Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Wesley Szamko

Interview With Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro

Shapiro: Judaism has no fixed set of beliefs, dogmas, or theological standards. Beyond saying that God is One (which, of course, presupposes that God is in the first place), Judaism offers no official position. If, on the other hand, you wish to know what I mean by the word "God,” I would say this: God is the source and substance of all reality. Everything that exists is a manifestation of God in time and space. You and I are God, or, better, God manifests as you and I. As far as understanding God, we cannot.

There are two reasons for this: First, God is not something other than us that can be objectified and understood. Second, being the totality of all that was, is, and will be, God is too great for us to reduce to something understandable. God can be realized, experienced, and awakened to, but not understood as one might understand a mathematical formula.

Shabbat Shalom: What does it mean to believe in God?

Shapiro: I don’t use the word believe when it comes to God. The word suggests a lack of knowledge. For example, I do not say, “I believe I have a sister.” I either have a sister or I do not. Nor would I say, “I believe I have a subscription to Time Magazine.” Either it arrives in the mail each week or it doesn’t. Belief doesn’t matter. Reality matters. God is reality, and there is no need for belief. We either know that God exists or we don’t. I know. How do I know? Through my practice of meditation, I have had experiences of dropping body and mind and emptying into the whole that is God. I know that God is and that I and all things are expressions of God from my practice of meditation. Not belief, just reality.

Shabbat Shalom: What duties do we have toward God? How are they expressed?

Shapiro: We have no duties toward God. This is dualistic thinking and implies that God is other than us. We cannot add to or subtract from God, and God does not need us to serve Him in any way. What we do have is an obligation toward reality. When we realize that we are one with God, we realize that we are one with all life. That oneness carries with it an intrinsically compelling desire to act justly and with compassion. Everyone we meet is a manifestation of God and deserves to be treated in a holy manner, and so do we. Loving your neighbor as yourself means that we recognize both ourselves and our neighbor as God and allow the love that comes with that recognition to define the way we live.

Shabbat Shalom: What commonly used symbols are present in the daily life of a Jew to remind her or him of God and reveal God further?

Shapiro: Symbols can be powerful reminders of reality, but they cannot reveal reality. God is not hidden; we are simply asleep in reality. What we need are symbols that wake us up. Among all the Jewish symbols for awakening, the one I like the best is the mezuzah. A mezuzah is a scroll containing the Shema, the Jewish teaching of the nondual reality of all things as God: Hear, O Israel, that which we call God is Oneness Itself. We place this teaching in a decorative casing and attach it to every doorpost in our homes. Whenever we see a mezuzah, we are to remember the interconnectedness of all things in, with, and as God. My teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, says that we should not enter or leave a room with a mezuzah attached to the doorpost without first making peace with all the people in our lives. That would be a powerful spiritual practice. Perhaps this is the only one we would need.

Shabbat Shalom: In the Jewish experience, is it the physical, overt acts or the personal, covert acts that offer a greater knowledge of God?

Shapiro: Judaism does not make a distinction between overt and covert. Each overt act includes a personal intention, or kavvanah. Thus, if you simply go through the motions of some ritual act without the proper attitude, the act will be of little value. The point is to integrate the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions of each of us and then act in a whole and holy manner. A good example of this is the ritual of tefillin, the boxes containing the Shema that Jews place by their hearts and on their heads during morning prayer and meditation. The intent of the tefillin is to remind us to unite our thinking with our feelings, our head with our heart, and then to allow this unity to manifest itself in our daily actions. Putting on tefillin without the unification of thought, word, feeling, and deed is a waste of time. Yet, it is hard to remember to make this unification without some external reminder. So the external awakens the internal, which in turn makes the external meaningful. The two go together. Having said all this, let me say again that these acts are not about acquiring a greater knowledge of God. God is not another to be known, but the truest self to be realized. We do not do it Jewishly to learn more about God; we do it Jewishly to make God and godliness more present in our everyday lives.

Shabbat Shalom: Is it possible for an individual to know and to interact with God?

