Part 1: Believing in God
Student (S): DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?
Think of it this way: Imagine my lungs were self-conscious. Would they say of themselves, “We are Rami”? No, they would realize that they are part of a larger system of heart, stomach, skin, muscles, bone, etc. What can be said of my lungs can be said of this larger system as well. Why point to my body and say “This is Rami” when that body is totally dependent on the larger system of the planet? And it goes on: the planet needs the sun and solar system, and the solar system needs the galaxy, and the galaxy needs the universe, etc. It is arbitrary and misleading to point to my body and say this is me, when in fact the entire universe is necessary for me to exist. There is only one “I” and that is the whole itself.
(S): I DON’T THINK I MEANT TO GET THAT INVOLVED. ON THE RELATIVE SCALE DO YOU, WHATEVER YOU ARE, BELIEVE IN GOD?
(R): “Belief” is too weak a word. I don’t believe I have a sister, I know I have a sister. We believe in things we do not know. Belief is a kind of wishing. When it comes to God I have no beliefs. I know God, and hence I know God exists.
(S): WHICH BRINGS US TO THE THIRD WORD THAT TROUBLES YOU: GOD.
(R): I am not troubled by the word, I simply want to be understood when I use it. God to me is, as the Torah says, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” (Exodus 3:14) the I AM that is all being and becoming. God is the water than embraces both ocean and the wave. God is the nondual Reality that embraces and transcends the duality of absolute and relative, I and Thou, front and back, good and evil. There is nothing that is other than God. Nothing that is apart from God.
(S): SO DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?
(R): No. As I said, belief is wishing. I don’t wish for God, I know God as a wave, if it were capable of knowing, might come to know itself as the ocean, and both itself and the ocean as water. I know I am God. I know you are God. The extent to which you know yourself and all life to be God is the extent you know yourself and all life to be worthy of and capable of love, justice, and compassion.
(S): SO KNOWING GOD HAS ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS?
(R): I want to ground ethics in something other than the temporary and delusional “I”. I worry when something is good only because I say it is good, or because the state says it is good, or because some religion says it is good. All three of these sources are driven by power and greed. I don’t want goodness defined by what serves the power that defines it.
When I know God, I experience the interconnectedness of all things, the interdependence of all things, and I find myself becoming more compassionate, empathic, and just. I root my ethics in this. My welfare depends on the welfare of the whole.
(S): SO IS GOD JUST AND GOOD?
(R): No. God is not a thing that can be just or unjust, good or evil. God is Reality, and Reality can be both just and unjust, both loving and cruel. But these are human concepts. Nature is neither good or evil, it is just what it is. We humans call things good and evil depending on whether or not they serve our interests. What I am saying is that when I see myself and all beings are part of the nondual Reality I call God, I see the wisdom of engaging life with love, compassion, empathy, and justice toward all beings.
Part 2: Role of Religion
(S): HOW DID YOU COME TO YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF GOD?
(R): It came to me rather than me coming to it. I have been involved in contemplative practice for over forty years. From the very first months of meditation practice this understanding of God became a felt reality to me. The years have only confirmed and deepened it.
(S): WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU PRACTICE?
(R): Each day I walk, chant, sit in silence, study and write.
(S): AND WHAT DO YOU GET FROM THIS?
(R): Nothing. There is nothing to get, because nothing is lacking. It is simply a way of remembering the truth that all is God, and that I can be in the world in a godly manner.
(S): WHAT ROLE DOES RELIGION PLAY IN ALL THIS?
(R): Very little. I learned these practices from mystics whose lives, teachings, and spiritual technologies were preserved by religious organizations, so I am grateful to religion for that, but my spiritual life has little to do with organized religion.
(S): ARE YOU ANTI-RELIGION?
(R): I wouldn’t say that. But I am leery of it. To the extent that organized religion preserves the wisdom of the mystics and how to investigate truth for yourself, it is valuable. To extent that it does good work in the world, promoting peace and justice, it is laudable. To the extent that it helps those in search of community and comfort find these, it is valuable. But when religions shun reality by denying and hiding from science; when they promote fear through superstitious notions about gender, sexual orientation, and sin that are degrading to humankind, when they sanctify evil and cruelty and ignorance and oppression in the name of this or that god, then religion is anathema.
(S): IS THERE NOTHING THAT ORDINARY PEOPLE GET OUT OF ORGANIZED RELIGION? IF IT DIDN’T BENEFIT PEOPLE IT WOULD NOT HAVE SURVIVED.
(R): Of course there is. While religious leaders use religion to tame the laity, the laity use religion to tame God.
(S): WHAT DO YOU MEAN RELIGION IS A WAY FOR TAMING GOD?
(R): Religion is magic. If we humans do “X” God will do “Y.” If we sing the right hymns, hold the right beliefs, worship the right image, marry the right people, and surrender to the right leaders then God will not beat the crap out of us here and in the hereafter.
The problem is that all religions say this, and it is impossible to form any objective criteria for determining which religion is right. There are only two ways to say one religion is true and another is false. Either you simply make that claim based on nothing but faith and wishful thinking, or you murder all the followers of the other religions and use their deaths to prove the impotence of their god.
(S): IS THERE NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE?
(R): Sure: Give up magical thinking. Give up trying to tame God. But this means people will have to face the fact that life, from the human perspective, is often tragic and cruel, and that bad things happen to good people for no reason whatsoever. People want life to make sense, so they imagine there is an All Mighty God in charge of things and that they can manipulate this god into doing what they want: heal this one, damn that one.
God isn’t your friend or your butler. God is reality and reality is both caring and cruel. What religion says is that you can have the one and escape the latter. What spiritual practice teaches is how to engage them both with compassion and humility. That is why I focus on practice rather than religion.
