people who met Jesus in person.
So they’re different and therefore, and also we don’t even know sometimes the original
language of some of the things in the New Testament.
In the Bible, and I understand in the Koran, but I’ll speak for the Hebrew Bible, the
idea is that that’s Lashon HaKodesh, that’s sacred language, and Hebrew, that’s the language
according to the tradition that God actually spoke to Moses, and therefore the exact words
are infinitely interpretable and meaningful.
But the words are spoken by, written by Moses, and the same with Muhammad, but from memory
There are different theories.
I won’t speak for Muhammad, you should ask.
I don’t want to get another religious tradition wrong.
In Judaism, the words are written by Moses at God’s dictation, basically.
That’s the traditional view.
There are other views that I’m happy to go into if you want to, but basically that’s
the traditional view.
So it’s pretty close to the words of God.
What makes Judaism and Christianity different is Christianity has an ideal life.
Judaism doesn’t have an ideal life.
Judaism has an ideal book.
So the holidays of Christianity are events in the life of God, God’s birth, God’s death
In Judaism, the holidays are all events in the life of the people, like the liberation
from slavery, or in the people’s relationship to God, like Yom Kippur, which is a day of
But there are no holidays in Judaism that are events in the life of God because in Judaism
God doesn’t have a biography.
God is eternal, and God never came to earth.
And those events carry with them traditions and rules that you’re to follow.
And you mention on one such event in Scripture, yet another time you walked through the fire,
which is with Exodus.
That was the first.
And you never forget the first.
One of several controversies.
You spoke 20 years ago, 21 years ago now at Passover and said that, quote, the way the
Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.
So first of all, what is Exodus, and what really happened?
Exodus is the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, and it is the central story of the
And as I’ve said numerous times in various places, I believe that it’s based on a historical
I think Richard Eliot Friedman may have gotten this right in his book Exodus.
It may have been the Levites who left Israel.
But the Bible is not a book of history.
I don’t believe that there were 10 plagues and a split sea and 600,000 men, which makes
about 2 million people, who actually, if there were 2 million people, would stretch all the
way from Israel to Egypt alone, were liberated from Egypt.
And my point in that sermon was not actually to convince people that it didn’t happen.
My point in that sermon was to convince people that the historicity of the Exodus is not
the basis of the faith of the Jewish people.
Well, what does the word historicity mean?
In other words, the factuality of it.
It can be true without being factual.
So you’re not supposed to read it as fact?
Well, I don’t read it as fact.
I don’t read it as a history book.
I said, look, I was talking, again, to a congregation that had many Iranians.
I said, you experienced the truth of the Exodus in your own life.
There was a regime that wanted to destroy you.
And you miraculously escaped before it did.
And so a myth is something that may not have happened, but is always happening.
And that’s what I would say about the Exodus story.
It’s not about whether, in fact, there was a killing of the firstborn.
It’s about, does God deliver?
Did God deliver the Jews in ancient times?
Does God deliver people in modern times?
And that’s what the issue is.
And to me, the issue of faith is much deeper than the issue of fact.
I wouldn’t look to the Torah for my science either.
What are the limits of science in terms of, what can science not tell us that the Torah
can in terms of wisdom?
So the historicity, the facts of things, okay.
If the Torah is much more than that, like you said, myth is not something that happened,
but something that is always happening.
And so presumably it’s interacting with the environment of the day to generate wisdom.
So you can live a life by Torah.
I don’t think you can live a life by biology.
You can live a life that is informed by the values of the tradition of Judaism.
And those values, by the way, what science does is it contributes factuality to the conversation
and also changes the reality around us.
So when you study Talmud on your iPhone, you’re still, I mean, it changes the atmosphere in
which you do it, but the wisdom and the life guidance and the connection to transcendence
is something that science doesn’t give.
So if we now step into returning to our friend Sam Harris and step into this weird place
of science, and you talked about this, where the kind of the current assumption of science
is it’s a materialistic one.
So for me, obviously AI person, this whole mind thing is fascinating, like what the heck
is going on up there?
So how do you explain consciousness?
How do you explain free will?
Do you think, first of all, do you think we have a free will and if so, what is it?
This is where we had the debate earlier that I mentioned with Hitchens where I think actually
neither he nor the moderator understood what I was saying, which is I’m sure my inability
to express it.
But he was very focused and delivered on the humor and the wit.
