The Theosophical Society in America

Justice and Mercy: An Interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Printed in the  Fall 2017   issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "Justice and Mercy: An Interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro" Quest 105:4(Fall 2017) pg. 10-15, 40

By Richard Smoley 

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has an impressive array of credentials. In the past he has earned rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College and a Ph.D. from Union Graduate School, created a synagogue, worked as a management consultant for Fortune 500 companies, and been initiated into the Ramakrishna Order of Vedanta Hinduism. “Today,” he writes on his website,“I am a freelance theologian making my living writing and talking. I know. I can’t believe it either.” In addition, he has been a longtime student of the Ancient Wisdom.

            He is the author of thirty books, including Recovery: The Sacred Art; The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice; The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice; Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent; and the forthcoming Holy Rascals: Advice for Spiritual Revolutionaries. He is also the editor of The World Wisdom Bible: A New Testament for a Global Spirituality.

            Rabbi Rami came to the TS’s Olcott headquarters in May 2017 to do a lecture and workshop on compassion, and I had the opportunity to interview him during his visit. I was particularly interested in his views on the balance between justice and mercy—a central theme of Jewish spirituality. When we were finished, I took him for a very pleasant drive around the area, including a visit to the nearby BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha Hindu temple and the center for the Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago, which was just up the road in Bartlett, Illinois—two of the most impressive religious sites in the vicinity of Olcott.

            Chris Bolger, head of IT at Olcott, recorded the interview and contributed a question at the end. 


Rabbi Rami Shapiro.Richard: Could you tell us how you became interested in the perennial wisdom?

Rabbi Rami: Since I was sixteen, I was interested in comparative religion. I was always studying Buddhism and Hinduism as well as growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household, but when I found my rebbe, my Jewish rabbinic guru, who was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, he at one point said to me that I am a Jewish practitioner of perennial wisdom, and I resonated with that as well. I look at religion as language, and my mother tongue is Judaism, but I am—at least I desire to be—as fluent as possible in a variety of religions.

I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager, because I think the greater my understanding of the world’s religions becomes, the more nuanced my understanding of reality is, because my vocabulary expands.

Richard: People sometimes criticize this approach for blurring over significant differences between traditions. Do you consider that a problem?

Rabbi Rami: I think it’s an issue. So, for example, Stephen Prothero from Boston University has a book called God Is Not One, and he tries to make the case, and he does it really effectively, that each religion is a unique language. It has its own theology: salvation in Christianity is not enlightenment in Buddhism. You can’t just flip those terms and imagine them to be synonymous. He says each religion has its own unique stance and needs to be honored in its uniqueness.

I have no problem with that. What I’m interested in is the core teaching of the mystics, and then I don’t think there is a difference. There’s language differences, but the mystics know that the language is just a finger pointing to the moon, to use a Zen phrase.

 In 1984, Father Thomas Keating invited me to be part of the inaugural Snowmass Group, where he brought twelve contemplatives from twelve different traditions together to live with him at Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

Our days were structured. We followed the prayer life of the monks who were living in the monastery, but when they were working, we were meditating together and discussing different things. Father Keating had only one rule. He said you cannot talk for your tradition. You can only talk from your tradition, because that’s your language. That’s what you’re steeped in. It didn’t take very long to realize that, even though each of us was following her or his own meditative practice, something was happening, and whatever that something was seemed to be the same for all of us.

When we came back to our normal, waking state of consciousness, we’d all feel lighter, more loving, more compassionate. We lived a more just existence, and we took our own religious traditions less and less literally, and even less and less seriously. We knew they were languages, and we weren’t going to get hung up on semantics, because ultimately we were dealing with something that was ineffable.

Richard: One common theme in many traditions is the problematic nature of human existence. Something is wrong, whether that’s considered to be original sin or dukkha or maya or delusion. All of these point to something that seems to be problematic or defective in the human condition. Where does this come from?

Rabbi Rami: Well, Prothero again takes that model, and it’s sort of a medical model. The religion says you have a disease, or dis-ease, and then it sells you the cure. On one level, that to me is just marketing. If you want me to be a Christian, you’re going to have to convince me I have original sin first. In a sense religion at that level is iatrogenic. You go for the cure, but they give you a disease first. So every religion has its disease, and then it sells you the cure.

 My own sense of it is it’s not a disease. It’s not a bug; it’s part of the software itself. We are broken, we do suffer. Our lives are fundamentally unsatisfactory, in dukkha, when we live the uncontrollable drives of hunger and desires. So we’re all broken, but that’s just part of the system. It’s not a problem. It’s just the nature of our reality.

 So can we embrace our own brokenness and see the greater wholeness of which it is a part? That, to me, is the spiritual work—not to stop being broken.

There’s an interesting teaching on this, in Leviticus 19:18, where it says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the early 1800s, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, one of the great Jewish mystics, said, “Don’t read, love your neighbor, rea, as yourself. Read ra, evil.* You shall love your evil, your brokenness, your dark side as yourself because it’s a part of yourself.”

