Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript - July 23, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening. This is Simon
Jacobson with another edition of Toward a Meaningful
Life. Im here every Sunday evening from 6-7pm
on WEVD 1050AM (in the New York area). Tonight were
having a special show on Miracles, with special
guest, Kenneth Woodward from Newsweek Magazine. But well
get to that in a moment.
Its 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, whos 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.
Lets get Ken on the line.
Ken Woodward: Hi Simon, thanks for having
me on your show.
Jacobson: Thank you for gracing us. Ive
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
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 were confronted with a miracle, were confronted
with a miracle as told to us in a story. Even if something that
you considered miraculous happened to you, Simon, youd
have to make a narrative out of it in your own mind. This happened
and that happened and heres 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 thats the wrong
question to ask. The question to ask is, Whats 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 whos
Hindu and vice versa. A miracle for someones whos
Buddhist is not a miracle for someone whos Christian and
So we understand miracles because we belong to
traditions that help us to understand miracles and they even
prioritize some miracles over others.
Ive forgotten the number, and youre
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. Its that kind of material that Im
trying to get at.
Jacobson: Thats an interesting way
of balancing the two. However, do you find that theres
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 dont happen
very often in peoples eyes, at least as they think of
miracles: something thats 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 dont think there
are, because lets say that you belong to one of the most
secularized, skeptical ideological sub-cultures in our society:
lets say youre an academic in the humanitiesand
you witness this thingwhat youre going to say to
yourself is, Well, I dont understand it but therell
be an explanation for it someday.
Youve ruled out the possibility of G-d because
you dont believe in G-d, lets say, and therefore
you simply say to yourself, Well, you know, there are
a lot of things we didnt 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.
Thats what people do. Thats why its
very difficult to get a miracle which everyones going
to accept just because it happened.
Miracles never just happen. Thats what I
came to discover after I wrote the book. They are always interpretative
Jacobson: So, essentially, what youre
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. Theyre having
the same experiences, but they are interpreting those experiences
Thats in general what goes on in religions.
Secondly, youve got to ask the question:
What does it mean? I think thats the important question,
particularly when youre 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 thats why they saw significance
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
Woodward: The only way you can, I think
Thats the best way to speak.
Jacobson: Thats good when you acknowledge
is that miracles are a reflection of the Divine intervention
in peoples lives. So are you suggestingwere
talking now from a religious perspectivea 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 themso in that context its not just the
message of the miracle, its also perhaps G-d, like the
Bible would say, is demonstrating that I am here and I
can change the course. I dont do it often, but I have
Lets put it this way, even if G-d doesnt
create a miracle, He has the ability to do so at any given time.
Woodward: Well, I think if youre
going to believe in G-d, youd better believe in a G-d
whos 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 dont use the idea of the
laws of nature, and I dont talk much about nature. Do
you know why? First of all, the Bible doesnt 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 didnt think there wasnt an autonomous
realm for nature. Everything was subject to the will and the
power of G-d. They didnt make the distinctions that we
Very often I find when I talk to people, when
they talk about nature, theyre really talking about nature
as it was understood in the 18th or 19th
century. Theyre not talking about the way its 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
So thats 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
I leave out miracles that nobody saw, like Creation.
Nobody saw that. That finds no reasonable explanation in ordinary
Jacobson: Scientists today are trying
to recreate and see it, but I guess theyre not going to
get too far.
Woodward: Well, what theyre doing
is crawling back through the process. In any case, what Im
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
youre 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 thats
So essentially, nature is a series of miracles,
of redundant or perpetual miracles. I dont know if thats
exactly what youre 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 its an understanding of the structure of
the world so that thats possible. I find that for exampleand
it should be obvious to anyone who studies itthat in each
of these traditions there are miracles.
Now there are a lot of people, lets take
a lot of Jews who become Buddhists in this country, because
an awful lot of American Buddhists are Jewish. And they think
theyre leaving miracles behind. They think theyre
leaving perhaps heavens and hells behind. Well, in many of the
forms of Buddhism, its got six or seven heavens and six
or seven hells and the Buddha does work miracles, but its
under a different system.
Well, they may say, Ill 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 youre 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, lets 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 wont rise tomorrow morning?
Is that in G-ds power? As you said, G-d is not handicapped
Woodward: Well, you know, thats exactly
the kind of stuff that Im avoiding.
Jacobson: Im asking why.
Woodward: The reason I do is I dont
think it gets you anywhere, and its 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, its
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 Im reading here, to remind the readers that
the great face-off between science and religion is a relic of
19th century Western culture.
You dont 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,
Woodward: Well it isnt 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,
its best manifest by the New York Times and its outlook
on the world. They just dont get it, by and large.
