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Rachael Kohn has spirit
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Rachael Kohn has spirit
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Rachael Kohn has spirit
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"There is a lust for violence. That is one of the things that I feel committed to counterbalancing; showing religion as a positive, creative, sometimes very fragile and flawed, endeavour."
1 October 2013

Rachael Kohn has spirit

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Toby Burrows

Berry Liberman on Rachael Kohn

Religion and God are tricky topics for me. I understand community, tradition and ritual. Those are things that bond people together in tough times and can make the day-to-day feel special. I’m also aware that for most of the planet, religion and faith preside at the centre of all belief and belonging. For me, so much harm and violence has occurred in the name of God and faith that I find it hard to understand its purpose in modern life. Despite my personal, ideological struggles, or perhaps because of them, I am drawn to listen to ABC radio’s The Spirit of Things—a program hosted by the gentle and curious Dr Rachael Kohn.

If you were to pick the most perfect voice to speak on questions of spirituality, you would pick Rachael’s. Every Sunday she conducts her program, that melifluous voice floating into your car, your home and your consciousness, inviting a moment of repose. Rachael speaks with global spiritual leaders from all faiths, hunting for wisdom and eager to share it with the world. She speaks about religion in a way that invites a conversation.

Born to Holocaust survivors in Canada in 1953, Rachael grew up asking the question, ‘Why?’. How did it happen that a whole world went mad and educated people turned against their neighbours? The 20th century was not a great one for the human race; much was discovered yet so much was destroyed. For Rachael, the things that drive us and that can lead us to act from our better nature can be found in the study of religion. Rather than focusing on our worst impulses, with regards to faith, she highlights the joy and wonder to be found in ancient texts.

Can a secular person think about religion? What I learn from Rachael is that religion and spirituality have been the predominant arenas in which meaningful exploration of life’s most challenging questions has been going on for a few thousand years. In them lies a richness that can nourish us all—if we care to look.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: You have the most extraordinary voice for what you do. It’s so beautiful because it invites contemplation.

RACHAEL KOHN: Oh gosh! I missed my calling; I should have been a guru or something…

No, it’s perfect for radio! What I hear is a deeply intellectual but clearly intimate personal curiosity… this openness. The word “religion” often invites a feeling of fear, but when you talk about religion—it has this very expansive quality. How come?

I’ve been fortunate to have spent all my adult life studying religion, reading its texts, being inside communities, being in places that are holy. But most importantly, delving. I’m always struck at how extraordinarily creative and intellectually sharp religious thinkers have been and still are—for example the way a monk in China in the eighth century once tried to describe the many ways that you can perceive enlightenment by comparing it to the sheen of a pearl… There are so many extraordinary ways in which the religious mind has exercised itself over these questions.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

I just am endlessly in love with the way in which humanity has reached out and created these beautiful things.

To me, it is the saddest thing that people don’t have an interest in reading these wonderful sources. It saddens me that people are reading a lot of fantasy literature that’s very violent and requires the imagination to be stretched and terrified and horrified. Where hopefully there’ll be somebody saved at the end, perhaps a love story that will finally be consummated. I think, Golly, why spend so much time on that stuff when there is so much beautiful, challenging, interesting writing to be found in the world’s traditions? That can actually give you wisdom, hope and a better way of communicating with other people.

The way that you talk about religion is as a kind of global collective mind that’s watched over us. Why hasn’t it watched over us better?

Well inevitably, religion is always expressed through humanity, and depending on how gifted you are, whatever’s going to come through your mouth is going to be on a spectrum of ordinary to wonderful. When I go to synagogue, for example, and hear a rabbi reflect on something of the day, it’s always so life-giving, so caring about human challenges. I think, Where else do you hear this on a regular basis? I’m sure that my rabbi is not unique. I’m sure that ministers and Buddhist monks and other kinds of spiritual leaders also reflect thoughtfully and deeply about these things. But I don’t think our society is much taken up with those questions to want to put time aside regularly for it. When you do, you sort of strike your forehead and think, God, why don’t I do this more often? I feel so held and so lifted up. Now, I’m not saying that it’s always that way.

No, and for women often there’s great exclusion. You don’t seem to feel that?