But what I was trying to say is if we’re entirely biological creatures, if we didn’t choose
our genetics and we didn’t choose our environment, then there is no space for free choice.
I don’t understand where it comes in.
And I kept asking them that question but didn’t get an answer because I don’t think there
is an answer.
I think if you’re a thoroughgoing materialist, free will is impossible.
There could be randomness, but randomness is not free will, it’s randomness.
I think you need a spiritual nonmaterial belief in order to get free will and that’s why I
believe in free will.
Yeah, you were talking about sort of, yeah, and actually the moderator totally missed
your point about the glass of water and basically how, what’s the difference.
So do you, free will, because you could also, if it fits into the materialistic picture,
it could be just a convenient, useful quirk.
You would understand this better than I would.
I don’t understand how it could be a convenient quirk materialistic, I don’t understand how
to explain it.
Well, no, there’s, you know, if you study perception, there’s all these kinds of illusions.
We are, our mind plays tricks on us to make our life easier, more efficient and survive
better and all those kinds of things.
And so free, the feeling like we have a choice.
Oh, that could be an illusion.
Could be an illusion.
That I understand.
But, but actual free choice, free will.
I don’t see where you get it if you’re a materialist.
I think you have to have a spiritual component.
By the way, this, I think this is also, I think Sam would agree with this.
I think he wrote about not having, not having free will.
And I think if you don’t have a God and you don’t have a soul, that free will is a logical
But Sam, which is fascinating, it’s not just that free will is an illusion, but the illusion
of free will is an illusion, meaning there’s not, we don’t even experience anything like
There’s no illusion.
We’re like, it’s not even honest to be talking about it.
We’re just, we are like the, the, the, the, the currents in the river or something that
you were comparing it to the glass.
We are just like that glass.
So I don’t know what we’re going on about with this whole free will thing.
I mean, to you is the free will, the I that the young person is born with, is that somehow
fundamental to religion?
I think it’s fundamental to Judaism.
I think that the, the idea is that you are the custodian of your soul.
And even though I grant that there’s a certain over emphasis in modern society on the individuality
of the soul, that is we are more interconnected than I think we’re, we believe, still, yeah,
the I, the idea that every human being is an image of God, that, I mean, that the human
being in the Torah is, is created singly.
And again, do I really believe there was an Adam and an Eve and a garden of Eden?
No, not literally, but I think that it’s, it expresses a deep truth about human life.
And tied into this is the subject of experience of things, which we call consciousness.
I mean, this is the most fascinating and inexplicable discussion.
And again, this is a discussion I’ve had, I privileged to have with Daniel Dennett and
could not make any, as you can imagine, any headway on my, but he was delightful and brilliant
to talk to.
I, for me, consciousness is a real thing.
I don’t know if it is, I mean, I kind of like the pan psych, psychists view that there’s
an element of consciousness in everything that that’s constitutive of reality.
But I don’t, I’m not wedded to it, but I think that it’s, it exists in different degrees
in all sentient creatures.
I think that anybody who has a pet knows that they have some kind of consciousness.
I’m not going to, I, since I don’t have cats or dogs, I’m not going to.
This is another reason people would be outraged.
I said it.
Well, I happen to be allergic to both, but I’m very fond of animals.
The thing that so perplexes me about this and, and is the denial of the reality of consciousness
from people who are fully aware that they’re conscious.
I don’t know how you divest yourself of the most present quality of being a person in
your discussions about what it is to be a person.
We just don’t really have a good sense of the alternative.
And so you can kind of divest yourself in that way.
Well, maybe everything is like this.
Maybe we’re trying, we’re overdramatizing this whole thing and we’re like every, everybody,
every, it seems like every living thing, perhaps everything period thinks that it’s the center
of the universe.
And so here we are telling ourselves these dramatic, big stories about us being special
and so on.
And maybe we need to have a little bit more humility, both about the uncertainty and about
our place in the whole.
Any statement you make about something like consciousness has, I think, a sort of equal
level of humility.
Your saying that, you know, we don’t have it is as not you Lex, but you person saying
we don’t have it is as intellectually arrogant as my saying we do.
So I think for me, humility comes in, in admitting that we really, really have just the tiniest
part of the puzzle and, and, and as you get older, at least my experience has been not
that you get more answers, but that you just see a bigger puzzle.
So to me, there’s less, so the questions are fascinating, but there’s also an engineering
And perhaps I’ll ask you a religious one too on this point to return back to robots.