Jacobson: What about Newsweek?
Woodward: Well, Newsweek isnt. 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 didnt know anybody who
was religious or if they were they didnt talk about it.
Thats all changed. They can read the numbers
to realize that religion covers sell consistently better than
the other kind of covers.
Jacobson: Well, youre right. The
Bible is the single greatest best seller. I think your words
say it all.
Woodward: Well, theres 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 righta 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. Its like two different planets, and yet, if
were going to be a news magazine, I have to understand
both those cultures, and thats 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 its
hard for some people to understand this, but theyve 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 nobodys going to start
running for the door. It used to be you couldnt. You could
talk about sex all you wanted, but you couldnt talk about
religion. Now its possible to do that.
Ive got a little Italian in me, and I go
to Italy a lot. In Italy its a different culture. In Italy,
youre expected to talk about religion, politics, sex,
Jacobson: Those are the four. Okay, Ken,
let me take a break here. (Youre 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 Readers
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 Jacobsons 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, were 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 argumentdo you believe in a miracle or
not?by instead posing the question, What does it
mean in your life?
Im sure youve 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 wouldnt
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 everythings a miracle, nothings a
Jacobson: Well, in Jewish faith, there
are times when youre supposed to make a special blessing
or thanksgiving to G-d for some special intervention, whether
its a healing in a miraculous way, or some other type
of situation. If you do that every day, its in a sense
an insult, because youre not appreciating those special
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, didnt
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 its fair to say that there is, in
both traditions were talking about, the sense of grace,
of G-ds presence and G-ds gift of Himself, through
And I think thats what the secular mentality
cant 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 theyre
not so unsophisticated as to suppose that when they dont
get an answer, or the answer they want, that therefore, Im
going to walk off and sulk, there is no G-d, and so forth.
People of prayer understand that they dont
always get what they want. Its 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: Thats very moving actually.
In Chassidic tradition, theres 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 doesnt
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, dont
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
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, Whats
He said, The miracle is that I remained
dedicated to my rabbi, and I didnt lose faith.
Thats 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. Theres 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 were
dependent on grace more than we like to think.
Now the myth in America is that were in
control of our own lives, or we ought to be. The attitude of
prayer is, and notice how were not even talking about
miracles anymore, its kind of interesting
Jacobson: Because you, as a good journalist,
really directed it to the meaning of miracles
Woodward: Well, Id like to think
that I can also exhibit good scholarship when I have to, you
know? So theres a disposition and an attitudeand
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
I think you have to acknowledge that its
hard. Its easy for me to sit here and talk about it. Probably
most of the time I want to be in control. Thats what brings
about the kind of tension one expects in ones spiritual
If you want me to talk personally, I come from
a family where people pray for each other. In the Catholic culture
its very common for people to say, Ill pray
for you. Oh, your daughters sick? Ill pray for her.
Now that presupposes a kind of connection between
me and the daughter I hadnt met and G-d and the rest.
Its a real communion. And thats a very different
world view from what a lot of people have, but thats why
religion constructs a world view.
Jacobson: So you dont find in any
of the major religions that they build the proof of G-ds
existence or the truth of their doctrine on miracles?
Woodward: No they dont. Let me talk
about Eastern religions for just a minute, because theyre
very popular these daysthe 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. Thats
one reason why Hinduism doesnt travel very well whole
and entire, because its really tied to the geography of
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, youre
learning about these five religions, and I look at miracles
from the perspective of each tradition. Its 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, whos 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 Ive seen it from that perspective.
At Newsweek, the greatest people that Ive
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 isnt just a matter of studying another
religion, like, Its mostly a Christian country,
and if Im Jewish, lets say, Im going to study
Christianity so I can know what all these other people are believing
in. Or if youre a Moslem, doing the same, or if
youre a Christian in a Moslem country, and so on.
Its 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
youve 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 dont think so.
Jacobson: If there were no miracles in
any of the doctrines, would it have a fundamental effect on
the belief system? Thats the real question.
Woodward: Well, because they are in all
traditions, I have to think that theyre important. Dont
you think so, or they wouldnt be there. And I think we
try to struggle to understand the presence and the power of
G-d, and thats what these miracle stories, in most cases,
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 its 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 dont
think you can do that. Theyre two very different understandings.
I think its 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 cant 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
cant put a yaks head on a cows body.
I even talked to him personally about this. I
said, Is Christianity a valid path toward liberation?
And he said that they dont look toward liberation. In
other words, the goal is different. He was very shrewd and he
was very right. Hes also (I should say, Ive known
him for 25 years), a very candid person. So these are different
So when I see people trying to mix religionyou
know, Ill take a little of this and a little of
thatI really have to shake my head, and thats
one reason why I wrote this book. You cant do that. And
if you really understood the traditions, youd see, especially
through the miracle stories, that youre really living
in different worlds.
