Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening. This is Simon Jacobson with another edition of Toward a Meaningful Life. I’m here every Sunday evening from 6-7pm on WEVD 1050AM (in the New York area). Tonight we’re having a special show on “Miracles,” with special guest, Kenneth Woodward from Newsweek Magazine. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
It’s always a pleasure to be here and receive your phone calls and your emails. The different topics and issues that we address here week after week really are a result of your comments. So I decided to do a show on miracles, which is a major experience for many people. Miracles have many meanings. So I invited a friend of mine, Kenneth Woodward, a senior writer and editor at Newsweek Magazine, who’s been the Religion Editor there for 36 years and who wrote a book called The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.
Ken himself is Roman Catholic, but he wrote this book, which is a very fascinating work, as a study on miracles in the traditions of all these major religions. So I thought it would be a good idea to have him on the show to discuss what the role of miracles are.
Let’s get Ken on the line.
Ken Woodward: Hi Simon, thanks for having me on your show.
Jacobson: Thank you for gracing us. I’ve been reading The Book of Miracles that you wrote and I find it quite fascinating. The thing that strikes me initially, I must say, is that you are a journalist, a journalist at a secular bastion in America called Newsweek Magazine.
Woodward: If you can call it that, but go ahead.
Jacobson: Not you, I mean the magazine! At the same time, I see Arthur Hertzberg writes an interesting blurb for your book: “This is a book which both skeptics and believers must read. It reopens the question of miracles in a very modern way because Kenneth Woodward is both a believer and an excellent, unillusioned reporter.”
So that convergence of being a seasoned journalist who has to have that type of objective and even skeptical eye, and at the same time, researching and dealing with this entire book of miracles, I find a very interesting juxtaposition.
Did you find any type of conflict; and how did you deal with that?
Woodward: Well, you know, journalists write books because they want to write something longer and more thoughtful. Sometimes they just want to write longer sentences. Journalism, they say, is the first writing in history, but this book is really a look back. This book was a product of a great deal of reading and a great deal of research.
I do glance, we can talk about it later, at the contemporary manifestations of miracles, but I just said, look, when we’re confronted with a miracle, we’re confronted with a miracle as told to us in a story. Even if something that you considered miraculous happened to you, Simon, you’d have to make a narrative out of it in your own mind. This happened and that happened and here’s the connection, etc. And then you might tell someone about it which you would tell in a story.
So all miracles come to us in stories, and there is no way, dealing with five world religions, that you can say, “Did it really happen?” I think that’s the wrong question to ask. The question to ask is, “What’s the function of this miracle story or that miracle story or miracle stories in general within the traditions?” because a miracle for someone who is Jewish is not a miracle for someone who’s Hindu and vice versa. A miracle for someone’s who’s Buddhist is not a miracle for someone who’s Christian and vice versa.
So we understand miracles because we belong to traditions that help us to understand miracles and they even prioritize some miracles over others.
I’ve forgotten the number, and you’re going to have to remind me, but there are crossings of water umpteen times in the Hebrew bible, and each one of them is an echo of Exodus. It’s that kind of material that I’m trying to get at.
Jacobson: That’s an interesting way of balancing the two. However, do you find that there’s a belief system which believes in an objective miracle in which all peoples of all faiths need to embrace because it was either witnessed or experienced in that type of way?
Woodward: Well, miracles don’t happen very often in people’s eyes, at least as they think of miracles: something that’s utterly unpredictable. Coincidences happen. So all of us carry a certain amount of skepticism around with us, so again, you tell the story.
To answer your question, I don’t think there are, because let’s say that you belong to one of the most secularized, skeptical ideological sub-cultures in our society: let’s say you’re an academic in the humanities—and you witness this thing—what you’re going to say to yourself is, “Well, I don’t understand it but there’ll be an explanation for it someday.”
You’ve ruled out the possibility of G-d because you don’t believe in G-d, let’s say, and therefore you simply say to yourself, “Well, you know, there are a lot of things we didn’t know in the past and we came to know them. This will be explained some other time. I just rule it out of my belief system.”
That’s what people do. That’s why it’s very difficult to get a miracle which everyone’s going to accept just because it happened.
