Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Q & A at 59

I turned 59 this past Monday. By coincidence (if you believe in coincidence) I received an email from a student who needed to interview a clergy person for a final class paper. He had come across me somewhere and thought I might fit the bill. I thought you might like to read our brief exchange.

What has been your primary goal since becoming a rabbi?

I entered seminary to find God and change religion. I believed and still believe that God is the source and substance of all reality. God is not a being or supreme being, but be-ing itself. To realize God is to realize our connection with and responsibility toward all life. The more you know God the more you become a vehicle for compassion and justice. I wanted to know this God and to make Judaism a means for knowing this and becoming this vehicle.

Did you do it?

I continue to know God, but to change Judaism—no. At this I have failed, and my rabbinate is a failure.

Does it bother you to have wasted your life in this way?

I said I was a failure not that I have wasted my life. To fail means that I first had to try. To waste a life is never to bother living it in the first place. I lived. I continue to live, and I continue to do the only thing I know how to do: I write, and I talk. I write and talk to change minds and hearts and institutions. Perhaps I have changed some minds and heats, but the institution is the same. Failure, yes. Life waster, no.

If you had succeeded in changing the institution what would it look like?

There is no one way to be Jewish even as I envision Judaism. But I would say we would root Judaism in two principles: teshuvah and tikkun: returning to our true nature as God (teshuvah) and repairing the world with godliness (tikkun). This places compassion and justice at the heart of Judaism. Jews would choose which traditions to follow or amend or invent based on a single question: will this make me more just and compassionate? If the answer is yes, then the tradition demands your loyalty. If the answer is no, then it makes no demands on you at all. Every Jew and every synagogue would be unique, but all would be responding to this question. What would unite us would not be shared answers, but a shared question.

If you have failed, what will you do now?

The only thing I know how to do: write and talk.

And if you continue to fail?

I fully expect to fail. But better to fail than not to act.

Doesn’t it ever occur to you to quit?

Of course. Everyday I sit and read newspapers and websites, and watch the news on television, and I think for a moment about abandoning the madness that is religion. Then my anger and frustration translate into yet another book or talk and I go on. I have no idea why this happens, but I cannot ignore it when it does.

You do a lot with interfaith work. Is this more promising that working within one religion?

No. My work in interfaith is to suggest that religions are like the blind men and the elephant: each has a piece of the puzzle but none knows it as a whole. While I admire those who work toward interreligious understanding and peace, I am not among them. I study and teach religion to reveal the existential heart of religion: the realization that we are mortal. Then I focus on those teachers and teachings that help us live with dying, rather than those who promise us some way to escape from dying: Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, Buddha before he was made into a god, Ramana Maharshi, Hillel, Rumi, Ramakrishna, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Erich Fromm, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Toni Packer, to name a few off the top of my head.

Do you write and talk differently now than, say, 25 years ago?

Yes, I write and talk more fiercely. I have less patience for niceties and political correctness. I used to care about what other’s thought of what I wrote and said. And while I still notice this, it no longer shapes my writing or my speaking.

I read once that you say rabbis have a choice between being prophets or clerks, and that most are clerks. Which are you?

I didn’t say that, I was quoting someone else. But I do believe it. Which am I? Only others can say; and only after I’m dead. Hopefully you will be around to ask those who survive me.


Di said...

Don't take this the wrong way...but I can't believe you are 59. I'm going to be 48 this year. I guess when we worked together in Miami, you just seemed like a "grown-up" while I still felt like a recent college graduate, faking my way along in the real world. And you are only ten-ish years older than me. (Since I don't really know if "I" or "me" is correct in that sentence, I decided not to correct you where you put "heat" where you meant "heart"...then again?)