No, certainly not, because today we’re living 50, 60 years on from the time that women started being ordained. Fortunately in the West where this has occurred, women can feel cared for. But the religious world, like every other part of our culture, is diverse. So you’re going to see the conservative ones and you’re going to see the middle of the road and you’re going to see the more radically innovative.

Interestingly, say in the Jewish tradition, you’re seeing some radically innovative women taking charge in orthodoxy. I think they’re going to steer orthodoxy in a new direction. In Islam, there are women who are spiritual leaders in the Sufi tradition. Now, I know that the Sufi tradition is not considered so mainstream, and some disavow it altogether. It is more mystical. But it has always been much more open to communication with other faiths. So you often find Jews, Christians and Sufis doing stuff together, whether they’re holding retreats or writing books together, they’re much more active, especially in North America. A little bit here. The Sufi tradition is probably the pointy end of reform in Islam, but women are also trying to reform the Muslim tradition. They wouldn’t put it that way. They wouldn’t say, ‘We’re reforming Islam,’ they would say, ‘We are reforming how the men have interpreted it for us.’ All in all, it’s a very, very creative time in the field of religion and spirituality.

Why do you think we need to identify as Muslims, as Jews, as Christians?

I think that we do and we don’t. Yes, the need to belong to a community has always been recognised as a very significant foundation for our psychosocial health. At the turn of the 20th century, Émile Durkheim wrote Suicide, examining how the rate of suicide skyrocketed in Paris when people from the villages came to live in the city and were alone and had lost their values and community. Ever since Durkheim’s major study of the causes of suicide, we’ve understood that belonging is a very important part of our wellbeing. It’s easy to belong to your tradition if you have been raised in it. But today, 100 years on from Émile Durkheim, we are used to living in urban settings, and we live with a lot of other people from a lot of other traditions. Belonging is not exclusive to tradition anymore but it is important to belong to God or to something transcendent and ultimate that gives you a sense of purpose and worth beyond all the material stuff.

So long as your material stuff is going well—your family is pretty much okay, you’ve got a job, you’re paying your mortgage, you have your little patch—you may not feel the big need for connection to a transcendent source of worth. But when things start collapsing, as they inevitably do (not all of them and not all at the same time) you face terrible challenges. With these unexpected things that you really have no immediate answer to, or comfort for, you start thinking, Why am I here? What gives me worth? Sometimes you discover that there is value and purpose simply by being—to put it in traditional terms—in the image of God. That is to say, you have a divine value. It means that we all have ultimate value. If we’re all in the image of God, then we all have a connection to each other. We all belong to each other. That helps, actually, to get you through some of the most difficult times. It also makes you truly grateful for the great times.

It’s not just that you find God when you’re about to die in a foxhole, it’s also about finding a transcendent peace in beautiful things.

You know that Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is?

Is that all there is? When did you first ask that question?

All the time. In a way, I feel very fortunate to be here. I would not have been here had my father not survived a very difficult journey on the last transport out of Czechoslovakia on a boat that went down. It broke up in the Aegean Sea. He and 400 other people on this tiny boat were saved by the Italians and protected throughout the war in Calabria. He went into Normandy at the end of the war, survived that, and then went back to Czechoslovakia. Of course, his family did not survive. Then my parents went through more challenges. The Soviets came in, and that was the end of that. So they went to Israel and they were there for three years, and then they went to Canada, and I was born there. You know, they went through a hell of a lot. You really value life, you value every minute of your life, when you realise you almost didn’t get here. You almost didn’t have the opportunity.

So you were always palpably aware?

Very much aware. In fact as I grew up in Canada, we were all kids of Holocaust survivors. My closest friend’s mother was a twin and both she and her sister were victims of Mengele in Auschwitz. So we were very, very conscious of all those things. It was why I actually went into religious studies, because one of the big questions I had was, Why? Why did things get so terrible? Why was it the case that 16 countries in Europe all consigned their Jews to death? To certain death? That relationship between Christianity and Judaism has always been of great interest to me, both in its ancient origins and all the way through. It’s not just a one-way street. It’s actually a very interesting relationship of toing and froing, of borrowing, of criticism, of borrowing again.

We’re capable of such great horrors. How do you still come at your exploration with so much openness?

Because during the war there was still great kindness, great bravery and courage. Generally speaking, however, people are weak. They follow the crowd. They’re easily bullied.