Miracles never just happen. That’s what I came to discover after I wrote the book. They are always interpretative events.
Jacobson: So, essentially, what you’re really doing in a way, is presenting miracles for the 21st century, for even a skeptical, highly materialistic world. A miracle in a sense is part of the study of the human condition in human history.
Woodward: Yes, of course it is. But one of the first things I wanted to say is that miracles, in all religious traditions (I talk about the five major ones) are really very different… all the people who belong to these five traditions are living in the same world. They’re having the same experiences, but they are interpreting those experiences very differently.
That’s in general what goes on in religions.
Secondly, you’ve got to ask the question: What does it mean? I think that’s the important question, particularly when you’re dealing with the classical miracle stories of each tradition. I mean, if I were Jewish, every year I would celebrate at Passover the whole Exodus experience, and, in a very structured way, but I would hope in a very personal way, I would ask, “What does it mean?” And I think that could be applied to a lot of miracles.
When the prophet Elisha raises someone from the dead, as does the prophet Elijah, what does it mean? And how does it fit into all the miracle stories that happened before and the miracle stories that come later?
If you are Christian, I think it helps to know that when Jesus raises the dead, and this story is told by the early Christians, the early Christians who were Jewish after all, and that was their tradition, they knew the stories of Elisha and Elijah. And that’s why they saw significance in Jesus.
The same way, there are certain, if we can use the fancy word “paradigmatic” miracles in Hinduism. And these stories get repeated, but also the miracles get repeated in the great sages and spiritual masters.
Jacobson: But Ken, let me ask you this. A miracle, essentially, and I speak from my background and my understanding…
Woodward: The only way you can, I think… That’s the best way to speak.
Jacobson: That’s good when you acknowledge it… is that miracles are a reflection of the Divine intervention in people’s lives. So are you suggesting—we’re talking now from a religious perspective—a religious person who believes in G-d and believes that G-d created the universe and although created the laws of nature, still has the power to suspend them—so in that context it’s not just the message of the miracle, it’s also perhaps G-d, like the Bible would say, is demonstrating that “I am here and I can change the course. I don’t do it often, but I have that power.”
Let’s put it this way, even if G-d doesn’t create a miracle, He has the ability to do so at any given time.
Woodward: Well, I think if you’re going to believe in G-d, you’d better believe in a G-d who’s not handicapped. That was basically the 18th century deists’ view, which affected Christianity and it affected Judaism to a very strong extent.
But you know, I don’t use the idea of the laws of nature, and I don’t talk much about nature. Do you know why? First of all, the Bible doesn’t for one thing and I have two whole chapters on the Hebrew Bible and then what follows, and then the New Testament, so no, and the people who wrote those didn’t think there wasn’t an autonomous realm for nature. Everything was subject to the will and the power of G-d. They didn’t make the distinctions that we do today.
Very often I find when I talk to people, when they talk about nature, they’re really talking about nature as it was understood in the 18th or 19th century. They’re not talking about the way it’s understood today. And if you mean nature, do you mean the way Greeks talked about it, especially Aristotle? What kind of laws are we really talking about?
So that’s why I stay away. I even resist the definition of miracles in my book, and I give all the reasons why definitions fail. But then I say, “Well, for those who like a definition, here it is. ‘A miracle is an unusual or an extraordinary event that, in principle, is perceivable by others.”
I leave out miracles that nobody saw, like Creation. Nobody saw that. That finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities…
Jacobson: Scientists today are trying to recreate and see it, but I guess they’re not going to get too far.
Woodward: Well, what they’re doing is crawling back through the process. In any case, what I’m saying is that a miracle is an unusual or extraordinary event that is in principle perceivable by others and finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary human abilities or in other known forces that operate in the world of time and space, and that as a result of a special act of G-d (for monotheists) or the gods (Hinduism) or of human beings transformed by efforts of their own nature through asceticism and meditation (which would take in Buddhism) which does not have a creator, G-d, as you know.
Jacobson: So let me say this then. What you’re saying parallels a thought of the Baal Shem Tov, who is the founder of the Chassidic movement in Jewish mysticism, who said that the difference between a miracle and a natural event is only in frequency, meaning, that if the sun were to rise once in our lifetimes, everyone would think that’s a miracle.
