Rabbi Arnold Rachlis

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Rabbis believe in God.

I mean, that’s just the way it is. You ask a rabbi about a higher power, he/she will explain—in great detail—how God is in charge of all; how God led our people to safety; how God is looking after the Jews as a parent looks after a child. God knows all, and you must obey Him!

Wellllllllll …

Three years ago, shortly after our relocation from New York to California, the wife and I decided to join the University Synagogue in Irvine. We’d been members of a reconstructionist congregation in Westchester County, and the chill approach to religion appealed to us (Or, put different, I’m not a particularly involved Jew). What we found at University was a bunch of lovely people, a perfect-for-us hands-off dogmatic style, a fantastic Hebrew School run by an even better director and a rabbi who, well, didn’t believe in God.

Or, wait. Hold on. “Didn’t believe” isn’t quite right. Rabbi Arnold Rachlis’ position is that God is not a supreme being, per se, but the inspiration, creativity, conscience and consciousness that dwells within humanity. I’ve never heard him speak of God being angry, or annoyed, or frustrated. Nope—not once. Instead, his sermons focus on betterment, and helping others, and making a difference.

I dig that.

I also dig the non-pressure of the rabbi’s approach. As you’ll see below, he’s not begging (or guilting) me to attend synagogue. If you wanna go—please go. If you don’t, hey, it’s your time and your life. Use it wisely.

Anyhow, today’s 222nd Quaz is a spiritual man who A. Doesn’t insist he has all the answers; B. Loves a good award show and C. Prefers Scottie Pippen to David Bowie. One can visit the University Synagogue’s website here, and read the good rabbi’s blog here.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, you’ve blessed … as the new Quaz.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Rabbi, I’m gonna kick this off with a tremendously awkward question. About an hour ago I received an e-mail from you, asking if we’d like to take part in an upcoming Friday night service. And, to be completely blunt, I have no interest. I actually hate going to services. I hated going as a kid, as a teen, as a young adult, as a middle-aged adult. I don’t find service inspiring or interesting. I’m not moved. I don’t want to make new Jewish friends. I don’t want to join one of the chavurahs. It’s not about the rabbis, or the venue, or the music. I’m … just … not … interested. Being blunt—at this point in my life I see the synagogue’s value as a place for my kids to get three hours of weekend education. That’s pretty much it. So I wonder, as a rabbi, if this sorta pisses you off? If you understand it? If you view it as your job to change my mind? And, really, does it even matter?

ARNOLD RACHLIS: It’s not an awkward question. I try to make services as interesting as possible through relevant-to-life sermons, participatory music (often with a band), meditation, dance and discussion, but, even then, it’s OK not to be interested. I’m trying to attract people to a different kind of service, not make them feel guilty for not attending. I also have problems with the idea of prayer since I don’t believe in a supernatural God. Rather, for me and most Reconstructionist Jews, if God exists, we conceive of divinity as a force or power within human beings and the universe that moves us toward being loving and caring. There’s no God who commands, demands and punishes. Rather, this humanistic philosophy sees God not as a supreme being but as inspiration, creativity, conscience, consciousness and motivating us toward Tikkun Olam/repairing the world.

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J.P.: So you head a reconstructionist congregation—which fascinates me, because there’s this sorta, “Take what you want, ignore what you want” flow I’ve picked up from the movement. So how do you define reconstructionism? What separates it from reform or conservative? 

A.R.: In addition to our humanistic philosophy that I mentioned above, we focus on opportunities for human growth, not obedience; on affirming individuality, not prohibiting the actualization of the self; on choosing within Judaism and all cultures what’s meaningful to each person. We’re inclusive and equal—men and women, gay and straight, Jewishly learned and not, Jewish and not Jewish. We have lots of intermarried couples and even a few non-Jews not in a relationship with a Jew and all are welcome and fully integrated into our congregation, University Synagogue in Irvine, CA.

We also see Judaism as an evolving religious-cultural civilization, meaning that Jewish culture is as important as religion, that change is good and that each person—liberal believer, humanist, agnostic, atheist or whomever—needs to find his/her path within Judaism honestly and meaningfully. My role as a rabbi is to provide a roadmap within Judaism to help people find significance. My goal is not only to make Jews more meaningfully Jewish, but also more meaningfully human.

