Recent Work By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

I Sought Order

This do I teach:
The more you seek security, the more you are haunted by insecurity.
The more you desire surety, the more you are plagued by change.
The more you pretend to permanence, the more you invite suffering.
The more you do for control, the less you do for joy.
–  Ecclesiastes 1: 15-18

It seems we have the whole of life backward.  We want what we cannot get, and we reject that which we have in abundance.  We want the world to fit into a neat and understandable package. What we get is a jumble of experiences from which we fashion a life.

We want life to fit our story about life; instead we find ourselves in a swirling soup of ever-changing events some of which seem to make no sense whatsoever.

So Solomon is correct: The more I crave security, the more I am haunted by its absence. The more I seek to maintain the status quo, no matter how hurtful or damaging to me and others, the more things slip through my fingers and change against my will. Indeed — and this is his main point — my will does not much matter. Things happen whether I will them to or not. Reality does not give a damn about what I want; it just does what it does.

Our task then is simply to be fully present to whatever is happening now. When we are fully present, we seem to know what to do. Doing become effortless, choiceless. We are not weighing options but simply taking up the task that the moment presents.

My friend Leon is Chaplin at a local hospital. We cover for each other when one of us is out town. Late one evening I got a call from his hospital about a family whose mother was dying. Leon was unavailable, and they asked me to drive to the hospital and help in any way I could.

When I arrived at the hospital, a woman had just died and the family was being ushered out of a room by an orderly. I asked the family if they had a chance to pray with her mother and say goodbye. They had not and the orderly was kind enough to let us back into the mother’s room to be with her for a while longer. I encouraged the family to gather around their mother and take turns speaking to her — telling her they loved her, that they would miss her and that though it was sad, it was okay, that it was her time to die. As they spoke to their mother, the dead woman’s eyes suddenly filled with blood and thick red tears began to stream down her cheeks. I have never seen this happen to anyone before, and neither had her family. They stop talking and just stared, their bodies tense.

Part of me was horrified. I had performed this kind of service for people many times and this had never happened before. If I had thought about what to do, I suspect I would have left the room and called for a nurse. But I did not think about it. Instead, I sat on the bed, took the woman’s head in my arms, and wiped away the blood with a towel that had been hanging on the bed rail. I nodded to the family and encouraged them to continue speaking to her. I did all of this is if it was the most natural thing in the world. And at the time it was. After I left the hospital and returned my car however, I began shaking all over.

I still feel that I did the right thing and I learned something in the process. The lesson I learned was not simply what to do in this particular situation; rather, I learned the wisdom that comes when we are simply present. I did not have a set procedure to handle the situation we faced. In fact it was not a “situation” that needed handling. It was simply a family grieving, a mother bleeding, and a rabbi with an access to a towel.

This is what I mean by being present to the moment.  Nothing magical or extraordinary, just life as it is – often messy and rarely scripted. The more I empty myself of self and of the quest for surety, permanence, and control that defines the self, the more I am at home in the chaos of my life. The less we imagine what our lives ought to be, the more we can be present to what they really are. And in this, grace – an ease of doing – that we cannot imagine as long as we seek to control and manipulate things to our end.

Rumor is that you find Judaism too narrow for your tastes, and too small to hold your spiritual experiences. When did you stop being a Jew?

One doesn’t stop being a Jew any more than one can stop being Chinese or Navaho. I was born Jewish and I will die Jewish, and I am quite proud of being a member of this people.

What do you like best about it?

Its pedagogy. Jews are doubters, arguers. We prefer questions to answers, and as soon as we have answers we think it is best to question them. We see paradox as the key to understanding rather than an impediment to it. We reinvent our texts by deliberately misreading them. Having lived millennia before Gutenberg we are not bound to the linear thinking of the printed word. We were postmodern before we were even premodern. We don’t believe in fixed meanings. Meaning comes from the interaction of story and reader/listener/interpreter—the three are really one.  We have this wonderful phrase, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim. Roughly translated it means: All opinions, no matter how mutually exclusive and incompatible, are the words of the Living God if their intent is to search out the truth. I don’t know any other culture that values argument and doubt the way we Jews do, and it is for that reason alone that Jews need to survive.