So essentially, nature is a series of miracles, of redundant or perpetual miracles. I don’t know if that’s exactly what you’re saying, but…
Woodward: Well, as you know, I have a whole section in the book on the Baal Shem Tov and Chassidism and so forth. But behind that is already a long tradition, a reflection, is there not, from the Zohar and the whole Kabbalistic tradition which has different layers and different divisions to it and so forth, but it’s an understanding of the structure of the world so that that’s possible. I find that for example—and it should be obvious to anyone who studies it—that in each of these traditions there are miracles.
Now there are a lot of people, let’s take a lot of Jews who become Buddhists in this country, because an awful lot of American Buddhists are Jewish. And they think they’re leaving miracles behind. They think they’re leaving perhaps heavens and hells behind. Well, in many of the forms of Buddhism, it’s got six or seven heavens and six or seven hells and the Buddha does work miracles, but it’s under a different system.
Well, they may say, I’ll just skip over that part of it, right? And they might want to be selective. I am saying in this book that if you are going to understand religions other than your own, as well as your own, then you’re going to have to take them in their entirety. They all have miracle stories and this book says, how do they function in there?
Jacobson: But Ken, even if you were not to define nature, I mean, let’s say the sun rises in the morning. There are, so to speak, laws of nature, without even getting into the scientific definition. Is G-d able to create a situation where the sun won’t rise tomorrow morning? Is that in G-d’s power? As you said, G-d is not handicapped…
Woodward: Well, you know, that’s exactly the kind of stuff that I’m avoiding.
Jacobson: I’m asking why.
Woodward: The reason I do is I don’t think it gets you anywhere, and it’s a different line of inquiry. I mean, if you want to say, “What is the picture that modern physics tells us about the world?” and I do talk about that in a brief paragraph— I say, it’s not the place or my intention to argue the existence of G-d or of gods or of miracles. Belief in miracles has never in any case been a substitute for religious faith. But it is the place, and I’m reading here, “to remind the readers that the great face-off between science and religion is a relic of 19th century Western culture.”
You don’t find much of it in India, by the way, and I was just there two years ago. Today, many scientists are also people of religious faith, and some theologians are also scientists. No science of course can proceed in any calculation or experiment with G-d as a factor and still claim to be science.
Saints, on the other hand, may and often do, experiment with G-d, as Gandhi did with truth. He called his book Experiments with Truth. This presupposes a G-d who is neither withdrawn from His creation nor uninterested in how it turns out. Indeed, in an evolutionary world where everything is related to everything else, it is not hard to imagine a G-d, who is in a relationship with the universe.
Jacobson: We live in a very secular world today, secular meaning we have championed the success of technology, of science…
Woodward: Well it isn’t only that. There are various kinds of secularisms, and what we have in this country, as always, are several things going on at once. You have a kind of officially secular public realm. “The culture of the public realm.” For people in New York City, it’s best manifest by the New York Times and its outlook on the world. They just don’t get it, by and large.
Jacobson: What about Newsweek?
Woodward: Well, Newsweek isn’t. You know, there were times when they would say, “Well, we want to put this or that religious subject on the cover of Newsweek.” There were individual people who didn’t know anybody who was religious or if they were they didn’t talk about it.
That’s all changed. They can read the numbers to realize that religion covers sell consistently better than the other kind of covers.
Jacobson: Well, you’re right. The Bible is the single greatest best seller. I think your words say it all.
Woodward: Well, there’s that. But there are a lot of covers that we do, and they end up being the first or second best selling on the newsstand every year.
So they can read those numbers, but in a funny way, and your listeners should know this, one of the reasons for this is the rise of what they call, usually pejoratively, the “religious right”—a sudden realization that there are a lot of evangelical Christians out there. These people used not to be in politics and now they are.
I would love to get, say, a liberal Jewish, New York City resident together with a Southern Baptist from the Deep South. It’s like two different planets, and yet, if we’re going to be a news magazine, I have to understand both those cultures, and that’s what I try to do.