J.P.: I’m mental about death. I think about it almost every day, as this eternal nothingness that creeps closer and closer, and there’s nothing I can do to escape. I mean, it terrifies me. But how about you? How do you feel about it? Do you believe in an afterlife? Does it matter? 

A.R.: My father died when I was 11, so death has always been a part of my life. I don’t literally believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in “immortality” through deeds, genetics and physics. How we love, help and mentor people shapes an ever-widening future; our biological children keep our genetics eternally alive; naming children after deceased ancestors and telling them stories about whom they were named after keeps us alive in memory and, if matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but just transformed (e.g. ice to water to steam), then we are forever part of the “All” of the universe. We may not be distinct souls, but we are still here. I truly enjoy life, and the love of my wife and children. I hope that I’ve contributed value to the world and I’ve had a good time. So, I’m not afraid. Although I’d like to live a long time—in Judaism, we say: “may you live to be 120 years old”—I’m well prepared for fewer years.

J.P.: You’re somewhat outspoken politically. I mean, clearly you’re not pro-Trump, pro-wall, pro-a lot of what’s going on in America. But what’s the balance for clergy? Do you feel comfortable bringing politics to the pulpit? How far should a rabbi, priest, etc. go? 

A.R.: I bring ethics to the pulpit, not partisan politics. I wouldn’t endorse a candidate from the pulpit, but I do give money and sign ads and petitions as a private citizen. I want people to feel comfortable during services and not be worried that their candidate will be attacked by me. After President Trump’s election, we had a number of evenings devoted to examining our anxieties and hopes for the future with speakers who ranged from liberal to conservative. Everyone knows that my politics are liberal, that I worked in Washington, DC as a White House fellow and that I annually attend the political think tank Renaissance Institute, started by friends of the Clintons. We have hosted, at the synagogue, speakers from Gov. Michael Dukakis to Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, from Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to GOP consultant Frank Luntz—a very broad spectrum of opinion.

J.P.: How did this happen for you? Like, was there a lightbulb moment when it came to being a rabbi? When did you first know this would be your path?

A.R.: My parents were immigrants; my father from Ukraine and my mother from Vienna. Both became successful physicians in Philadelphia after fleeing anti-Semitism. America saved their lives. My mother, especially, instilled in me a love of America and a hatred against injustice. She worked hard for civil rights, treated African-Americans with dignity and had a lifelong interest in Jewish history and ideas. I have, in a way, followed in her footsteps. Also, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I became inspired by the depth of Jewish philosophy and ethics and decided to become neither a physician nor a lawyer (my original choices). After college, I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and simultaneously a graduate program in World Religions.

J.P.: I feel like every profession comes with an absolute must-tell-at-parties money story. I dunno—a drunk uncle ruins the Bar Mitzvah story, etc, etc. So, Rabbi, what’s yours? 

A.R.: I really don’t have a funny religious story, although “Shaky the Mohel” is one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes! Rather, I love that the rabbinate has afforded me unusual integrative opportunities that have brought together my human and Jewish lives. The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, spoke of “living in two civilizations” as American Jews. I’ve had a diverse rabbinic life—one of two rabbis to ever be a White House fellow, winning an improv comedy championship at Second City in Chicago, traveling the world, meeting and studying with Nobel Prize winners, political figures, academicians, artists, actors and composers at the Renaissance Institute, being the subject of a documentary film and recently attending the Tony Awards. I’m curious about so many things other than Judaism and I’ve been able to integrate all of those interests with my Judaism and offer that synthesis to my congregation through the years.

 J.P.: A congregant dies. You’re the rabbi. What do you do? What’s the approach? What are you supposed to do? And how hard was that to learn/adapt early in your career? 