What do you like least about it?

Rules. Following the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, I believe that Judaism is all about compassion: not doing to another what you would not want done to yourself. Jewish traditions should be continually reinvented so that they promote compassion. I keep my own versions of Shabbat and Kashrut (Sabbath and Kosher), drawing from the past but in no way seeking to imitate it.

Do you worry about the future of Jews and Judaism?

Worry? No. Worry doesn’t do anything. But I am struggling to find a way to maintain Jewish pedagogy. It seems to me that Jewish education has shifted to the more western model of seeking answers rather than learning how to sharpen one’s questions. We need an old/new kind of Jewish academy that focuses on questions and hones one’s creative imaginal and critical thinking skills.

I’ve heard you say you are not only Jewish.

Yes. While I am tribally and culturally Jewish, and Judaism is my primary source of spiritual nourishment and expression, I draw from the wisdom and practices of many religions, especially Vendanta Hinduism, Sufism, and Zen Buddhism. Even from Scottish Rite Freemasonry.

And you find the same capital T Truth is all of these?

No. I find useful insights in to how best to live my life, and powerful practices that open me to realities beyond those my normal waking mind can fathom, but Truth is something else. No system can articulate Truth. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the Truth that can be named ain’t the Real Truth.

Most of your time is spent writing. If the Truth cannot be named, what is the point of writing?

I write because I have no choice. When I don’t I feel ill.  But I never write to articulate the Truth, only to share my opinions.

What do you feel is the future of the book?

I think digital books will dominate the market sooner rather than later. I’m not one to make a fetish out of paper, though I do go out of my way to own hardcover copies of those books that have defined my life.

Such as?

The writings of Camus, Kafka, Nachman of Braslov, Martin Buber, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Dogen, Borges, and Jabes.

You also teach writing and religion. What have you learned from your experiences in these fields?

First, most people can’t write. Second, most people don’t read, which may be why most people can’t write. Third, most people even when studying the religions of others are careful to defend their own against any intrusion from the outside. Fourth, some people are curious enough and courageous enough to let their defenses down and actually be touched and perhaps transformed by other religions. These are the people I love to talk with and teach and learn from.

You work extensively in the field of interfaith. Do you find the same thing to be true there as in the classroom?

Yes. Most so–called interfaith dialogue is really interfaith monologue. True dialogue is unscripted, leaving the partners open to surprise and transformation. Few people are ever changed in what passes for interfaith dialogue today. They are too busy defending their truth to be open to challenging let alone changing it.

You seem a bit, I don’t know, bitter. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about humanity?

Both. I believe humanity will survive, that is my optimistic side; but not significantly change, that is my pessimistic side. While we are good at improving the longevity of our lives, we still suck an improving the quality of our living. While we get better and better at entertaining and distracting ourselves, we still suck an improving ourselves. Greed, fear, arrogance, violence define us today just as they did in the days of the Buddha and the Hebrew Prophets.

So how do we survive?

I am fond of the Jewish idea of the Lamed–Vavnik. The letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet double as numbers.  Lamed is the number 30, vav is the number 6. The idea is that there are always 36 people—Lamed–Vavniks—on the planet whose capacity for grace, generosity, compassion, and justice are so strong as to prevent humanity from imploding under the weight if our own idiocy.

Why thirty-six?

The Hebrew word for life is chai, and carries the numerical value of 18. Lamed–Vavniks carry their lives and the lives of the planet—twice 18, or 36.

Who are today’s Lamed–Vavniks?

The teaching is that we never know who these people are in their own day, but I suspect we can identify some with hindsight: Buddha, Ramakrishna, Hillel, Jesus, Rumi, to name just four off the top of my head. Today we don’t need more Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims, we need more Buddhas, Ramakrishnas, Hillels, Jesuses, and Rumis.

Any last words?

Too early for that I hope.