Shapiro: I fear I am sounding like a broken record, but the language of the question is already a problem. The individual is a manifestation of God; this is what the Torah means when it says that we are created in the image and likeness of God. We are God, just like a wave is the ocean. So we interact with God all the time. And the more we know our true selves, the more we know them to be God. We are never separated from God. We are only asleep in our fundamental connection with God.

Shabbat Shalom: To what degree is God involved in human history? Does man have free will?

Shapiro: Because God is everything, God is history as well. History is the story of God’s unfolding in our universe. God doesn’t make things happen, nor does God change the course of history. History has no course that is set from the beginning of time. We create history through our actions here and now. Every action has a reaction. Act holy, and history reveals a holy world. Act unholy, and history reveals an unholy world. Both are open to us; it is a matter of what we choose to do. Does that mean we have free will? Yes, within limits. I would like to fly without the need for an airplane or some other device. Can I? No. I can will it, but I cannot make it happen. So there are physical limits to my speaking in these terms. God is no less present in, with, and as us now than before. God does not recognize past and future; God is now, the eternal present. As for sin, everybody sins, and this is never a block to God's realization. Every morning, the religious Jew thanks God for his or her soul and reminds herself that the soul is pure, unsullied by sin. The soul is that level of consciousness that is most closely awake to God. Sin is falling away from the oneness that is God. When we fall away from unity, we act from ego, seeking to control the world and others for our own ends. But we are always capable of returning to godliness because our soul is never trapped in this false sense of separation. Jews are taught that it is a matter of our awakening to our innate nature as God in extension and then acting from that awareness: doing justly, acting kindly, and walking intimately in, with, and as God.

Shabbat Shalom: Has the understanding of God and of worship changed in Jewish history?

Shapiro: Judaism is a 4000-year-old civilization. It has reinvented itself time after time. That is how it has survived. If the ideas of 4000 years ago were to be thrust upon us now, they would be seen as absurd. So, yes, our ideas have changed. Some of these changes are social, some political, and some intellectual. Some are theological. What happens is that over time we give birth to people whose ability to awaken to God is greater than that of the average person and who then teach us the essential unity of God and creation in a manner that is appropriate to our time. From the beginning, Judaism has taught that God is one and there is nothing else but God. But how we learn and live that lesson has evolved over time.

Shabbat Shalom: Has persecution, such as during the Holocaust, changed or diminished the Jewish understanding of God?

Shapiro: Persecution has changed Jewish ideas about God throughout our history. We are always trying to make sense out of what happens to us, and often this requires a revision of old ideas. But ideas are not reality. Ideas about God are not God. God does not change. Reality does not change. Only our way of talking about God and reality changes. In our time, the Holocaust has caused many, many Jews to abandon God. What that means is that the idea of God they had cannot stand up to the murder of 6,000,000 Jews. This says nothing about God but only about that particular idea about God. The sad thing is that for many of these Jews, there is no other idea about God to turn to and no direct experience of God to rely upon. Whenever people try to engage me in theological debates about the Holocaust, I refuse to participate. What we should do is look for other ideas about God, then go beyond all ideas and learn how to experience God and godliness for ourselves through prayer and meditation.

Shabbat Shalom: How widely does the understanding of God vary among today’s Jews? Is it possible to be a Jew and not believe in God?

Shapiro: The old saying, “Two Jews, three opinions,” is no less true today than in the past. Jewish people are free to think whatever they like about God and to deny God altogether. One can be a cultural Jew and have nothing to do with God. Belief is not a determining factor in being a Jew. Judaism, however, is something else. One can be a Jew and have nothing to do with Judaism, the religion. But one cannot be involved with Judaism and not have to wrestle with God. Indeed, the word Yisrael (Israel) means “one who wrestles with God.” I would hope, however, that even religious Jews would go beyond words and beliefs and follow the Bible’s own advice to “taste and see that God is good.” I hope my answers to these questions make sense. Thanks for the opportunity to share my views.

This interview was conducted by Wesley Szamko, a graduate student at Andrews University.

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