I met Rabbi Rami Shapiro in the early 1990’s when he had the pulpit at Temple Beth Or in Miami, Florida. I could say that our paths crossed by Divine Design, since I walked into a book store and his book on 12 step recovery for those of the Jewish faith; with a title something like This Too Is The Path, if memory serves; fell off the shelf and into my waiting hands. My husband Michael and I had just moved to South Florida and were open to finding a spiritual home. As I turned the book over and looked at the back, I saw that the synagogue was close by and knew we needed to attend services there. That we did for the few years that we lived in the area and I found a renewed and re-energized sense of my Jewish heritage. Part of the reason for that was that Rami wove rituals and shared his writings with the congregation that made it meaningful for this ‘spiritual gypsy’ who was exploring her own path. I am grateful that after all these years, we are still in touch.
How do you live your bliss?
Joseph Campbell came up with this phrase, “follow your bliss” and I guess he meant something like “follow your passions,” which if we were really to do that, most of us would end up in jail. Living my legal bliss means devoting myself to the art and craft of writing. I make time to write almost every day, with the exception of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
You are a rabbi and writer, speaker and pundit. How would define yourself?
You did a nice job with this. I would say I’m a talking head with keyboard capable fingers who is narcissistic enough to imagine that other people should know what I have to say regarding matters about which I may no more than they do. I hope that isn’t what is carved on my headstone. If it is, I will have myself cremated and my ashes scattered in a used bookstore so there is no place to write that epitaph.
How would you describe your personal spiritual views and the ways in which it has evolved over the years?
When I was 16 I had what I imagine Zen Buddhists would call a kensho experience, a glimpse of reality without the filter of the egoic mind. From that I became convinced that there is only one reality, I call it God, and all life is an expression of it. This essentially panentheist position (all life is in God and is God) has stayed with me and defined by work as a rabbi every since. So, when it comes to spiritual views, no evolution here at all. Regarding how I live that experience, there has been much change. While Judaism remains my “mother-tongue” I have made a concerted effort to learn to speak a variety of religious languages and incorporate practices from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism into my daily life.
What do you think it would take to allow for a greater sense of connection and unity within the context of religion, rather than the divisiveness that often comes part and parcel?
Religions are like competing sports teams playing the same game. The only difference is that competing religions, unlike NBA or NFL teams, think their game is somehow a true glimpse into the existential reality of human existence, and that playing for their particular team determines your fate in the next life or next world. As long as religions take the game and their team so seriously, they will be willing to kill and die for their particular team.
What needs to happen to end this is for people to realize that no one can own Truth, that all religions are, to use a Zen Buddhism metaphor, fingers pointing to the moon and not the moon itself, and that giving one another the finger is just not a satisfying spiritual practice.
In other words people are going to have to vote with their feet and walk away from any religion that fails to revamp itself to better reflect the best of human thinking regarding science, sociology, anthropology, human rights, and ecological balance. We can’t expect religious leaders to change the game, they are profiting from it as it is. Change will only come when people are brave enough to admit that it is a game, and stop playing until it becomes more fulfilling.
Please speak about the Holy Rascals project.
People who dare to name the game and change it are what I call Holy Rascals. Many of them are “spiritual but not religious,” and many are religious in daring to ways redefining the ideas of their team to better reflect the truths of our time.?The Holy Rascals project seeks to introduce these people to the world through short videos, taped interviews, salon-like discussion groups that you can host in your home or at a library or community center, and, eventually, the Holy Rascals Rolling Wisdom Review, which travels the highways taking our videos, introductory pamphlets and seminars to libraries across North America. The more people learn about these incredible teachers the more their appreciation for religion and spirituality will increase, and their tolerance for religiously fueled violence will decrease.
How can people get involved?
What we need are five things: money, eyeballs, more videos, host salons, and more money. While distribution of materials on the Internet is cheap, quality production is not. We have hours of tape on wonderful teachers and lack the funds to turn them into useable video. We have a team of people writing the brief introductions to individual Holy Rascals and lack the funds to pay the writers and produce the materials. Right now everyone is working for love, and while love is great, it doesn’t pay the mortgage.
So funds are number one. And number four. Number two is eyeballs—we want people to watch the videos we do have on-line (www.holyrascals.com), and to send the link to their friends, real and virtual. The more people who watch Holy Rascals videos the more people there are who might change the game.
And we need people to share their Holy Rascals with us. Many people reading this interview know Holy Rascals, religious and spiritual teachers who are redefining faith for the 21st century. We want you get this folks on tape and send the material to use that we help others learn about them as well.
Lastly, we want people to host Holy Rascals parties. Invite a few friends to your home to watch our videos and discuss their reactions to what they saw. We spend lots of time talking about the irrelevant. Holy Rascals wants to deepen our conversations with one another so that we talk about the most relevant: what is life and how best to live it?
You inspire so many people, myself included. Who inspires you?
That is flattering and disturbing at the same time. I don’t think of myself as being an inspiration, and if I did I’d have to stop acting like the jerk I really am, and that I am not prepared to do. So stop letting me inspire you. As to who inspires me—Holy Rascals. People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Krishnamurti, Toni Packer, and Alan Watts who were bold enough to question their respective worlds and free themselves from the condition those worlds demanded.
Your mind seems to be endlessly creative. How many books have you written to date? Any others in the works?
All minds are endlessly creative. That is why it is so hard to meditate. We are always creating something in our minds. Soap operas mostly, but there is an art to that deserving of respect. I have written and have been lucky enough to publish over two dozen books. This year my new translation and commentary to the Book of Proverbs is coming out from Skylight Paths, and the first two of a series of books called Rabbi Rami Guides are being published by Spirituality & Health: Rabbi Rami’s Guide to God, and Rabbi Rami’s Guide to Forgiveness. As for the near future I am working a book with my son, Aaron, on writing as a spiritual practice, a book on grace in Judaism, a translation from the French of Love of Eternal Wisdom, a Catholic text written in the 18th century, and more volumes of the Rabbi Rami Guides. And I continue to blog (www.rabbirami.blogspot.com) and to write my column in Spirituality and Health magazine, Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveller.
That’s the near term. Long term I plan to die. Hopefully in peace.
How can we make spirituality relevant while maintaining seeds of tradition?
Let me reframe this. The goal isn’t to make spirituality relevant, but to make our lives relevant. Spirituality is a tool. A hammer is relevant if we need to pound a nail. Otherwise it just hangs on the shop wall. Spirituality will be relevant when we live in ways that make it useful. For example, if I want to peer beyond the veil of my egoic bullshit and see what is so in and of itself, meditation becomes relevant. If I want to slip from the ordinary to the ecstatic and discover that the ordinary is anything but ordinary, chanting, especially kirtan or call and response chanting in any of its forms—Hindu, Jewish, and Sufi, to name but three—is relevant. Similarly if we want to live justly and compassionately religion (when seen as means, a tool, and not an end in itself as most religious leaders would have us believe) has much to offer.
The point is to change ourselves rather than our traditions. If you are a mess, changing clothes will do nothing to change that. A new coat of paint over a rotting wood house will not improve the quality of the house. Changing religious forms while maintaining the narrow egoic bias will make the changes both superficial and ultimately meaningless.
Decide what kind of person you want to be, then explore religious and spiritual means for helping you achieve that goal. But don’t imagine that this is the end of the matter. Both Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi were religious people. A hammer can nail a spike into a home or palm. Religion and spirituality are only as good as the people who wield them. Become good, work at being better, insist that religion serve that end, and we may all come through the madness of modernity with our heads, hearts, and hands open to the wonder, grace, and love that is life lived at its best and most free.