But in any case, there are an awful lot of people out there who kept their religion submerged. I know it’s hard for some people to understand this, but they’ve made it possible for a lot of other people who were hesitant, to acknowledge their own religious convictions, to do so.
Now, take my word for it, you can go to a cocktail party and talk about religion and nobody’s going to start running for the door. It used to be you couldn’t. You could talk about sex all you wanted, but you couldn’t talk about religion. Now it’s possible to do that.
I’ve got a little Italian in me, and I go to Italy a lot. In Italy it’s a different culture. In Italy, you’re expected to talk about religion, politics, sex, and art.
Jacobson: Those are the four. Okay, Ken, let me take a break here. (You’re listening to Simon Jacobson speaking to Kenneth Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek Magazine for 36 years. He is also the author of Making Saints. His book, The Book of Miracles, will be featured in Reader’s Digest soon, as well as in a special on 20/20 and PBS on television. So this book is waking people up to this issue of miracles.)
(Announcement break For a free newsletter, “Miracles,” from the Simon Jacobson’s Meaningful Life Center, call us at 1-800-363-2646, email at email@example.com, or write The Meaningful Life Center, Suite 303, 788 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11213.)
Jacobson: Okay, we’re back. I like the interesting way that you in a sense took the high road, Ken, by avoiding the question, which could turn into even a petty debate and argument—do you believe in a miracle or not?—by instead posing the question, “What does it mean in your life?
I’m sure you’ve come across the issue of what we can call a mature or immature approach to miracles, in a sense, where some people look at miracles as being their “sign of G-d,” and without it, they almost wouldn’t believe.
Woodward: Yes. And you were quoting the Baal Shem Tov. Yes, miracles are rare. And I do worry about that aspect of our contemporary culture, some of it evangelical Protestantism, where they think that everything is a miracle. Of course when everything’s a miracle, nothing’s a miracle.
Jacobson: Well, in Jewish faith, there are times when you’re supposed to make a special blessing or thanksgiving to G-d for some special intervention, whether it’s a healing in a miraculous way, or some other type of situation. If you do that every day, it’s in a sense an insult, because you’re not appreciating those special moments.
Woodward: Yes. There was a yahrtzeit for Abraham Heschel recently, and so I started rereading him, and I quoted him in Newsweek last week in my essay on Jerusalem, by the way.
Jacobson: You studied with him, didn’t you?
Woodward: You know, I was reading Tikkun Magazine, a Jewish magazine, and the editor had studied with him. Heschel took me under his wing. We just became good friends. And now I see that he did that with a lot of people and they never forgot it.
Now, Heschel talked about the importance of certain attitudes. I would say they are preconditions for recognizing miracles when they happen. The first one is gratitude, and related to that was the sense of awe and the sense of wonder.
Now before I read Heschel, I read some other people in my own Catholic tradition, which said much the same thing so it resonated with me right away. But the sense of gratitude is really important. I believe in miracles because I believe in gifts, and I think it’s fair to say that there is, in both traditions we’re talking about, the sense of grace, of G-d’s presence and G-d’s gift of Himself, through grace.
And I think that’s what the secular mentality can’t understand. Furthermore, even among evangelical Christians who are constantly talking about miracles, I know from doing more than one cover story on the subject of prayer, that they’re not so unsophisticated as to suppose that when they don’t get an answer, or the answer they want, that therefore, “I’m going to walk off and sulk, there is no G-d,” and so forth.
People of prayer understand that they don’t always get what they want. It’s not a “gimme G-d” after all. Nor should prayer be that way. But if it begins in gratitude, lots of things are possible.
Jacobson: That’s very moving actually. In Chassidic tradition, there’s a saying, “Someone who believes in all the stories of the Baal Shem Tov and the other mystics and holy men is a fool; someone who doesn’t believe them is a heretic.”
Woodward: Well you probably saw that I quote a version of that in my book, and I agree with that. I also say that, on my own behalf, the reader who reads these miracle stories literally, and only literally, misses the meaning. And those who cannot accept the literal meaning, don’t understand why they were told in the first place.