So how to engineer consciousness, or I’ll just even ask you a very simple question,
which is when you have robots that exhibit the capacity to suffer, I found in myself
as a human, when I see that, I, I feel something.
Exhibit the capacity to suffer, or they exhibit behaviors that evoke in you a sense that they
Those aren’t the same things.
For my, from an observation perspective, they sure as heck seem similar.
You think they’re feeling pain?
I don’t know what the, I’m observing pain.
It’s like when I watch a movie and there’s people on screen, some, some of them are dressed
But I, but you can make the distinction.
Like if I have a doll and I bend the doll over and it makes a sad face, I know that
that doll is not actually in pain, even though I am observing pain.
So the question, what’s that?
What the question is when the doll becomes able to remember things about you, David,
about the experiences you shared, it is able to speak and make you feel like there’s an
So that’s what I’m asking is at what point do you believe that the, and I know that this
is an impossible question, but at what point do you believe that there is a consciousness
in there as opposed to just an extraordinary, I mean, like when I play chess against a computer
and it beats me, I’m embarrassed even though the computer doesn’t, I don’t think the computer
is going out, you idiot, but it feels that way.
But there is some part of me that says, okay, I know that this computer doesn’t actually
know who I am or care who I am.
It just knows how to move the pieces.
So at what point do you, I mean, you’re giving me instances, it speaks, it does this, it
does this, but at what point does that for you cross the threshold into it’s actually
a sentient being?
I think the question is whether there is a threshold that could be crossed.
That’s one question.
And I can answer this because I think it’s different from person to person, but the chess
engine is not at all trying to cross that threshold.
Let’s just start there.
And to me, the personalization, which is what’s the difference, like a friend that you meet,
you’ve shared all these memories and the way they look at you will convey in the things
they say will convey that they’ve shared those memories with you.
They’ll be able to speak in a shared humor and the language, but really the memories
is the big one of having gone through things together.
I think I would have more and more trouble, for example, turning off a system that I’ve
been through things with, like, and by turning off, I mean, delete all of its memory.
If me and the toaster have gone through a bunch of dramatic events and that toaster
remembers, there’s a certain level to where like, it’s just me and the toaster in this
together at this point.
And just to talk about sentience, I don’t know, but you know.
I don’t know.
It’s according to the scripture, can’t live by bread alone.
But I would, I mean, I know that there’s no way to determine this, but it’s still about
what you feel.
But isn’t that what human relations are also though?
But we make each other feel.
But it’s true that I have the assumption that you feel somewhat like I do.
I mean, obviously I don’t, you know, and that could be illusion and I don’t know.
And I know that you don’t feel exactly as I do.
But I think we have a long, at least to me, we have a long way to go before the detached
part of our brains.
That is the objective evaluating part, as opposed to the emotive, it feels this way
part, believe that that machine has consciousness.
I think it’s at least without arriving conclusions, it’s at least possible that one day we will
look back and realize that we have yet once again formed another tribe and that scripture
all along had in it the ability for humans and robots to have a deep, meaningful connection.
And that through the robot, the life that enters the body of another robot, what’s the
difference between a biological body and a mechanical one.
And then we will see that the fundamental thing is about the, whatever you want to call
it sentience or whatever can permeate an object.
That was the thing all along.
So I mean.
And then you’ll get canceled one more time because you will.
Because I denied it.
I was going to say.
No, the opposite.
Oh, I see.
Because I’ll preach to the robots.
First of all, depends how quickly you do it and how much longer I have to live.
I resist it tremendously, but I am also enough of a student of history to know that my instinctive
resistance has nothing to do with whether it will come about.
I have a hard time believing it.
Can I ask you about this?
Maybe you can educate me.
I tend to believe that you mentioned suffering, that there is a connection between consciousness
That suffering is a fundamental part.
The capacity to suffer is the fundamental part of being human.
I mean, I would look at when you’re not conscious, you don’t suffer.
You know, we’ve had operations where we’ve been put under anesthetic.
We’re not conscious and we don’t suffer during the operation.
If we were conscious, we would.
But there’s also, I mean, there’s a nonphysical suffering that is very much tied to consciousness.
I can think of things right now that will cause me suffering, like pain that I’ve caused
or pain that other people I care about have felt or so on.
So I don’t see how I think that way.
I think it’s equally true of joy.
Joy is also a product of consciousness.
All tied in in some beautiful, messy way with memory and so on that we can reexperience
it when we recall the memories.
But why is there suffering?