I feel that I have a unique perspective on this...not because I am a former Catholic married to a pseudo-Jew. Or because I lived in Boca Raton for two years. Or that I know people who regularly call me "Mamela" or "Bubbelah." But because the past few months for me were consumed with my daughter's school's production of Fiddler on the Roof. Is there a book title here? Everything I Know about Judaism I Learned from Fiddler on the Roof? we are in the heart of the South, in a rural town where probably 80% of the people I know are Baptist, 10% are some other kind of Protestant, 5% are Catholic and the remainder are "Other"...and I only know one Jewish woman here, so most of the "other" are atheist, agnostic or "between religions" and the high school chooses Fiddler on the Roof. It was wonderful. The kids learned about another religion, but really learned more about the roots of religious tradition which carried over into their own understanding of their religion. Knowing these kids, many of whom (including my daughter) form the nucleus of a Baptist Youth Group, I saw how this play moved them and changed them. They solemnly participated in a Sabbath dinner (not coincidentally prepared by the only Jewish woman I know here) and were inspired by the traditions and their meanings which gave them a deeper understanding of why Tevye was so shaken when Tzeitel didn't marry Lazar Wolfe, the butcher.

Maybe I'm silly and naive to read so much into a high school play...but all in all, it was a more spiritual experience than their Fall production of Seussical.

I remember that team building thing we did, way back when, with the Reconstructionist Rabbis, who were, to me the coolest because they seemed the most accepting and open to various interpretations of what it is to be Jewish.

It sounds like your path has taken you beyond that into the broader concept of what it means to have a higher power. What is the relation, if anything, between religion and the "Big Guy" or whatever context we happen use to define that higher power?

To "fail" to find all of what you were trying to understand in Judaism and to "fail" to reconstruct Judaism to be the crucible for that understanding sounds more like growth to me. So, as surely as you didn't fail, I think there must be a more positive statement than "didn't waste."

How stagnant would it be to be exactly where you (we) were 20 years ago? Teaching the five steps or the six sigmas or whatever it was and not learning from what and whom you taught? What I have enjoyed and appreciated over the years is your willingness to share your questions and unwillingness to claim that you have all the answers. I still have Minyan by my bedside. It still speaks to me at different times on different things. And you may be far from the man you were when you wrote that, but it makes it no less powerful. In fact, a study of your life and the evolution of your faith would be a lot more interesting than, "Rabbi Rami Wrote a Book." (Ee-i-ee-i-o?)

Sorry...I'm carrying on...I guess I should have written my own blog about this...but I haven't updated my blog in a couple months, so no one would probably read it there anyway!

Anonymous said...

Prophet, without a doubt.

Barry said...

A bit chutzpadik of you to say you wanted to change Judaism, and that your rabbinate is a failure for not doing it. You have changed many peoples' lives, mine included. To want to change all of Judaism, well, no one's done that since that Roman emperor burned down the temple.

I was a substitute in L.A. Schools for over 18 years, and the schools are just as screwed up as ever. But there are kids, now 30 or even 40, who remember something I said to them that helped them in their life. You have a much wider following. No, you are not likely to be quoted in a few hundred years like Rashi, but you are part of a change for some Jews today.

Avi Baron said...

Your vision of Judaism seems to be a vision of a futuristic utopia, where people are governed by the true morals of society. Which I suppose is the basis for every religion - to give a set of values and ideals to each follower. Unfortunately with our current system of religion, there is lee-way to allow for misinterpretation.

But I like your unique concept on how Judaism could look, being "rooted in teshuvah and tikkun." Almost Utilitarian sounding. Yet less cold-hearted.

andrea perez said...