It’s amazing to see how intelligent people lose their courage and their convictions so quickly.

It happens in corporate settings, it happens in families, it happens all the time.

How do we shore up our courage?

By believing that there’s something to fight for, to live for, that it’s much bigger than us. I think courage dissipates when we’re only thinking of ourselves.

So, there’s something that elevates us somehow, something that keeps us conscious, that.

…that lifts us above our puny self-preoccupations. I think it’s so important to realise that we’re here for others, we’re here for the world, we’re here for community. When you serve the world, when you serve other people, when you serve the ones you love,

that’s when you actually become elevated. That’s when people look up to you. That’s something we’ve so lost sight of with all our leadership talk, and with all our “seven steps to being the pointiest, smartest, savviest, leader.” Generally speaking, the wise people in the field talk about vulnerability.

Many people find it very hard to connect with the idea of a God.

All the way through religious philosophy—whether its in the Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition, the Muslim tradition—the identity of God is very amorphous, very changeable, very hard to pin down. The Apophatic tradition, which Maimonides represented, says that you can never define what God is, only what he is not. That is a recognition early on in the 11th, 12th century: ‘Uh, this God thing, very complex!’ And in the end, not so very important. What is much more important—and after all is the basis of the Jewish and the Christian tradition—is the covenant, the sense of being called to serve, being called to love God with all your heart and mind and soul, but also to love your neighbour as thyself; the two strongest commandments.

So it sounds like God is really just “loving one another”?

To love one another, but I would say more than that. Because traditions have a way of filling out according to the complexities and needs of human society. We could never just love each other… We’d all die in a big mushy mess. It’s about good and evil. It’s about good and bad. It’s about measuring how you behave in certain situations. It’s about ethics. I guess it’s why traditions are so extraordinary—they fill out all of the space of that need, both personally and socially. The artistic space, which is filled up with tremendous religious creativity, is fantastic. Music would not be what it is without religion. Right from the very beginning it’s there in the Bible. There are trumpets, lutes, horns, percussive things going on. Music has always been an important part of praising the world, praising creation. Art, poetry, architecture… Religious traditions have been a wellspring of creativity both in a poetic material way, but also in a philosophical and rational way.

It’s very funny to me that atheists or rationalist societies always make the point that, you know, religion isn’t rational. Geez, they haven’t read any of the religious philosophers obviously!

But the atheist argument is that morality should also exist without religion.

Well where’s the morality, for example, in some of the horrible experiments that take place in scientific labs? There’s a religion-free zone. Wow. What happens in scientific labs—often needlessly—to all sorts of living creatures would make anyone balk.

It’s interesting you say that. Do you eat meat?

Well I do actually. I didn’t for many years, but then I married a carnivore. Look, I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly think that the whole vegetarian question is a big one. It really is.

I wanted to go back to something you were saying about the Holocaust having informed your curiosity about mob mentality, how the brightest of the bright and the best of the best can easily lose their courage and be swayed by the mob. How do we avoid that?

How we avoid it is to keep in the front of our minds the values that I think religion teaches, which is that we are made in the image of God, therefore you cannot just take masses of innocent civilians and decide that you have the right to consign them all to death. I also think that to remind ourselves regularly of the values and ethics we uphold—which is the function of religion—is to keep both our integrity and our society safe.

Your radio show aims to counter intolerance and ignorance by talking about the great spiritual practices of the world. Have you ever encountered hatred and racism in response to what you do?

Oh yes. The most vicious hatred that I receive consistently is by atheists and rationalists who absolutely hate religion. That’s number one. Which is amazing to me because… it is completely unexpected. I’m not saying that most atheists are like this, no. I’m simply saying that when it comes to vicious, heartless, cold attack, it comes from atheists who simply hate religion. The language is hair-raising. In fact the last time it poured through the website was when I challenged A.C Grayling. His followers were incensed. I simply challenged his logic and his conclusions. Just gently. Just consistently. They all thought it was because I was defending God. I never said, ever, ever, anything about whether God exists or whether it’s my belief. Nobody knows what I believe.

I was going to ask, do you believe in God?

I suppose, yes. I believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I believe that God exists as a material entity.

God does not exist in some material empirically scientifically measurable form. That’s silly.