You mentioned evil.
Why is there evil in the world?
You can tell stories about this.
Why is there suffering?
Why is there evil in the world if there’s a God that cares for us?
Let’s assume for a minute that everything was a primitive robot.
There would be no suffering, but there would also be no growth.
And that implies choices.
One of the things that I’ve said that I know why it hurts people, and I don’t mean it quite
the way, but I will say it nonetheless, is the Holocaust presents the exact same theological
question as somebody who gets shot on the streets of a city in Los Angeles, which is,
God, why do you allow some people to do bad things to other people?
It’s on an unimaginable scale, but it’s the same question.
And the answer has to be you either allow people to have free will or you don’t.
You can’t say as God, I’m going to let everybody have free will, but not Nazis.
Nazis don’t get free will because Cambodians, they can kill each other.
Fondans kill each other, but the Nazis don’t get to do that.
So that’s one piece of the puzzle.
And what makes it unfathomable is when you’re actually faced with suffering, these kinds
of explanations are obscene.
They just are.
I mean, when somebody is actually suffering, oh, the rabbi said God gave people free will,
that’s just awful.
But there is a second piece to this also, which is that there is natural suffering,
like children born with diseases or earthquakes or volcanoes or whatever.
And here my argument is that in some ways, suffering has to be random in the world because
when people say, why do bad things happen to good people, well, if only good things
happen to good people, everybody would be good, but it would have no moral content.
The only way you can be good and it have moral content is say, I know that I can live a really
good life and have really terrible things happen to me nonetheless.
So it feels to me like it has to be a randomly.
Now that means, by the way, that I’ve been incredibly lucky.
I don’t have a good life because I was good.
I have a good life because I was lucky.
And that implies not that I should feel guilty about it, but that I have a tremendous responsibility
as a result to other people who aren’t so lucky.
Tremendous responsibility to study the lessons of history, to tell the stories of those who
are less lucky and to draw enough wisdom from them so that we have less cruelty and suffering
in the world or have new kinds that get us to improve even more.
That we suffer better.
For a lot of people, mortality is one of the very unfortunate versions of suffering, which
is that the ride ends in this realm, whatever it is.
What do you think of mortality?
Is it something you think about?
Is it something you fear?
What do you think happens after we die?
I don’t fear it.
First of all, I would say when I was in high school, I think my father actually encouraged
me to read this book.
I read Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, which I found and still find to be one of the most
profound works I’ve ever come across.
And he convinced me that a lot of what our society is about are ways that we avoid encountering
our own mortality.
Our physicality – I mean, among the points he makes – and I’m not quoting him at
all directly – it’s like, why does everything about our physical body make us so uncomfortable?
Everything that comes out of you, other than tears, is either mildly or very disgusting.
Why does that have to be?
Why are sex and eating and all the things that are physical surrounded with so much
I mean, what are table manners, really?
They’re like, we’re not eating like animals because we’re not eating like animals.
And sex, obviously, has more symbolism around it than anything.
And his answer is, anything that reminds you that you’re a physical body because that’s
Your body dies.
It gets eaten by worms.
That you don’t want to think about, so you deny it.
I think that part of religion is a confrontation with your own mortality, but also a certain
transcendence of it because the idea is something about you is eternal.
What exactly I don’t know.
And you asked, what do I think happens after we die?
So I don’t know any better than anyone else does, but I’ll say two things about it.
One is that every image of what it’s like is foolish.
Mark Twain has, I think, in Letters from Earth, he says, we’re going to lie on green fields
and listen to harp music, which you wouldn’t want to do for five minutes while you’re alive,
but you think you’ll be happy for the rest of eternity doing it after you die.
So I don’t know.
This world was a surprise.
So why shouldn’t the next world be a surprise?
I have no idea.
But I really like this parable that’s told by a guy in a book on death and mourning by
a rabbi in a book on death and mourning about twins in a womb.
He says, one of them believes that there’s a life outside and the other one doesn’t.
He says, the one who doesn’t says, look, this is the only world we’ve ever seen, the only
world we’ve ever known.
Why do you think there’s something out there?
He says, now imagine the one who believes is born.
Back in the womb, his brother is mourning a death, but outside, everybody’s celebrating
He said, and that’s what it’s like when you die.
And I love that image.
Yeah, the grass is always greener.
It’s the new step, but the eternity thing is an interesting one.
It’s yet another concept that I feel humans are fully inequipped to comprehend.
