Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I'm Not A "________"

A couple of weeks ago during a Q&A session after a talk I gave I was asked, “Why aren’t you a Christian?” I was intrigued by the question and its corollaries: Why I’m not a Muslim, Hindu, etc. Here are some thoughts on each of these.

Why I’m Not a Christian
Christianity is based on the following proposition expressed so beautifully in the Gospel According to John:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3: 16-18, NRSV)

I can’t accept any of this. First I don’t believe that love, even God’s love, necessitates the murder of one’s child. Second, I don’t believe that God has a son. Third, I don’t believe in eternal life if by this we mean the unending existence of an egoic self capable of belief or disbelief. Fourth, I do not believe that people are saved or condemned by God, and, if God were in the saving and condemning business the criteria God would use for making the distinction would not be based on belief but on behavior. So I can’t be a Christian.

Why I’m Not a Muslim
Islam is rooted in the Shahada, from the verb šahida “he witnessed”: Lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh, There is no god but Allah (God), and Muhammad is the messenger of God. A Muslim is one who accepts this testament of faith and voluntarily submits to the will of Allah as expressed in the Qur’an that Allah dictated to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.
Again I cannot accept this. First, I don’t believe in a God who dictates books. Consequently I don’t believe Muhammad was the recipient of a divine Book or that the Qur’an is the word of God; for me, all sacred texts are written by people. Third, I cannot abide by the idea of submission to the will of God as expressed in Islam when I am convinced that Islam, like all religion, is a human creation. While I can believe that there is nothing other than God, and that Muhammad was a bearer of this insight, I cannot believe that Islam is what God wants. So I can’t be a Muslim.

Why I’m Not a Hindu
While it is true that the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta (an ancient and on-going school of Indian thought) are so close to my own personal beliefs that it is impossible for me to reject them, and that the teachings and practices of Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and Nisargadata Maharaj are central to my life, still I am not a Hindu.
First I am not a Hindu because I cannot accept the notion of karma and reincarnation central to almost all systems of Hindu thought. Second, I cannot believe the Vedas, the founding scripture of Hinduism, are divine. Third, I cannot abide by the caste system or submit to the authority of gurus. So while I borrow much from Indian philosophy, I cannot call myself a Hindu.

Why I’m Not a Buddhist
Many people insist I am a Buddhist, and I admit that there is much in Buddhism that I find compelling especially the notions of pratityasamutpada (the interdependence of all things in a singular system of ever changing reality), sunyata (the notion that all things are in the process of emptying and no thing is ever permanent), the bodhisattva ideal that elevates the goal of human life to the alleviating of human suffering, and the linking of prajna (wisdom) with karuna (compassion), yet I am not a Buddhist.
I am not a Buddhist because I cannot shake the notion that there is a permanent process reality out of which and into which all things rise and fall, and that there is an atman, a greater Self of which all egoic selves are a part—two ideas anathema to Buddhism. Oh, and I talk about God all the time, something that Buddhists never do.

Why I’m Not a Jew
Of course I am a Jew. My mother is Jewish and her mother was Jewish and her mother was Jewish all the way back to Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Or so I’m told. But I’m tribally Jewish, culturally Jewish, and not so much religiously Jewish. And the reason I’m not religiously Jewish is not surprising.
Judaism as a religion posits a Creator God who chose the Jews, set aside a Promised Land, and revealed both Torah both written and oral, and I can’t believe in any of this. While I personally keep kosher and observe Shabbat, I do so in my own way, and can’t imagine a god obsessed with my diet and how I spend my Saturdays. So while I am proud to be a Jew, my pride is rooted in our history of iconoclasm and our passion for justice rather than our allegiance to rabbinic law.
What I love about being Jewish is that you can be a heretic and still remain in the family; or at least the liberal end of the family. As I understand it the ban against Spinoza is still enforced among the Orthodox.

Why I’m Not Religious
The truth is I’m just not very religious. The reason why is simple enough: I don’t like being told what to do. I have a terrible time submitting to the will of rabbis, priests, preachers, imams, swamis, masters, and gurus of any kind. I like to learn what the world’s religions have to say, but I am not keen on spouting it back as what I have to believe. I find great value in some of the teachings and practices of the world’s religions but not enough in any one religion to bring me into the fold of that religion.
As soon as I admit this another question is raised: Why then am I still a rabbi? There are three ways I can answer this, each is true but only the third is personally motivating.
The first reason I’m a rabbi is that I spent five long years earning that title and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give it up so easily. The second reason is, “Rabbi Rami” is a brand like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew. I’m not yet cool enough to go with my first name only like Oprah, Cher, and Madonna, so I cling to the title “rabbi” and slog on.
I admit to the cogency of these two reasons, and I would be a liar and hypocrite to deny them. But neither is really motivating. What motivates me to remain a rabbi is the sense that I belong to a lineage of rabbis who dared to reinvent Judaism in their own image: Hillel, Jesus, Abraham Abulafia, Isaac Luria, Shabbatai Tzvi, the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Nachman of Breslav, the Alter Rebbe, Isaac Meyer Wise, Mordecai Kaplan, Sherwin Wine, and others. Not that any of these rabbis would agree that the Judaism of the others was Judaism as all, but that each of them refused to play the game as it was handed to them, but invented it anew for themselves and their time.
Nor am I claiming to be of the caliber as these rabbis. I’m not. Nor do I imagine that my legacy is in any way equal to theirs; it is not. Each of them built a movement, and articulated a new Judaism in their wake, while I eschew organizations, have no desire to create a movement, and have no coherent teaching at all. I write books. None of which is divinely revealed.

