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.

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RABBI RAMI SHAPIRO is an award winning author, poet, essayist, and educator whose poems have been anthologized in over a dozen volumes, and whose prayers are used in prayer books around the world. Rami received rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and holds both PHD and DD degrees. A congregational rabbi for 20 years, Rabbi Rami is currently Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. In addition to writing books, Rami writes a regular column for Spirituality and Health magazine called "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler," offers daily fractured proverbs called "Jaded Wisdom" via Twitter, and blogs at rabbirami.blogspot.com.

3 responses to “Rabbi Rami Shapiro: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. nikki says:

    Enlightening as always.

  2. Hunter C. Eden says:

    Hey–I’m a friend of Nikki’s and I can identify with much of what you’ve said here. I’m half-Jewish on my father’s side, so to the Rabbinate I don’t count and to the Karaites I do. I’ve always identified strongly as a Jew, even though I’ve never been Bar Mitzvah’ed, question the existence of God, and am staunchly non-Zionist. My argument has always been similar to yours–I
    am an ethnic Jew, and I should be able to identify as such even as Italians identify as Italian and Irish people identify as Irish. What I have noticed among most of the Jews I’ve met, religious or not, is an interest in and fascination with the spiritual. Thanks for so well encapsulating Jewish identity! And yeah, Kfka and Borges are two of my favorites.

  3. BenYishai says:

    I share Rav Shapiro’s view that one’s identity is typically multiple (nationality, tribe, race, ethnicity, etc.), and I believe no serious scholar would object to the observation that, through the millenia, Judaism has been improvisationally and creatively syncretic (as opposed to unqualifiedly syncretic), adapting the insights of non-Jews to its purposes. Neverthelesst, it seems to this Jew that a factor intrinsic to the achievement of the goals shared, I believe, by Rav Shapiro and me, is the continuation of the Jewish community. This of course means the transmission to our children, and all our descendants, of critical precepts of our sacred books (Tanach, Talmud, various midrashim) of Hillel, Maimonides, and some contemporary scholars as well. I believe this is in large part the purpose and the pride of Jewish temples and synagogues, and thus, the observation of any rule or ritual is meaningless without a sincere attempt to understand how such a rule enhances our understanding and recall of these important precepts. Hence the importance of congregations, of sharing ideas, of respect for dissent, of opposition to Christian and Moslem supersessionism, as well as Chrstian and Moslem exclusivity (no salvation outside the religion), and the opposition to unqualified dogma. Thus I believe Judaism falls to the ground with out that marvelous invention of the rabbinical revolution, the synagogue, including of course it’s attendant respect for learning, questioning and dissent, quallities still not greatly or widely appreciated by most of the world, especially in what we call “The Cradle of Western Civilization”, the Middle East.

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