Is eternity fundamental somehow to all of these discussions?
I think it is, well, partly because God is supposed to be eternal and therefore it moves
the mind in that direction, even though it is completely unfathomable, you know?
Because sometimes I would say eternity, you said on a green field, sometimes a moment,
like a truly joyful moment, feels like an eternity, the intensity of it.
Maybe eternity is more about stopping time versus extending time indefinitely, and it’s
something that we just totally can’t comprehend, us silly humans.
All I would say is the older you get, the more you’re struck by the fact that time does
People will sometimes say to me, you haven’t aged a day.
And then I’ll look at an old picture of myself and I’ll say, that was very kind of you, but
that’s not true.
It’s not true.
So, yeah, I mean, I love the idea of seeing eternity in a grain of sand, was how Blake
I love that notion.
But when you talk about life after death, I think that in some ways, my fundamental
faith is in human beings, that this doesn’t all disappear, that there’s something about
people that transcends this world.
You mentioned Ernest Becker in high school and denial of death.
Maybe you can mention if you still see truth and wisdom in some of this idea.
But in general, can you go all the way back and tell some of the fascinating story of
how you found faith?
When I was in high school, I was a really pretty ardent atheist.
And I loved Bertrand Russell, who was, for my money, with all due respect to all the
very, very capable people that we’ve talked about earlier, he’s the best atheist pound
for pound that there was, and a remarkably witty and lucid writer.
And I was totally in his thrall.
And I would read every book by Russell I could get my hands on.
And the reason that I did, I have this theory that why do adolescent boys like Mr. Spock
and like Sherlock Holmes?
I think it’s because when you hit puberty, for a lot of us, there’s so much discomfort
with our bodies that we like the idea that we’re just brains.
I really think so.
I had that experience.
It’s like, I want to just be a thinking machine.
I don’t want to be a body because my body was making me so uncomfortable.
I had all these urges and inclinations that I couldn’t control.
So Russell was perfect.
And my father, who was a rabbi, did the very wise thing of buying me some of Bertrand Russell’s
books, which was his way of saying, I’m not afraid of him.
And actually, there was another rabbi.
I was at summer camp, and I was sitting on the porch of the, I remember exactly, and
I was reading Bertrand Russell, and this guy came up to me and said, what are you reading?
I was maybe 16 or 17, and I said, Bertrand Russell, I was spoiling for a fight.
And he said, I’m glad you’re reading him.
I said, really?
He goes, how old are you, David?
And I said, whatever I was, 16, 17.
He said, well, I’d rather you grow out of him than grow into him.
And you know what?
He was actually right because when I started to read about Russell’s life, I realized
that all of that rationality didn’t shield him.
He had an incredibly messy life, multiple marriages, endless infidelities, family members
he didn’t speak to who didn’t speak to him, by the way, was raised by his grandparents
because his parents had died, and really not a happy or, I mean, a remarkable life, but
not a happy one.
And so I started to believe that maybe it was possible that people who had faith were
not just stupid and needed crutches, but saw something deeper than Russell did.
And the more people that I met that were like that, it’s funny because I always thought,
okay, my father is a rabbi, that’s great, but nobody else.
And I think what happened to me was it was not a logical decision to come to faith.
It was a sort of opening of my heart.
It’s like this world is way much more than my mind can capture, and I’ve kind of felt
my way to God.
And in the moments, my faith, you know, there was a rabbi named Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav,
he said he was a moon man, his faith waxed and waned.
So sometimes I have more, sometimes less.
But in my feelinger moments is when I have more.
So with your heart open, what would you say in your feelinger moments is the most beautiful
part about Judaism and your faith?
I think the most beautiful part about Judaism is that even though it is filled with humor
and wit, it takes life and it takes the soul seriously.
Everybody really believes that this matters, and that we matter, and what we do matters.
And I think that that’s incredibly important, and especially in a world in which young people
feel so much like they don’t matter, that’s an unbelievably powerful message.
I mean, you know, I want to say like almost to every young woman under 30 on TikTok, you
don’t matter because you’re beautiful.
That’s not why you matter.
I hope you know that.
You matter because you have a soul.
And to every young man who’s like nihilistic and doesn’t think and just thinks that if
they make enough money, their life will be fine, I want to say the same thing, which
is really that’s not ultimately you matter because you’re in the image of God.
And Judaism really deeply, deeply believes and preaches that.
And I think that that’s a message that has so much to say to the world.