What I Am
What I am is curious. What I am is an itinerant wanderer through the ideas and spiritual practices of others. What I am is a holy rascal, an iconoclast, an entertainer, a vegetarian who delights in slaughtering sacred cows, and a lover of truth (dare I say Truth?) who wants only to be free and help others be free as well. Being free isn’t the same as being awake, enlightened, saved, or blessed. It is just being free. And for me, at least for now, that is just enough.


The Right to Write said...

Great post. The part about your attempts to redefine the parameters of Judaism is apt. Isn't that what you really are, a Rabbi trying to mold the discourse of Judaism from its terminology of theism to a non-dual view? Aren't you a non-dualist Jew, like some of the first and second generation Hasidim appear to be in some of their writings? This is a minority voice in the tradition, which is perhaps one reason you feel on the outside. But this view is gaining ground, partially through your books.

Anonymous said...

...and that is why I enjoy reading your books and hearing you speak.

Karen said...

Thank you! Love this post and plan to share it with others. It does make me wonder who creates a movement. I guess any one of us could create our own movements, but my guess is that a movement is created by others who "follow", listen to, read/study ardently, etc., someone whom they admire, who peaks their curiosity, stimulates their intellect, etc. Therefore, Rabbi Rami (the brand and the man), you may not be creating a movement or have a desire to do so, but a movement has probably been created on your behalf because of what you share, write, tell, live.

eashtov said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Gut Gezogt and bravo!!! Your post reminds me of of a wonderful book from nearly 30 years ago (1983),
"The WHYS of a Philosophical Scrivener" by Martin Gardner, Z'L. wherein he tells what he believes in and why via essays about what he doesn't believe and why. He actually began each essay with the phrase, "Why I am not a..."
It's a tour de force much as is your post.

Shabbat Shalom/Shavu'a Tov to all of us,

Lyn Baker said...

Me too! To all the posts so far. I have only recently discovered you (though Sprituality and Health magazine) as I slog along the path on my journey. Thank you for what you think and say. You are validating ideas that I've thought for a number of years, but dare not communicate to anyone. That is changing.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thank you all for such positive comments! I am honored and blessed. Have a good Shabbos.

Lou Mindar said...

Terrific post, Rami! Thank you for sharing it!

Erick Reynolds said...

Your discussion "Why I'm Not A ..." is a beautifully concise summation of where my wife and I have landed in our thinking. When I saw your articles in Spirituality & Health magazine, I was initially fooled by the label “Rabi” (as labels often fool us or make fools of us). Expecting religious pontifications from the Torah or Kabbalah, I found responses to questions that were spiritually alive and based on a broad enlightenment. We have casually explored various religions and listened for answers.
Raised as a Christian Scientist, I remember a quote on the wall of the church: “Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.” This raised the ultimate question. What is the Truth? And who knows it? You have written that religions are like different languages that allow expression of an idea that cannot be expressed in one language. Similarly, I have used the analogy of a many-faceted diamond or a many-windowed building. Each religion is a facet or window that can look into the Truth, but can only see It from one perspective. One can only see the whole Truth, if you are willing to look through the other windows or facets.
While I am not a practicing Christian Scientist, I am thankful for the teaching of the synonyms of God as Love, Truth, Mind, Spirit, Principle, Soul, and Life, which freed me from the idea of God as an old man/super-being-in-the-sky directing his play things. So, when I look into the other windows, I am looking for the Love, Truth, Principle, God concept that shines through all the windows. Even atheists, who claim no belief in “a God” are seeking a Truth for those questions with no answers. Science and mathematics expand the boundaries of the unknown with the answers to what and how things happen. But then there is always the question, Why?
Thank you for giving us another window to the Truth.

Julie said...

Your post reminded me of this poem:

so much from god
that i can no longer
a christian, a hindu, a muslim, a buddist, a jew.

the truth has shared so much of itself
with me
that i can no longer call myself
a man, a woman, an angel,
or even pure

love has
befriended Hafiz so completely
it has turned to ash
and freed
of every concept and image
my mind has ever known.

Blessings to you Rami :)

andrea perez said...

Wow! Made me smile! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

this is a test

Majestic Mermaid said...

And this is why I follow your works!

Changeless Chariot said...

It is clear that there are elements -- sometimes key elements -- of each religion that you (and many of us)cannot accept. Of course, some of these rejections are also true for some devoted adherents to these religions. Your post and, even more so, your writings make clear that you resonate deeply with elements of each of these religions. I am sure you could just as easily have written a posting on "what about me is a _____." Why so negative? (Other than the obvious answer that this was the question you were posed...)

Former Shadow said...

"a vegetarian who delights in slaughtering sacred cows"

Well, I thought your self righteousness was something I could rely on - as you bashed on Christianism - but then this show up.

You... DELIGHT in SLAUGHTERING cows... and you dont´see a problem with these words?