(S): SO PEOPLE SHOULD GIVE UP RELIGION?
(R): Not necessarily. We should respect and use religion for what it is: a repository of spiritual practices, insights, and ethics that we can test out for ourselves. Nothing should be taken on faith. Belief is irrelevant. Investigation into Truth is what matters. So people should study all religions, and test those teachings and technologies that speak to them. I love to chant. Chanting opens the “wave” me to the “oceanic” me. I chant texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I don’t care that on the level of organized religion these faiths are incompatible. I only care that chanting these texts opens me to the nondual reality of God in, with, and as all things.
(S): SO SHOULD WE STILL HAVE CHURCHES AND SYNAGOGUES AND MOSQUES AND TEMPLES?
(R): People need community. In the context of religion I would like to see religious communities rooted in contemplative practice. People would gather to sit in silence, chant, study, and talk about issues of ultimate concern. There would be no dogma, doctrine, or fixed format. It would be a meeting place of seekers, a forum for contemplation and conversation. People would support one another by being present to one another. My ideal religious community would blend the best of Quaker Meeting, Twelve-Step Meeting, a Jewish study center, and African American gospel choir, all within a universalist framework that drew from the wisdom of science and spirituality.
Part 3: The Soul
(S): DO YOU BELIEVE IN A SOUL?
(R): No. There is no individual soul anymore than there is an individual you. There is only God, the One Thing that is everything.
(S): WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOU DIE? IS THERE HEAVEN AND HELL?
(R): Heaven and hell are states of mind right here and now.
If you imagine you are apart from God, in competition with everyone and everything; if you believe that life is a zero-sum game and your gain must come at the expense of others; if you believe that God is judging you and preparing eternal torments for you or someone else, then you are in hell already. The opposite of this is heaven.
As far as what happens when you die, there is no you in the absolute sense, so nothing happens. What happens when you awake from a dream? Can you say that the “dream you” is dead? What happens when a wave folds back into the ocean? Yes its form is gone but was it only that? Or was it always the ocean and it is still the ocean?
As the body dies the illusion of the separate self fades and you know yourself to be what you always were: God.
(S): YOU ARE JEWISH AND A RABBI, AND YET I CANNOT HEAR ANYTHING JEWISH IN WHAT YOU HAVE SAID SO FAR. ARE YOU A JEW?
(R): Judaism is my tribe, my culture. It influences the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the languages I speak, the books I read and the way I read them. I am proud to be a Jew and would not choose to be anything else.
(S): BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RELIGION OF JUDAISM? DO YOU FOLLOW THAT?
(R): It is a mistake to imagine there is such a thing as a fixed Judaism. There is the Judaism of Moses, the Judaism of the Prophets, the Judaism of the Priests, the Rabbis, the Kabbalists, the Hasidim, the Secularists. Judaism isn’t fixed. It is a living system that changes as the people who shape it change. I draw from all of these forms, but I am not limited by any of them. I take what speaks to me, and practice what awakens me.
(S): WHAT ABOUT KEEPING KOSHER OR THE SABBATH. DO YOU DO THAT?
(R): In my own way, yes. Kosher means aligning all my consuming with the wellbeing of person and planet. Shabbat means standing apart from the addiction to work and learning to play. I do both as best I can.
Part 4: Judaism at Its Best
(S): ARE YOU STILL A RABBI?
(R): Yes. I am a teacher of Torah, broadly defined as Jewish wisdom from Moses to Isaiah to Ecclesiastes to Jesus to the Baal Shem Tov to Kafka. Jewish wisdom is my primary language for articulating and sharing the universal truths I find meaningful and transformative. While I may draw from the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism to explicate a text from the Bible, it is the Bible rather than the Buddha that occupies me primarily. If it were the other way around I might call myself a Buddhist rather than a Jew, and I certainly would not call myself a rabbi.
(S): WHY DO INCLUDE JESUS IN YOUR LIST OF JEWISH TEACHERS?
(R): Jesus was a great prophet, rabbi, and sage of Jewish wisdom. To call oneself a Jew and discard his teaching is to ignore a very important piece of Jewish wisdom.
(S): SO WHAT IS JUDAISM FOR YOU?
(R): At its best, Judaism is a living, open system of transformative spiritual practice concerned with teshuvah and tikkun, return and repair. Teshuvah is turning inward and discovering the ocean as the Face wearing the mask of the wave. Tikkun is turning outward and engaging life from this perspective of nonduality.
Another name for inward turning is Tikkun HaNefesh, repairing the soul, revealing the wholeness that the isolated ego denies. The outward turning is called Tikkun HaOlam, repairing the world with justice, compassion, and peace. I love the word “tikkun,” repair or heal. When we heal we make whole; when we re-pair we put the seemingly separate parts of the world back together again, or, more accurately, we discover that they were never apart. So Judaism as tikkun, as turning, is ultimately a dance of nondual realization.
(S): WHAT ABOUT ALL THE RULES AND LAWS OF JUDAISM?
(R): All the rules, laws, and customs should be in service to tikkun. If a tradition helps you turn and heal, inwardly and outwardly, then do it. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. But the only way to know if a mitzvah or practice aids your turning is to try it out.
(S): WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU LIKE LEAST ABOUT JUDAISM?
(R): Judaism today seems too self-focused to me. It is as if the point of Judaism is to be Jewish rather than to practice teshuvah and tikkun, returning to God and repairing the world with godliness.
(S): WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT IT?
(R): Judaism has a unique capacity to help people live with paradox and ambiguity, the hallmarks of postmodern civilization. That is one of the things I love best about it.
*** *** ***