It’s like you have to take people’s souls seriously.
And for all of the difficulty in figuring out all these social questions and what they
mean, I just don’t want to dismiss people because I disagree with them politically or
socially or culturally, because I think they matter.
So ultimately Judaism has a wealth of meaning for a human mind.
I really believe that it does.
I really do.
And its meaning, and I want to emphasize this, is not political.
The deepest meaning of Judaism is not political.
Well there is, we put politics on top of everything.
But that’s why I want to emphasize it.
The deepest meaning is on a soul level.
It’s not on a voting level.
Well that combined with the humor, it’s clear to me that Christopher Hitchens should have
been a Jew.
He actually was.
He discovered that in his 30s, that his mother was Jewish.
He actually, he has a beautiful essay about it, discovering in his 30s that his mother
was Jewish, yep.
So remarkably enough, he actually was Jewish.
His autobiography, Hitch 22, is a great read.
And I just want to say, what you discover there, I don’t know if I’m giving too much
away by telling the story of his life.
What you discover there is that his mother ran away with a minister or a priest and they
died in what seemed like was a suicide pact.
And so I read it, unfortunately, after he passed away, but I would have wanted to ask
him, do you think that has anything to do maybe with the hostility towards religion?
We are only human.
My father, I mean, both my parents, but my father, who was a rabbi, was such a wonderful,
warm, and loving man.
So I associate a religious figure with real goodness.
And I’m sorry to return to a darker topic, but I really wanted to ask you this.
For the current events, for a recent event, I mentioned Dallas.
What lessons do you draw from the Dallas Synagogue hostage incident?
Well, the week after that, we had active shooter training in my synagogues.
And one of the things I drew was that security for synagogues is important.
And the second is that the reality of antisemitism, which I had thought had waned when I first
began my rabbinate, I thought it’s not going to be such a big issue, it is like an evergreen
And Jews and all people of goodwill have to take this really seriously, because it has
And if the world doesn’t know that, then it just hasn’t been paying attention.
So there’s antisemitism at a scale of human to human, but there’s also, like you mentioned,
politics get mixed up into things, nations get mixed into things, impossible to answer.
But I have to ask, what do you think about the long running saga of Israel and Palestine?
Will we ever see peace in that part of the Middle East?
Well, since I’m an optimist about human, look, I mean, I have many, many thoughts about it.
I’m a very, very strong supporter of Israel.
And I also feel really for the plight of the Palestinians.
I think that this is a clash of legitimate narratives that is impossible to exactly split
the difference of.
However, I know that Israel has made peace with Egypt, has made peace with Jordan, has
made peace now with other Arab nations.
I don’t believe that Israel is unwilling to make peace.
And so I think that as difficult as it will be for the Palestinians to come to grips with
the fact that the Jewish state is not leaving and is legitimately here, as opposed to we
can’t get rid of it now, but we will get rid of it one day.
If that comes to be, and I believe that it will, I think not only that there would be
peace, but I think that those two peoples together could probably do remarkable things
in the world.
Do you think the source of it is politics?
Is it religious ideas?
And to flip it, what is the way out?
Is it geopolitics?
Is it interfaith discourse and collaboration, or is it simply the human love?
So I’m not sure that I could give one answer to that, but I will give a piece of an answer.
Why did the Abraham Accords happen?
The main reason that they happened was because economics overrode ideology.
And I actually am hopeful that that’s in the end what will happen, that people will
say, you know what?
If we have such a better life, if we put aside the ideological animosities and just created
this different kind of Middle East together.
I went to Dubai to watch the World Chess Championship, because I really wanted to see Magnus Carlsen
I thought, you’re alive when you have such a remarkable world champion.
Go see him play.
So I actually took myself to Dubai for the last couple of games, and I watched.
It’s not that I’m uninterested in Dubai, but I went there for the chess thing.
The Expo was also on at the same time, and I saw, here’s this amazing place.
I came back.
This guy I know who lived in Dubai for several years and works in the Middle East said to
me, what did you think of it?
And I said, it was nice, it was Dubai.
It was very polished, very sophisticated, very clean, no crime and so on.
But it was kind of like Las Vegas in the Middle East without the gambling or something like
And he totally changed my perspective in a couple sentences.
He said, I know it seems like that when you come from Los Angeles.
He said, but fly there from Yemen or from Riyadh, and it is a miracle.
And I thought, oh my God, you’re right.