Happy Birthday.
Anyway, I go to a reconstructionist synagogue and a Unitarian Universalist congregation. And I leave sometimes going "what the heck", why do I even bother. There are these ideals, like social justice and trying to connect with the interdependent web of life and most of the time ,in both places, we are arguing over what coffee to serve or patting ourselves on the back for "helping the poor' or wondering how to pay the rent.Or my least favorite, having fund raisers for the purpose of I seeing how much money we can raise. Don't know exactly what the money is being raised for, but, it's certainly "fun" yahoo, raising it. So I can't imagine what it must be like to go to seminary, wanting to make a difference and finding out that some of the people just won't get in line and try to change the world. I'm a teacher and I've had the same kind of disillusionment at times over the little critters that I'm trying to teach who just want to run outside and go to recess. So I thank you for being there, to write something that gets me thinking and wanting to do some good introspection and (Hopefully) keep plugging at my congregations to get with the program and try to be a little more , I don't know, nice? instead of greedy and I don't know, infantile...It's really easy sometimes to just want to rant a bit.Haven't gotten to that point yet where I'm all accepting. Guess there's a long ways to go. :)

Tiffany at Patheya said...

Dear Rabbi Rami,

I felt my internal axis turn when I read your post. And I wanted to share a little something with you.

I was bought up an atheist. I’m Australian. We have a tradition and history that fosters disregard for authority and we love thumbing our noses at correct behaviour.

I had, what seemed to be, an awakening. I was 21, and something occurred that shifted my perceptions. I saw the world shift from single isolated things, into a huge and interconnected web, and underlying everything, was this glistening, beautiful, holy, remarkable ‘stuff’ that I thought of as ‘God’.

But I didn’t have a tradition. I didn’t have any idea what happened. I didn’t have words, or a lens to view what had happened. And I struggled for some time trying to reconcile what I had seen/perceived, with the ‘real’ world.

I’ve met/discovered many people across the world that have also had similar experiences. And all of them view the experience in the garb of their culture, religion or previous belief system. When I read your experience, your calling, in The Divine Feminine, I sent the book immediately to others who have been grappling with trying to understand how they can bridge the past with the present.

There is a theory that humans are evolving into an energetic species. That there are two templates. One is of the old world, where an eye for an eye was the way of survival, and one is the calling of an integrated human of heart and mind who can live the deep truth that ‘All is One.’

And the people that are coming forth now, who have one foot in the old world, and one foot in the new, are suffering the most. Because they need to figure out how to live an authentic life, and also, how to bridge the gap between the old and the new.

For me, you are one of these much needed bridges. You offer a thread of hope that we are not going crazy, that what we are going through has its roots in the past, but yes, we are evolving into something that has no precedent.

Some times people generalise and complain about ‘society’ or ‘them’ and I can’t help but point out that the very people who ‘them’ are, is actually you. And you, dear Rabbi, are changing the face of Judaism. Because you are ‘them’.

Thank you. And I pray for your continual blossoming.

Di said...

Andrea: If you need to rant more, you should start a's great for expressing those things that make you crazy, like the cashier having a conversation with the bag boy instead of scanning your groceries. Really, it's fun.

I was thinking about you going to two churches...and it suddenly came to me...why not? I mean, you go to different restaurants. Sometimes you just need the pampering and elegance of a fine restaurant to reward yourself for a tough week. And sometimes you just want a good sports bar that is showing the Gators game. I like it...the restaurant theory of religion choice.

C. Robin Janning said...

Dear Rabbi Rami,

I'm about 4 years older than you, and most people I know who are our age and honest would relate some sense of failure in their lives.

I've been reading your writing for a long time. Many of the "good" places I am in now I can relate to your teaching. Tiffany said it beautifully when she said you are a "bridge."

I guess I don't quite understand what's right or what's wrong with interreligious pursuits. What I do know, however, is that some teachers reach me and my spirit responds. The fact that some are from different traditions from the one I was born in to, as well as in different traditions from each other doesn't seem to matter.

You write:

"God is not a being or supreme being, but be-ing itself. To realize God is to realize our connection with and responsibility toward all life. The more you know God the more you become a vehicle for compassion and justice."

You have written words that allow me to take steps toward living a more "realized" life. You "may" have failed to change Judaism, but you have changed me.

Thank you.

andrea perez said...