Jacobson: I have a story in my book, actually, Toward a Meaningful Life, where I talk about miracles, that there were three men sitting at an inn, each one describing his personal miracle. One said that his miracle was that his great rabbi suggested that he invest a certain amount of money, and he made an unbelievably successful investment.
Another one said, “I had a child who was ill, and my rabbi gave me a blessing and the child was miraculously healed.”
The third one said, “My rabbi told me to invest all my money in a certain area, and I lost it all.”
And they looked at him and said, “What’s the miracle?”
He said, “The miracle is that I remained dedicated to my rabbi, and I didn’t lose faith.”
That’s one of the criticisms in general of the secular world on religion in general, and I guess on prayers and miracles, is that it becomes a form of escapism, a form of a crutch.
Woodward: Of course. There’s a wrong way to do these things, and I think to be a person of prayer, it takes considerable maturity. And I would say as a Christian, that it takes grace. I mean, I think that really we’re dependent on grace more than we like to think.
Now the myth in America is that we’re in control of our own lives, or we ought to be. The attitude of prayer is, and notice how we’re not even talking about miracles anymore, it’s kind of interesting…
Jacobson: Because you, as a good journalist, really directed it to the meaning of miracles…
Woodward: Well, I’d like to think that I can also exhibit good scholarship when I have to, you know? So there’s a disposition and an attitude—and I think the Christian prays quite regularly, “Not my will but Yours be done,”—in Christianity and in the other two monotheisms, Judaism and Islam: putting oneself at the disposal of G-d.
I think you have to acknowledge that it’s hard. It’s easy for me to sit here and talk about it. Probably most of the time I want to be in control. That’s what brings about the kind of tension one expects in one’s spiritual life.
If you want me to talk personally, I come from a family where people pray for each other. In the Catholic culture it’s very common for people to say, “I’ll pray for you. Oh, your daughter’s sick? I’ll pray for her.”
Now that presupposes a kind of connection between me and the daughter I hadn’t met and G-d and the rest. It’s a real communion. And that’s a very different world view from what a lot of people have, but that’s why religion constructs a world view.
Jacobson: So you don’t find in any of the major religions that they build the proof of G-d’s existence or the truth of their doctrine on miracles?
Woodward: No they don’t. Let me talk about Eastern religions for just a minute, because they’re very popular these days—the religions that come out of India. You have two sources, the religions that come out of the Middle East, which are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and you have the religions which come out the continent of India, and for an Indian, and indeed for a Buddhist, to a large extent, India is the holy land: holy rivers, holy mountains. That’s one reason why Hinduism doesn’t travel very well whole and entire, because it’s really tied to the geography of India.
One of the reasons I did this book was to teach myself about these other religions and to know them better. So in a certain sense, when you pick up my book, you’re learning about these five religions, and I look at miracles from the perspective of each tradition. It’s a technique called “passing over to another point of view.” And usually, what happens is, (and I owe this to a professor at my university, Notre Dame, who’s also a friend of mine, John Dunne who really developed this idea as a theologian), then you pass over into your own life, and you pass over into your own life enriched. And I’ve seen it from that perspective.
At Newsweek, the greatest people that I’ve talked to, and Heschel was one of them, the most deeply spiritual people I talked to, were able to understand, without abandoning their own perspective, because they were deeply spiritual people, they were able to understand other perspectives.
It isn’t just a matter of studying another religion, like, “It’s mostly a Christian country, and if I’m Jewish, let’s say, I’m going to study Christianity so I can know what all these other people are believing in.” Or if you’re a Moslem, doing the same, or if you’re a Christian in a Moslem country, and so on.
It’s a matter of passing over to that perspective so you then you can understand it.
Jacobson: So are miracles and personal responsibility always intertwined in all the religions that you’ve studied? In other words, is a miracle ever something we depend on, or as I said, proof of G-d, or proof of our truths?
Woodward: Oh I don’t think so.
Jacobson: If there were no miracles in any of the doctrines, would it have a fundamental effect on the belief system? That’s the real question.
Woodward: Well, because they are in all traditions, I have to think that they’re important. Don’t you think so, or they wouldn’t be there. And I think we try to struggle to understand the presence and the power of G-d, and that’s what these miracle stories, in most cases, are about.
