On Spirituality and Religion
Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Rabbi. I have followed your work off and on for years, and would like to talk with you about where you are spiritually.
Rami Shapiro: You’re welcome.
Q: Great. In preparing for this interview I was told that you are ambivalent about your Jewish identity. Can you elaborate on that?
R. S.: I am not at all ambivalent about being Jewish. It is one of the great joys of my life. What I struggle with is religion.
Q: But isn’t Judaism a religion?
R. S.: Religion—formal, organized religion— is part of the complex of things that fall under the rubric of Judaism, but there are others things as well. Judaism is the way of life of a people, the tribe called Ivri or Apiru, Hebrew or the Boundary–Crossers.
At the heart of Judaism as religion is the notion that there is a Creator God who chose the Jews as His People, and Who gave them the one true revelation, the Written and Oral Torah, along with the Promised Land of Israel. I don’t believe any of this. God, for me, is not separate from creation, though God is greater than creation. God doesn’t choose people, write books, or engage in real estate deals. The religion of Judaism is simply a way to bolster the self–esteem of the Jewish people.
Q: Is that unique to Jews and Judaism?
R. S.: Not at all. Every religion is created to advance the cause of those who invent it. I am neither surprised nor offended that Christianity reserves salvation for Christians, or that Islam believes that the Arabic Koran is the only uncorrupted revelation from God. Neither am I moved by these claims. I see formal or corporate religion as just another way we humans seek to get the better of one another. That’s why I’m not religious in the formal sense.
Q: In what sense are you religious?
R. S.: The word religion comes from the Latin relegare, to connect. I am religious in the sense that I am connected to God as a wave is connected to the ocean. I value all teachings and practices, regardless of their religion of origin, that awaken people to the nonduality of God in, with, and as all things.
Q: But you are Jewish, right? I mean if I were to reject the core teachings of my Baptist faith or borrow ideas from some other faith, I wouldn’t be Baptist any more.
R. S.: Right, and that is one of the primary differences between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity, in any its forms, is a set of ideas which you either accept or reject. Judaism is the way of life of a tribe into which one is born or by which one is adopted.
Q: Adopted? You mean converted?
R. S.: Again the difference is crucial. You convert to Christianity when you swear loyalty to the Christian creed. But Judaism has no creed, and it is, in my opinion, misleading to speak of converting to Judaism as if there were some set of ideas to which one could swear allegiance. When you choose to become Jewish you are given a new name which always includes Bat or Ben Avraham v’Sarah: you literally become the daughter or son of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. Becoming Jewish is a matter of being adopted by the tribe. It is the tribal aspect of Judaism that allows me to remain a Jew.
Q: I am not sure what you mean by that. Can you explain that some more?
R. S.: Being Jewish for me is like being Native American. You are born into a tribe or you are adopted by that tribe as a member. It is the same with Jews. Just as Native Americans have their own languages, customs, foods, stories, etc. so do Jews. Just as some Native Americans believe that their customs were given to them by the Great Spirit, so some Jews believe that their customs were given to them by God. And just as many Native Americans can and do honor and live their customs without that belief, so many Jews do the same. I am one of these.
Q: For example?
R. S.: I keep kosher, for example, not because God commands it, but because for thousands of years my people have struggled to find a way to hallow and elevate the human act of consumption. I believe that kashrut (kosher) challenges me to uplift all my consumption to the highest ethical and environmental standards I can muster. Similarly, I keep Shabbat [the Sabbath], not because God commands it, but because it is the way my tribe honors work and rest by setting aside one day a week for re–creation and deep play.
I find great value in wearing a tallit [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries], and in blowing the shofar [ram’s horn] as a reminder to wake up to the call for justice and compassion. I love to study Jewish books from the Bible to Kafka, and feel that these are deeply mine even as they speak to the world as a whole.
Q: Is there one thing you can tell me that makes the Jewish tribe unique?
R. S.: To do that I would have to know a lot more about other tribes. But I can suggest one thing that may be unique, and that is the Jewish way of learning. Jews value questions over answers and at the heart of our pedagogy is the rabbinic teaching, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim, which means that no matter how diverse people’s positions may be, they are all holy if their aim is to point us toward Truth. This means that Jews are at home with dialogue, argument, and paradox. We are an ancient people with a post–modern psyche. God is too great to be reduced to one truth. For us the opposite of a great truth is not a falsehood, but an equally great truth.
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