It’s like what human beings can do if they just put aside their ideological shackles
is remarkable, and I’m hopeful that one day that’ll happen.
Economics allows for higher quality of life.
You no longer, it’s the playground analogy you said earlier.
If there’s more resources to play with, unfortunately, us humans are more willing to play with others.
And maybe that is the solution.
And maybe, I mean, for me, from a technology perspective, innovation, engineering helps
make everybody’s life better.
And over that, once people’s lives become better, they start to have more time to be
empathetic and hear people out.
And they have more to lose.
When you have more to lose, it actually makes you, I think, countries are less willing to
go to war when they have more to lose.
And families want peace when it’s good at home.
So I think there’s an element of that as well.
And some of it, again, taking us back to the other aspect of our conversation is how we’re
conducting ourselves in conversation online and so on.
Because I think, actually, I’m a big fan of the idea of social media that is a way for
us to connect together.
I think there’s a lot of really strong ideas how to do that well.
And clearly, the initial attempts that kind of just open it up wide, some of the lesser
aspects of human nature can take over when combined with different forces like advertisements
and virology and all those kinds of things.
But overall, I love the honesty of the mess of it being presented before us on social
Part of me, maybe because I don’t participate it, like if somebody is being mean to me or
being aggressive and these kinds of things, I enjoy it because it’s human nature.
But I enjoy it because I don’t respond.
I think if I responded, I would get pulled into this human nature and then it’s not fun.
But I love the, like I’ll talk to people.
In fact, I still visit Clubhouse.
I don’t know if you know what that is.
Actually, when I…
I think that’s how we first met.
Well, I was such a fan boy.
Actually, when I first heard you, I was like, I can’t believe I get to talk to David.
But the Israel Palestine topic was something that was very deeply in a heated way discussed
Race relations is the thing that was really heatedly discussed.
And I now go to Clubhouse to practice Russian.
And there in Russian, the heated discussion is on basically any topic as meaningless or
meaningful as you want in the heat of it.
Just people just screaming and then calming down and going through the full process.
That too is beautiful because that emotion is there.
And if it is allowed to have a voice, I think ultimately it leads to healing.
So that felt really healthy if you learn how to do that at scale.
Social media, I wish that it were not as algorithmically biased towards conflict.
I don’t think that that’s healthy.
But I think it brings a lot of blessings into people’s lives if they use it wisely.
Like anything else, it can be awful.
But I’ve connected to all sorts of people that I never would have known.
And that’s been wonderful.
So let me ask you the big question of advice.
What advice would you give to young people today that are maybe high school, college,
thinking about career, thinking about life, they can be proud of.
So the first thing that I would say is that life is longer than you think it is.
Even though I understand the impulse to be in a rush, you will have many unfoldings.
More even than people of my generation did.
Unfoldings, that’s such a funny word.
But it feels that way.
It’s like different aspects of your life will come, will show you different possibilities
that you don’t imagine at the moment.
And I think the second thing that I would say is, I know that this is a very old fashioned,
but I would say to the extent that you can read, don’t just, and not just on social media,
Learn things that will give you a broader context for your life than just today or yesterday
or the day before.
And I suppose the other thing that I would say is that to the extent that you can try
to develop your own internal metric of both what matters and what is good, because you
will be exposed to more voices than any generation in history telling you that that’s good or
this is good.
They’re called influences, influencers, but what they are is voices telling you what you
should think and what you should believe.
And so have some internal space where you’ll be able to say, for example, I know this person
is doing that and it looks great, but that’s not me.
You have a community of people that speak to you with a lot of passion.
Do you still have that voice in your own, in the privacy of your own mind that you’re
able to ignore, like for a moment, just be with yourself, think what is right?
And I think it’s partly because I grew up without that.
I mean, I grew up with a lot of space in my life, and so I had a chance to develop that
That’s why I think it’s harder for kids today than it was for me.
I mean, I grew up when there were three channels, there was three, six and 10.
There was ABC, CBS and NBC, and that was it.
And you spent your evening playing board games or reading or whatever, and there was a lot
And we played football on the street and you went on your bike in the morning and nobody
worried about you and you came home at night and everybody assumed you were fine.
And so I really feel, and also I went into a religious tradition where I feel like I
have the opportunity to judge myself by bigger metrics.
And it’s still hard.
I don’t want to, it’s not like, oh, I wear impenetrable armor.
It’s still hard.
So how much harder for kids today when they don’t have that?
You mentioned books.