 So you don’t have to fix it. You have to embrace it. The ancient rabbis said that you have to channel that negative energy into something good, but there’s no need to fix yourself, simply to radically accept yourself and everyone else, and then move beyond that.

Richard: That does make a lot of sense, but at the same time, so many religions seem to be focused on sin, as in the Hebrew Bible: sacrificing animals to atone for sin. Again, there’s something wrong that needs to be repaired with the divine. Does that idea make any sense to you?

Rabbi Rami: I think it’s Iron Age BS. It’s the theology of that time. What’s interesting to me is this notion that God in and of God’s own self is somehow broken, and that’s a Kabbalistic notion from the 1500s.

Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that when God created the world, God didn’t know how to do it. It was the first time, he was definitely a novice, and the way it was done, God shattered in the process like Humpty Dumpty.

The notion that God is broken was very compelling, not just to Jewish mystics, but to lay people. They really caught on that God is broken, the universe is broken, and it’s the Jews’ job to try to repair it with justice and compassion.

Isaac Luria came up with this after the Jews were exiled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, and it explained why we were kicked out. His answer was, you healed Spain. You have to leave. You don’t want to leave. You’ve been there a thousand years, you’re comfortable, so the only way I can get you out to the next job site to put together the next piece of brokenness in the divine nature is to have you kicked out. That’s how they understood it. It was no longer a punishment from God. It was part of the job description. We have to keep moving.

The way they would heal the world is not just through ritual, but through a very high level of interaction with animate and inanimate objects and beings. You’d kiss a book, and that was the way of honoring a book. You didn’t waste food, and you treated animals a certain way, and all of this was considered a methodology for healing the universe, which is fundamentally broken.

When you get to the 1700s and the Hasidic movement comes in, the Baal Shem Tov and his early disciples basically said what we’re taking as ontology, as some kind of true scientific fact, is not that—God cannot be broken; God includes the whole and broken and transcends it—but that you and I psychologically are misreading the whole thing.

Richard: What you say brings up a certain dichotomy in the world’s religious traditions. I will oversimplify it greatly here: It would seem that the Abrahamic traditions have conceived of this problematic nature of the universe in terms of a moral error of some sort—sin. Whereas in the East, much of the time, it seems to be a problem of a cognitive error—avidya, ignorance, which is more what you’re pointing toward. So insofar as human existence is problematic, do you see it more as a cognitive problem, so to speak?

Rabbi Rami: Yes, I think it’s a cognitive problem. When the mystics read the Garden of Eden story from the mystical point of view, they notice some things that we miss when we get the Sunday School point of view.

 We imagine that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a sin, but in fact, in the mystical tradition, it’s what God wants you to do. That’s why the serpent is sent, and without getting into the weeds of Jewish Kabbalistic stuff, the serpent is often understood
(because of numerology) to be the Messiah in snake’s clothing.

So God sends the Messiah, puts the forbidden tree in the middle, points it out—sort of reverse psychology. “Don’t do this,” hoping they’ll do it. When they don’t do it, then the snake/Messiah goes to the woman to get her to do it. Why the woman rather than the man?

By conventional thinking, it’s because women are weak, but in the mystical reading—and it comes right out of the Torah itself—the woman is superior to the man in her capacity to become wise.

She saw the tree looked like it would be tasty, but she doesn’t eat it. She saw that it was beautiful just to possess it, but she doesn’t grab it. Only when she sees that it’s wise is she willing to risk her life (because God says, I’ll kill you if you do this). She’s like a Hebrew Prometheus character. She steals wisdom—if, in fact, it’s stealing.

The mystics said we should read this as three different encounters with the tree. The first time she’s wrestling with her natural hungers. It’s delicious-looking, but she masters her physical hunger. The second time she’s attracted to beauty, so it’s more of an emotional thing, but she resists that and masters her emotion. The third time, she’s experiencing an awareness that this is going to transform her intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually, and then she eats it.

Then it says she gave to the man who was with her also, and he ate. Adam eats without any process. She masters the physical, masters the emotional, and takes the risk for the spiritual. Adam just eats it, like Homer Simpson with a donut.

From that point on, we get the punishments. After those punishments are laid out, the language shifts to completely masculine singular language. When God says now that the man—and it excludes her completely—now that the man has taken from the Tree of Knowledge, lest he now reach out and take from the Tree of Life also, we’re going to kick him out of the garden, and only Adam is kicked out of the garden.

The woman is never kicked out. She’s never forbidden from eating from the Tree of Life.

According to the mystics, Adam did not possess wisdom. He got a little more smart, but he’s still spiritually dumb, and if he eats from the Tree of Life, he will be frozen in that state for all eternity.

The woman has processed it. She’s now awake, enlightened, and if she ate from the tree, she could stay in that state forever. So he’s kicked out, and in the next chapter, she is out. The assumption is that she realizes that she now has to guide this guy so that he can become wise also.