Jacobson: In Judaism, the concept of a
miracleas you so accurately captured, but speaking from
a more Kabbalistic perspectiveis 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-ds 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 didnt know anything
about that. And I think one should. Now, thats not a Christian
or Islamic perspective, but its worked out in a different
tradition. But there are parallels to that which I think are
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 thats the
first stage that you have to do, but gradually, you have to
be able to understand how its different.
And why should you know those things? There are
a lot of reasons why, Simon. Were living in a global economy.
The world gets smaller is a clichéwe just
have to know. Theyre 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 theyll 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 thats
why, very often, on television, and this actually came up in
a very practical way recently, they dont 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
Jacobson: Well, thats political
religion. Thats bureaucracy and so forth.
Woodward: No, its television really
wanting people to go at each other. Thats 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 dont think
in those categories. Maybe Im 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 Ive 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 dont think staggering things have happened
to meI think Im like most people. Its the
incremental things. Why didnt 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 theres a sense
that were all connected and that comes right out of a
very old Catholic tradition. A communion of saints.
I mean, youre aware that pious Jews will
go to the Rebbes 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. Thats 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 dont mean that in a sacrilegious
sense, you understand. We want to align our intentions with
G-dI mean think thats what were here to do.
It isnt always easy to see. Thats why traditions
have rules and practices, and these are honed over centuries,
are they not?
And so in a relative way, I think its possible
to talk about a holy person.
Jacobson: Okay. Lets go to the phone.
Well go to Happy Man whos 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. Theyre quite extraordinary people and theyre
people of great discipline, theyre people of deep prayer,
and theyre 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
Woodward: Oh, I dont know. If I had,
theyre kind of ordinary mysticism. Once you develop habits
of prayer, and if you start looking for experiences, its
not a good thing unless they happen to happen as byproducts.
Caller: Ill 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 didnt
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
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, Whats going on here? Have
you been praying for this money? I had a suspicion.
She said, Well, I havent 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 didnt want to, and it was
a wonderful experience. I believe theres a connection.
Woodward: Thats a wonderful story.
Jacobson: Okay, well 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 theres a common thread, but at the same time, theres
a risk of blurring the boundaries, because there are distinctions
in miracles, and I guess in other elements of faith. Am I right,
Woodward: Let me put my journalist hat
on for a second (as opposed to my book writing hat) because
I think its 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
theyve experienced a miracle in their own life or witnessed
one in the life of someone else.
Well, polls only go so far. Lets take the
notion that we believe in G-d. The interesting question is,
whos the G-d you believe in? Thats the real question.
A lot of people have a very vague sort of G-d.
In America, its easier to believe in G-d than not. But
does G-d make any demands on you? The question that comes up
is, whats asked of you? And then the whole picture seems
to change quite a bit.
What I wanted to say, what Ive noticed,
because I have a privileged place from which to observe whats
going on religiously in the countryI get a lot books,
magazines, etc, we run polls and all that stuffis that
over the last 25 years, whats 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. Theyre
like bees that flit from one flower to another; they want to
suck the nectar out of them. You cant 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 its demonstrable from the mid-60s
and on, that the various traditions failed to pass on their
own tradition. I dont 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
dont 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 60s, and a lot of it had to
do with the demographic factor. The biggest bulge of people
were the 60s people. There never was an age group as
large as that one and they change every age category they go
So very often the kind of religion that hits them
is the religion that makes a lot of noise and promises that
Sham-bang, youre 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 theyve experienced miracles.
Jacobson: Lets go to Lynn on the
Caller: Im 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 Im 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 its 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 didnt have a good word to say about miracles.
Caller: Its interesting, we went
to Ireland a few years ago, a place where a miracle took place.
It just seems that Ive heard the word miracle
more in reference to Christianity. I mean Ive 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
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, Im
Jewish and therefore
and everything comes from that.
Well, Ive 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, theyre 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 dont
need to practice, right?
Woodward: Thats right. Now I know
how to do it so I dont practice anymore.
Caller: Thank you both. I really enjoy
your show, Rabbi.
Jacobson: Thank you.
Woodward: I hope she understands that Im
at mass all the time
Jacobson: I think she understands. She
seems to be at the same place youre 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
dont 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 its 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. Thats why I used to get very upset when they would
talk about Rabbi Schneerson and never give the background to
And then, in the Pentecostal tradition, its
called the democratization of miracles. There, Oral Roberts
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 doesnt normally work with us
in this way.
Its 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. Well be back next week with Simon Jacobson
on Toward a Meaningful Life.