A.R.: My early experience of the death of my father created not just pain and loss, but also empathy. I never have to feign caring—at a funeral, wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah or naming. I really do care. I always feel privileged to enter the “sacred space” of a family in celebration or mourning. It’s what I find to be most meaningful in my work as a rabbi. I never had to learn how to do it. I’m just there, in the moment. I listen, and then I speak, offering condolences in the face of death or “mazel tov” for life’s blessings.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

A.R.: There’s no one greatest or lowest moment. Seeing the admiration from my children for what I do—a vocation that helps people, educates them, consoles them, enhances their celebrations and gives them a respect, love and pride in their Jewish identities—that’s at the top. One son is a lawyer and the other an actor and neither has an interest in the rabbinate—but both are proud and knowledgeable Jews and fine people. Some of that, I think and hope, comes from what I do professionally. Among the lowest moments are when I have to spend precious time convincing people that they should trust my instincts, experience and knowledge. I may be wrong, but I want to experiment, try to make changes and see if new ideas work.

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J.P.: Do you ever do weddings and your gut says, “This marriage just isn’t gonna work?” And, if you have concerns, is there any moral obligation to say something? To step in? 

A.R.: Twice in the hundreds of weddings I’ve done, I’ve felt that something was deeply wrong. Once, I told the couple that they should postpone getting married and go into counseling to work things out. They left my office immediately, furious at me and even left a phone message later saying that Rabbi X thought that they were just fine and was going to marry them. The other time, I brought up delaying to the couple; they disagreed; I performed the wedding thinking that perhaps I was being presumptuous and they divorced within a year.

J.P.: A lot of people (myself included) are losing boatloads of sleep over Donald Trump’s actions, from environmental to legal to … on and on. So what are we supposed to do? How do we ease our minds without turning off our antennas? In short, how do we survive?

A.R.: Having lived through Watergate, I agree with John Dean and Carl Bernstein—this Presidency is “worse than Watergate.” The offensive rhetoric of the campaign and the possible collusion with Russia have poisoned even further our already fractured politics. So going to marches, demanding action from Congress, getting involved in the 2018 and 2020 elections, financially supporting progressive organizations and advocating for the importance of honest journalism are crucial. Also, we need to understand why so many people in this country are frustrated and angry and voted for Trump. They didn’t vote for a true Republican; they voted for a protest candidate. What can Democrats and the GOP truly learn from that anger and will they find responsible ways to address these concerns, offering normative, conventional, informed and decent leaders?

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• One question you would ask Lil Uzi Vert were he here right now?: “What did you like most about Philly where you and I came from?”

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Only once, when the breathing masks dropped, the plane was badly shaking, people were screaming and, even though I was anxious, I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply and meditatively and looked for the exits.

• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: With due respect … I prefer some of the other Woodstock era performers, especially folk, pop and soul from the late sixties.

• In exactly 16 words, can you make a case for California pizza?: Not as traditional as New York or Chicago, but more experimental—a perfect metaphor for California.

• Global warming terrifies me, yet most people don’t seem to care. What the hell are we supposed to do?: Spread more awareness, do more small acts around the house and lawn to build consciousness, support candidates and organizations that are fighting for the planet, advocate for science over narrow business interests, and widespread ignorance.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Marco Rubio, Nick Cage, David Bowie, Scottie Pippen, “The Martian,” award shows, strawberry ice cream, “Zoolander,” Jojo Moyes, Martin Lawrence, the number 44: Award shows, Zoolander, The Martian, Scottie Pippen, 44, Nick Cage, strawberry ice cream, David Bowie, Jojo Moyes, Martin Lawrence and Marco Rubio.

• What word do you overuse in your sermons?: “Finally”

• On Facebook, I tend to block all the arch-conservative wingnuts from my high school. Then I get ripped for it. What to do?: Be kind and patient. Forward articles to them. Don’t get overly involved emotionally.

• Your wife is the congregation’s cantor. How did you guys meet?: At the synagogue. Colleagues first, then friends and now the luckiest guy in the world!

• What are your three favorite Yiddish words/expressions?: “Mazel tov”—colloquially “congratulations,” which means that you’re at a “simcha”/happy event. “Mentsch”—one of the best words in any language – a humane, honorable and decent human being. “Schmooze”—to be with people, sharing your life, through the joy of small talk.