That’s a scientific question to a theological, mythopoetic reality that is entirely subjective. God is something else. God is what inspires.

The other very vicious criticism I always get is when I do programs on anything to do with Israel. Whether it’s archaeological discoveries, whether it’s Jews, Christians and Muslims working together… There are people who simply never want to hear anything good coming out of Israel. Never.

But the good stories have to be told, because there is a lust for violence.

That is one of the things that I feel committed to counterbalancing; showing religion as a positive, creative, sometimes very fragile and flawed, endeavour. The important point is that in the midst of the flaws people address and respond to them. I will be speaking very shortly to a woman whose son was groomed by a priest, who she knew for years, and had no idea this was happening.

He was being abused?

Yeah.”Groomed”, as they call it. I’ve spoken to quite a few people in this situation and, you know what? What always buoys me up is that the people I’m speaking to are addressing the problem of the church, the problem of their faith, the problem of their tradition. They want to change it. They have the will to change it. They even know where they want their tradition to go. There are a hell of a lot of people who want to take the church in a very new direction, to kick out the clericalism that has crusted over, that has killed the spirit. Inevitably people just want the simple stuff. They want the prayers of peace, the sense of joy and purpose and love and belonging. They want that Sabbath moment, where everything stops, where you contemplate creation and give thanks and unplug from the craziness and the material values that determine our lives.

I think a lot of people feel wounded by what religion and its leadership has done to our global consciousness. But for you, religion is this deeply enriching, ancient heritage. In this room full of books and papers I feel surrounded by knowledge. But those access points aren’t really there for the masses, people don’t know where to even start.

I agree. The internet is both a giant well of information, but it’s also confusing and you don’t really know where to start, which is why I go back to traditions that are handed down in a family setting, because then they’re embodied… There’s nothing that you can hand on more profoundly to your kids than the way you are. They will learn from that much, much more readily than they will from anything you say.

In the end, any religious tradition—whether it’s an ancient one or one that’s been tooled up more recently—has to be embodied. Lived religion is so different from what you read on a page. Living a tradition simplifies it, it makes it less idealistic. It’s not perfect. And that’s alright, because that’s the way we are. Human beings are flawed, but at least religious traditions have their eyes a little bit, if not heavenward, raised in their expectations and their hopes, and that’s very important, because the ethic that’s overtaking us now is, ‘Do whatever works.’ It’s a very self-orientated, self-navigated way. My worry about the internet is that everything’s self-navigated. Well, we can’t have cultures that are entirely self-navigated because people will be doing anything they want and the sense of community will break down. No agreements, no common pledge, no common values, no common aspirations, no common ideals—that’s scary. Which is why I think religious traditions will come back into their own and say, ‘Hey look folks! We’ve got a few ideals here.’

But it’s all in the application. I think the application of those ideals has been abused over many, many hundreds of years.

Well I’m struck by your characterisation that it’s been abused and been essentially a failure over hundreds of years.

I look at the history of, say, the West, and I see some failures. I see some big moments of gloom. But I certainly don’t see it as a great big failure.

I look around and I see what an extraordinary world we live in right now, what an extraordinary country we live in, in Australia. I was back in Czechoslovakia where my parents are from. And, wow. We’ve built up quite wonderful societies where people behave nicely to each other, and generally speaking, now we are free to follow our aspirations. That wasn’t the case in Czechoslovakia for a period of 50 years—under the Soviets, and before that under the Nazis. Yes, there are these times of complete collapse and failure, but people pull themselves out of it and continue. I think we have a lot to be proud of. And much to be grateful for.

Do you think that comes from our religious, traditional values?

Yeah, I do. Absolutely I do. Our legal infrastructure, our constitution, the values that we uphold in society very much come from our biblical tradition. They look very different from countries, for example, whose constitutions come out of different traditions. I think we have to recognise that. The Judeo-Christian tradition gave us a tremendous foundation for a society that has separated church and state, which has religious freedom deeply enshrined in its constitutional documents and in its infrastructure. These are things we cherish and hold dear.

We developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent instruments. All of them, securing religious freedoms and human freedoms. Those documents are now under threat actually, because there are counter- documents that are changing them. That is a worry to me. The West has actually pushed forward individual freedoms and rights to the point where you can govern your life differently from someone in the house next to you, and with impunity. But there are places in the world where that’s not the case. There are so many places in the world in which the freedoms we have in the West are simply non-existent, particularly for women. That is something we need to fight to preserve. Absolutely fight to preserve. We could lose it through apathy, through ignorance, through repudiation of our religious traditions on which these freedoms are actually founded. That’s a worry to me.

In 2005, you were voted one of Australia’s top 50 intellectuals.

You know what? I walked into the office and I saw the headline in The Australian,”Australia’s Top 50 Intellectuals”. I said,”What a stupid idea. What a completely ridiculous thing. How could anyone say there were a top 50?” Then someone said,”You know you’re on it?” What? Suddenly I was open.

[Laughs]”Great idea!”

“Great idea!”

How would you describe what you do?

I try to raise the level of religious literacy in this country because, for generations now, people haven’t learnt about the traditions that even their own families had in the past.

They know so little about them, and that’s sad. Why should they know about all sorts of other things and not know about the foundational traditions that have given birth to our culture? So for me, it’s about raising awareness. It’s about cultivating a curiosity and an interest in not only your own tradition, but in those around you. Because when you know more about other people, you feel closer to them. You don’t feel alienated from them. Suddenly when you look at an Indian person and you say to yourself, Gosh, I learned about your wonderful festival of lights, Diwali. Before you know it, there’s a connection. In fact when I did a program on Diwali, someone came up to me in a Jewish aged-care home in Sydney and said,”Rachael, I heard that program on Diwali. And it was just like Yom Kippur, only with Hanukkah stuck into it!” It’s about redemption, and forgiveness and atonement, and all those profoundly important impulses I suppose we have but we find so hard to do. We find it hard to forgive ourselves; we find it hard to forgive others; we find it hard to stop and think about the things we’ve done. To really be given time to think about them and feel, It’s all right. It’s all right. We need to be cared for in those ways, and we have nothing else in our culture that does it.

I’ve never thought of religion as a place where our deeper yearnings are cared for. A lot of people I admire have been describing spirituality as a time in their lives where they have really big questions, and realise there are great traditions which have already been asking those questions and seeking those answers for a long time.

I would say it’s imperative now to look at these sources and avail ourselves of these traditions earlier. Not when we are older, but when teenagers are plunged into all sorts of inner-turmoil. Sadly, and tragically, there’s nothing for those kids who end up, too often, jumping off a balcony, taking a lethal drug, getting wrapped around a pole in a car accident. We need to expose our children to more life- giving sources of joy. I think it’s really important to remember that religious traditions provide joy.

What, at this point in your life, are you looking forward to exploring? What are you still curious about?

I want to get back to writing. Hopefully another book. I am sort of mentally writing it now. I think I’m going to call it, Religiously Observant because I have always been observant about religion. I guess, for me, it’s a new page every day.

When I was teaching religion at university, it was very same-same. Religion was more static when I was teaching it. It had to be. Because it had to fit into something like 24 lectures. But what I found being at the ABC all these years is that religion is so dynamic, so extraordinarily fast-moving and changing. It’s hard to keep track of. People say, ‘How do you fill a year of stuff?’ And I say, ‘Frankly, I could do a program every single day and never repeat myself.’

I guess I am curious about where the tension that we now experience with Islam is going to take us. I have every confidence that the West will do its work, and we’ll encourage more innovation in a tradition which has been fairly resistant to change. In America, it’s more Americanised, as it were. I’m very, very concerned about anti-Semitism. I’m very concerned about its rise in the Muslim world and the influence that it is having on the West. There is also a massive persecution of Christians worldwide—the latest report is that 100 million Christians worldwide are persecuted simply because of their faith. I really want to get past this. I want to see a strong, open and friendly dialogue. A trialogue, between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It’s already happening, and Australia’s doing wonderful things in that regard. There are great projects and people coming together. I want to see that happen because we need it to happen. We can’t Balkanise. We can’t isolate ourselves.

We also need to focus much more on the quality of our life here in Australia and in the West, which feels tremendously fearful and full of tension. We can’t let those animosities take over. Whether it’s anti-Semitism, anti-Islam or hatred of Christianity. We’ve got to realise that within those traditions are the very sources of our future engagement.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Toby Burrows

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