In Buddhism in particular miracles are really extraordinary powers that the person develops, who follows a rigorous, spiritual discipline. Usually it involved meditation, eating practices, and that kind of thing. Then their relationship to their own bodies is such that these powers were released. So it’s a very different understanding of miracles compared to the religions coming out of the Middle East. What you often see in New Age efforts is to combine the two of them and I don’t think you can do that. They’re two very different understandings.
I think it’s one thing to pass over and look at things from another tradition so that you enter another religion by sympathetic understanding. I think we have to do that. But on the other hand, you can’t confuse the realms. I quote the Dalai Lama who gave me a nice blurb for this book, as you noticed. The question came up, “Can a Christian also be a Buddhist by practicing meditation?” And he said, “You can’t put a yak’s head on a cow’s body.”
I even talked to him personally about this. I said, “Is Christianity a valid path toward liberation?” And he said that they don’t look toward liberation. In other words, the goal is different. He was very shrewd and he was very right. He’s also (I should say, I’ve known him for 25 years), a very candid person. So these are different disciplines.
So when I see people trying to mix religion—you know, “I’ll take a little of this and a little of that”—I really have to shake my head, and that’s one reason why I wrote this book. You can’t do that. And if you really understood the traditions, you’d see, especially through the miracle stories, that you’re really living in different worlds.
Jacobson: In Judaism, the concept of a miracle—as you so accurately captured, but speaking from a more Kabbalistic perspective—is the idea that the spiritual and material worlds are really parallel universes and there are windows that connect them. And when a person does open him or herself to the spiritual, in a sense, they are able to draw G-d’s energy into their lives.
Woodward: Yes. I found that very interesting. In fact, when Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School reviewed my book on Belief Net, which is on the Internet, he remarked particularly on this. He didn’t know anything about that. And I think one should. Now, that’s not a Christian or Islamic perspective, but it’s worked out in a different tradition. But there are parallels to that which I think are very interesting.
What you just described are particular Jewish ways of talking about how we can understand that G-d is present in the world. Am I not right?
And so when you work off your own tradition, what usually happens is, if you know your own tradition well enough, you look for things that look like yours. And that’s the first stage that you have to do, but gradually, you have to be able to understand how it’s different.
And why should you know those things? There are a lot of reasons why, Simon. We’re living in a global economy. “The world gets smaller” is a cliché—we just “have to know.” They’re going to invite 1,000 religious leaders to the U.N. at the end of August to talk about peace. I wonder how many of them understand the religions of the other people they’ll be meeting with.
Jacobson: Well I find that the key to any type of real communication is ultimately spiritual respect, where you respect the Divine soul that is G-d-given to every human being. Without that…
Woodward: Of course, and you learn. And I think you have to understand that you can learn from other people without converting to that type of thing. But that’s why, very often, on television, and this actually came up in a very practical way recently, they don’t get people of spiritual depth. They get people who have a clientele to serve. And they scream at each other. Heschel would never have done that.
Jacobson: Well, that’s political religion. That’s bureaucracy and so forth.
Woodward: No, it’s television really wanting people to go at each other. That’s what it really comes down it.
Jacobson: Okay, but unfortunately, it happens even off television.
Woodward: Right, of course it does.
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Jacobson: Let me ask you, Ken. In your own personal life, would you say that you have experienced a miracle, if I may be bold enough to ask?
Woodward: Well, I normally don’t think in those categories. Maybe I’m like you; I expect a miracle to be a big thing. Good and important things have happened to me because people prayed for me. And I think I’ve received gifts, and in that sense my answer to your question is yes.
But because I think of miracles as rather staggering kinds of things, I don’t think staggering things have happened to me—I think I’m like most people. It’s the incremental things. Why didn’t I do the evil thing I could have done where I was inclined to do it? What pulled me back? Maybe something in me, but I really believe there’s a sense that we’re all connected and that comes right out of a very old Catholic tradition. A communion of saints.