I like what you called it. I go to two places because my husband is Catholic and I am Jewish and well synagogue life can be a bit overwhelming. (but dare I say, esp. when they start the yearly Israeli Independence Day celebrations that bring out the separatists in all of "us".) The whole Zionist thing is rather hard to explain (esp. when we're always getting speeches about brotherly love and accepting everyone) But I want us to belong somewhere so my temple, I go it alone, the UU place I drag him to kicking and screaming :). We even have a friend who's a pagan but the drumming circle was a bit much for him. Always looking for new people to get to know.
But that's not very serious and or soul searching and then I have to get back to the work of it all. I'm finding that trying to get spiritual in an "organized" place feels like failure or becomes an anger management course. Mine not theirs: got a bit of a temper. The writing, singing, and painting kind of work seems to bring a lot more joy. Too bad it's all by my lonesome. Take care, maybe I will start a blog....good idea

Di said...

Andrea...I look forward to reading your blog. Keep me posted!

Karen said...

Happy Birthday, Rabbi Rami! And thank you for sharing your thoughts, stories, books, columns, interviews, etc. I may not be Jewish, but my spiritual journey has transformed because of you.

I think it's too early for you to say whether or not you have failed in changing Judaism. I'm betting that the people who wrote or said a lot of the works we read, reflect on, and quote from times past thought that they were just getting their thoughts out of their head and onto paper, sharing them sometimes with their contemporaries, hoping to change people's thinking in their own time and "failed." Yet hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years later, their voices are still heard, their thoughts are still considered, and their works still transform. So, get back to me in a few hundred years to see if you've "failed" Judaism or not!

Happy Friday!

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav and All,

Changing non Orthodox Judaism is a tall order for anyone. On the other hand real transformation happens one life at a time. And the evidence herein as well as from your other writing is that more than a few lives have been changed for the better. Alas, what's missing is someone willing to take the risk and take up the mantle of leadership to actually create a tribe/community that would exemplify that transformational teaching in the flesh, i.e., Living Non Orthodox Torah. Such a community could catalyze other such communities who together can show that a meaningful, contemporary, non-Orthodox Judaism is more than just wordplay.

Shabbat Shalom and Wholeness to all of us,
Jordan, another aging boomer among us.

Rabbi Rami said...

So many wonderful comments! Thanks to you all. Just a few very brief responses:

Diane: I can’t believe you live in a smaller Jewish “community” than I do! It sounds like the Jewish joke about the Jew stranded on an isle who builds two synagogues—one he attends, and one he would never attend. I wouldn’t feel too sorry for old Lazer Wolf. I heard he went on to America and invented Laser Tag. He changed his name to sound more American and did very well for himself.

As for Barry’s notion that I am a bit chutzpadic— amen to that. What’s the point of being born—the odds are gazzilions to one against it—and then not be chutzpadic? But I was troubled by the thought that I won’t be quoted hundreds of years from now like Rashi. To remedy that, I am going to change my name to Rashi.

Avi is right that my vision is utopian. But only when I am in a good mood. Most of the time I prefer dystopian ideas. I think we are headed toward a mix of 1984 and Brave New World where we all rush home to be monitored by Big Bubbe on our giant plasma televisions.

Andrea—hang in there. As soon as we figure out the coffee issue we might actually get around to saving the planet. Or at least the coffee plants.

Tiffany, I wasn’t brought up an atheist but I did go to Outback Steakhouse a lot before I became a vegetarian so I guess I was brought of Australian. I like your distinction between an eye for an eye and All of One. I think all is one, so we have only one to poke out. I’m feeling better for the blindness already. And the idea that I’m a bridge explains why I have this feeling of being stepped on all the time. So thanks.

And thanks to Karen and Mentschkeit for the kudos.

I could go on, but I have to go to work. Just thanks to you all for the kind thoughts. I love the conversation between you as well.

Tiffany at Patheya said...

I was thinking about the bridge metaphor lately - and the trolls and bogeys that live under them.
There is the shadowy aspect to bridges too, I guess - and :D I didn't think of you being walked on all of the time but yes!
Take care, and chat in a month. (on holidays)