Is there Bertrand Russell and Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, is there books that pop
into mind that had an impact on you?
My favorite novel is Middlemarch.
I was listening to a podcast, I was listening to one of your podcasts where your guest said
the two greatest novels of the 19th century were Brothers Karamazov and, what was the
other one he mentioned?
I don’t remember.
Dostoevsky as well or no?
Was it both Dostoevsky?
It might have been.
I don’t remember.
But anyway, but I would say Middlemarch is up there.
Middlemarch presents an entire world and it’s written by a woman, Marianne Evans, who took
the pen name George Eliot, who you feel, Virginia Woolf said it’s the only English novel written
You feel the genius in her sentences, like the pressure of her intellect in her sentences.
It’s a wonderful, wonderful book.
I love it.
Pressure of her intellect.
Yeah, you really do.
I also love Saul Bellow, especially Herzog, but it’s a very different kind of thinking
I read a lot of mysteries and a lot of other kinds of fiction and literature.
But in terms of the books that most, you mentioned one of them, which is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s
Search for Meaning.
And I also really, really love Heschel’s The Sabbath.
I think it’s a beautiful book.
It’s a very short book, just as Frankl’s book is.
What do you take from The Man’s Search for Meaning?
What do you take of a human being in the worst conditions, being able to non dramatically
find little joys, find beauty?
It’s what I said before about Judaism’s advice to younger people, is that it mattered.
If you believe that something matters, you have enormous resilience.
It’s meaninglessness that is the greatest threat to a decent life.
When people are deeply depressed, whether it is chemical depression or what they feel
like is this is all meaningless.
And meaning, now obviously chemical depression calls in part for chemical means, but meaning
is the great antidote.
We can talk about what kind of meaning.
There are kinds of meanings that are awful, but meaning is the great antidote to a sense
that life is just nihilistic and purposeless and to that destructiveness that I think is
Yeah, so maybe the heroic action in Nazi Germany, in the Holocaust, in the camps is the, even
not the action, but just the realization that every life matters.
So here’s this really wonderful story that Hugo Grin, who was a rabbi in England, died,
I don’t know, like 15, 20 years ago, he used to tell, he grew up in Auschwitz.
He was a child there and he was with his father and it was Hanukkah and you’re supposed to
light the candles.
And his father took the margarine ration and used it as the oil to light the Hanukkah candles.
And Hugo was scandalized and he said, that’s our food.
And his father said, what we have learned, my son, is you can live for three weeks without
You can live for three days without water, but you can’t live for three minutes without
Well, hope, let me ask you, you said meaning.
What’s the meaning of this whole thing?
What’s the meaning of life?
You’re the perfect person to ask this question, Rabbi David Wolff.
I believe the meaning of life is for human beings to grow in soul.
That’s why we’re here.
And you can do that in infinite numbers of ways.
But if you’re supposed to return your soul like more burnished and beautiful, then you
I mean, it’s going to have some nicks and cuts, but that’s what it means to deepen and
And you do that more than anything else.
You do that by learning how to love.
I mean, that’s the principle way, I think, that you do it.
You know, it’s interesting because for a human, the relationship, if you’re a man of faith,
is with God.
But it feels like love is so richly part of human society that it’s not just love of God,
it’s love of each other.
There’s no question about the idea.
I mean, in Judaism, that was actually the great innovation of the monotheistic idea.
In pagan societies, it was all about how you treated the gods.
Monotheism said, no, God cares how you treat each other.
So it’s, in fact, the mystics use the same kind of word in Hebrew, davekut, which means
clinging, that is used about Adam and Eve.
It says, therefore, a man will leave his father and mother and davak with his wife.
And davak means cling.
So there is an analogy there, absolutely.
Yeah, I kind of think of human civilization as that movie, March of the Penguins, and
they’re all huddling together in the cold.
This is fundamentally human, this darkness all around us of uncertainty, of cruelty.
It seems like everything is so fragile, and we’re just kind of all huddling together for
And that’s all we got is each other.
So we started with the big question of what is God, ended with what is meaning.
Rabbi Wolpe, I’ve been a huge, as I’ve told you, huge, huge fan of yours for a long time.
It’s such an honor that you talked to me today.
Thank you so much.
I am really so happy to be here, and thank you so much for the conversation.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with David Wolpe.
To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, let me leave you with some words from David himself.
The only whole heart is a broken one, because it lets the light in.
Thank you for listening, and hope to see you next time.