I mean, you’re aware that pious Jews will go to the Rebbe’s gravesite. In the Catholic tradition, going all the way back to the beginning, people have the tradition of praying to saints. The danger, of course, is that you might ignore G-d. That’s what I talk about in my previous book, Making Saints. But the idea is that G-d has friends. Saints are close friends of G-d, and G-d is just never alone. G-d wants to share what G-d is with other people.
I think we all want to grow in holiness. We all want to do what G-d does. I don’t mean that in a sacrilegious sense, you understand. We want to align our intentions with G-d—I mean think that’s what we’re here to do. It isn’t always easy to see. That’s why traditions have rules and practices, and these are honed over centuries, are they not?
And so in a relative way, I think it’s possible to talk about a holy person.
Jacobson: Okay. Let’s go to the phone. We’ll go to “Happy Man” who’s been waiting and I apologize to you.
Caller: I have had two important mystical experiences, and before I tell you about them I wanted to ask Ken, have you had any mystical experiences?
Woodward: Well, you know, I come from a Catholic tradition and there the mystics are a pretty clear category. They’re quite extraordinary people and they’re people of great discipline, they’re people of deep prayer, and they’re usually at it a long time. I worry a little bit about the word “mystic” being thrown around today. Anybody who has a kind of numinous experience…
Caller: Ken, have you had any mystical experiences yourself?
Woodward: Oh, I don’t know. If I had, they’re kind of ordinary mysticism. Once you develop habits of prayer, and if you start looking for experiences, it’s not a good thing unless they happen to happen as byproducts.
Caller: I’ll share with you a story. I had a defaulted judgment, a sum of money in a real estate deal, with a woman who was buying property. She defaulted and I kept the money, legally and properly. And I found myself wanting to give it back, and that was unusual because I didn’t have any basis for that. It was not my custom to do something like that, not that it happens all the time, but it was my money.
Suddenly the feeling got stronger and stronger over a number of months. I called her up, and I knew she was a churchgoer, and I said, “What’s going on here? Have you been praying for this money?” I had a suspicion.
She said, “Well, I haven’t been praying for the money, but my congregation has been praying for you,” and I was very happy to give her that money back. And I was shocked because I initially didn’t want to, and it was a wonderful experience. I believe there’s a connection.
Woodward: That’s a wonderful story.
Jacobson: Okay, we’ll go to Rafi on the line.
Caller: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. Listening to your lovely conversation has been very interesting, I kind of hear from what you are saying that all the traditions, all the religions, seem to have something in common, which seems to be maybe a yearning for a connectedness with the Creator, the Divine spirit, and a striving to have this connection and to be aware of it and to appreciate it and to have gratitude.
I think at least for me it is the key. My question is, do you guys believe that? I mean, is there a common thread in all the traditions?
Jacobson: If I may say for Ken, on one hand there’s a common thread, but at the same time, there’s a risk of blurring the boundaries, because there are distinctions in miracles, and I guess in other elements of faith. Am I right, Ken?
Woodward: Let me put my journalist hat on for a second (as opposed to my book writing hat) because I think it’s a different hat. What I think is pretty well documented by now is that the polls show that 89% of Americans say they believe in G-d and I forgot the number, almost that amount believes in miracles. And over half of Americans say they’ve experienced a miracle in their own life or witnessed one in the life of someone else.
Well, polls only go so far. Let’s take the notion that we believe in G-d. The interesting question is, who’s the G-d you believe in? That’s the real question.
A lot of people have a very vague sort of G-d. In America, it’s easier to believe in G-d than not. But does G-d make any demands on you? The question that comes up is, what’s asked of you? And then the whole picture seems to change quite a bit.
What I wanted to say, what I’ve noticed, because I have a privileged place from which to observe what’s going on religiously in the country—I get a lot books, magazines, etc, we run polls and all that stuff—is that over the last 25 years, what’s really happened is the inability of the various traditions to pass their own traditions on. So you have a lot of free-floating spirituality and it can very often be very vague.
But we get in New Age is everybody wants to grab a little piece of all the different traditions. They’re like bees that flit from one flower to another; they want to suck the nectar out of them. You can’t do it that way.
Jacobson: So what trend do you see, Ken?
Woodward: Well, there are a lot of trends going on, but I think it’s demonstrable from the mid-60’s and on, that the various traditions failed to pass on their own tradition. I don’t have to tell you about Jewish tradition, you should know that.
But I can certainly tell you that the Presbyterians, for example, who study themselves a lot, most little Presbyterians don’t grow up to be big Presbyterians. They grow up to be something else or nothing at all, and a lot of that has to do with the culture of the 60’s, and a lot of it had to do with the demographic factor. The biggest bulge of people were the 60’s people. There never was an age group as large as that one and they change every age category they go through.
So very often the kind of religion that hits them is the religion that makes a lot of noise and promises that “Sham-bang, you’re going to have a miracle.”
Jacobson: Well, that may be the reason for the failure.
Woodward: It may also be why so many people say they’ve experienced miracles.
Jacobson: Let’s go to Lynn on the air.
Caller: I’m Catholic and my husband is Jewish. I was just wondering if in Judaism they talk about miracles as more of a group, broad-based across the whole religious spectrum, or is it more individual, because being raised Catholic, you hear more about the personalized miracles. I never really heard my husband speak about that from his religion, do you know what I’m saying?
Woodward: Well, look, at Newsweek my Jewish colleagues will often come up to me and say, “Do we believe in that?” And I say, “Well, you tell me.” I just talked about the failure to pass on tradition. I really think that it’s a sociologically accurate statement to say the Jewish community has failed the most.
Very few Jews are religious. And your husband may have been brought up that way, and then secondly, an awful lot of religious Jews were affected by the Enlightenment, which really didn’t have a good word to say about miracles.
Caller: It’s interesting, we went to Ireland a few years ago, a place where a miracle took place. It just seems that I’ve heard the word “miracle” more in reference to Christianity. I mean I’ve been with him for 20 years now so I know a lot about Judaism, which I really enjoy, but I never heard that word bandied about that much.
Woodward: I know, because in American Judaism, there has been, I would say, too much emphasis on ethics and also ethnic identity, because they say, “Well, I’m Jewish and therefore…” and everything comes from that. Well, I’ve learned not to trust that.
In my experience in New York City, I meet an awful lot of Jews who are in full flight from their own religion, and therefore, they’re the advanced guard for secularism.
Caller: Ken, are you a practicing Catholic?
Woodward: Well, as I told Simon, I stopped practicing a long time ago because…
Caller: If you get it right, you don’t need to practice, right?
Woodward: That’s right. Now I know how to do it so I don’t practice anymore.
Caller: Thank you both. I really enjoy your show, Rabbi.
Jacobson: Thank you.
Woodward: I hope she understands that I’m at mass all the time…
Jacobson: I think she understands. She seems to be at the same place you’re at.
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Jacobson: Okay, Ken, we have another minute or two left.
Woodward: Let me say something regarding the woman who was just on. As I talk about this in the book, the Catholic tradition is such that yes, we believe that miracles have happened, miracles continue to happen, which a lot of Protestants don’t accept since they think that miracles were limited to the period of the Scriptures, but because they need miracles of intercession in connection with the canonization of saints, they are highly rationalistic in saying that we have to demonstrate that there is no explanation for this or that particular claimed miracle. So it’s an interesting combination of a world in which miracles can and do happen, but proving that this particular thing was a miracle is something else. And in your particular Chassidic tradition, the miracle is blessing, which is a very rich concept and connected with an understanding of what a Rebbe is. That’s why I used to get very upset when they would talk about Rabbi Schneerson and never give the background to it.
And then, in the Pentecostal tradition, it’s called the democratization of miracles. There, Oral Robert’s motto is, “Expect a miracle.” And they expect miracles all the time, and I have a little bit of a problem with that kind of thing because G-d doesn’t normally work with us in this way.
It’s like the yeast being of grace which grows into something.
Jacobson: So Ken, since we just have 15 seconds, can you give us a boost as to what a miracle can mean for us in a personal way? What demand does it put on us?
Woodward: Well, I think that we have to learn to be living always in the presence of G-d, and when we do that, we will see those dimensions that we call miraculous.
Jacobson: Thank you so much Ken for being here with us. We’ll be back next week with Simon Jacobson on Toward a Meaningful Life.