Then it says that God places a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the way. Again, the way we’re taught in Sunday School is it means to keep them out. But the Hebrew is ambiguous. The Hebrew simply says to keep the way safe, and the idea is it’s safe for them to come back when she’s finally taught him to process it and become wise on his own, and they can both come back together.

That’s when he names her the mother of all the living. At that point, in a sense, the jig is up, and you realize we’re talking about the Divine Mother, the divine feminine. She exists in every religious tradition.

Richard: Where does evil fit in with the whole picture?

Rabbi Rami: I think there’s palpable evil in the world. Is it simply part of the structure, the way the brokenness is part of the greater whole? I tend to think that’s what it is, that you can’t have evil without good, you can’t have good without evil.

Isaiah 45:7 has God say, “I create good, I create evil, light, darkness, I do all these things.” So I think it’s just built into the pie.

The rabbis say that humanity is born with a capacity for good and a capacity for evil. They say without the capacity for evil, you wouldn’t get married, you wouldn’t build a business, you wouldn’t have children. They’re really talking about concern with the self.

My understanding of it from the rabbinic model is that we have this capacity for self that can go into selfishness, but also a capacity for self that could go to selflessness. You want to stay somehow fluid and be appropriate on that spectrum, depending on the situation that you’re in.

I don’t see evil as a separate, conscious devil character. I think that’s just something we made up. Evil is our capacity to go so far towards selfishness that we do great harm to other people, and then even so far towards selflessness that we are either irrelevant to the world or maybe even do harm to ourselves.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in the 1700s, had this notion—this is way before we had bell curve, but he had the notion of the bell curve. He said that people are born on a spectrum.

On one end you have what he called the rasha. That was the evil person. That person could not do a good thing. It would never even occur to them to do something that wasn’t evil.

Right next to them was the almost-evil  person, and that was someone who thought about doing something good and then said, “Nah,” and did something evil. At the opposite end, you had the tzaddik, who was the pure saint. Next to that was the near-saint, who would say, “I could do something bad—nah, I can’t do it.”

He said those extremes get no demerits, if you’re on the rasha, evil, side, and no points, if you’re on the saintly side, because you have no choice. God has to manifest infinite possibility, those are the extremes, so if you’re a sociopath, a psychopath, we want to put you away because you’re dangerous, but you can’t damn them to hell, because it’s just the way they were made. The same on the saintly side.

So, he said, most of us—and this is where the bell curve comes in—he called them the beinoni, the “in-betweeners.” That’s where we can be selfish, we can be selfless, and we have to ask the question of what’s appropriate at the moment.

You can link it back to Ecclesiastes: there’s a time for everything under heaven, so one of the practices is to basically ask yourself, what time is it? Is it a time for gathering stones? Is it a time for throwing stones? A time for joy, a time for weeping? Whatever it is, the key is to know what time it is and how to respond to that.

Richard: You obviously feel a strong connection with the divine feminine, and you obviously feel that this divine feminine is returning or making herself more manifest in the world. How do you see that happening?

Rabbi Rami: Is there actually a divine feminine, or are we as a species, humans, returning to a level where we can be more aware of that quality? I think it’s the second. I have a hard time imagining volitional beings out there that are consciously doing all these things.

I tend to think that human consciousness is on a spiral going up. It could go down, and sometimes I look at the newspapers and say, “Oh, it’s going down,” but that it’s on a spiral, so we keep going around. We keep hitting the same perennial issues, but maybe at a higher, more conscious level as we do.

The Divine Mother starts to reappear in the late 1800s. Carl Jung, when he died, said the most important thing is the return of the divine feminine. Bede Griffith, I think, said that pretty much on his deathbed.

We’re more aware of her presence in our traditions. Hinduism never lost her, but Judaism, despite having so much feminine language, lost that whole dimension, but it’s returning. So I see that as a hopeful sign. I think it’s us experiencing this feminine dimension, and by feminine dimension I don’t mean it’s all love. It’s more like Kali. It’s a fierce love.

My own experience is of the Divine Mother, whose searing love, for me, or everybody, manifests by burning away everything I’m holding dear, everything I’m clinging to spiritually, theologically, psychologically. Every time I get a grasp on something, then the grace of the Divine Mother takes it away from me.

Richard: I have a question about this view of the return of the Divine Mother. At this point, any value that was traditionally considered as feminine in a positive sense—giving, caring, nurturing, being compassionate—these are the very virtues that seem to be withering away in the world. We see fewer feminine values in this country now than we did fifty years ago. How do you reconcile those two facts?

Rabbi Rami: This is the way I understand it for myself. The more we are opening to her on the one hand, on the other hand we are shutting down because we’re so frightened. We’re so afraid of what might happen.

Just read the newspaper in the United States, and you read about all the horrible things that the government wants to do, and there are millions of women who voted for the current government. So the fact that they’re going to take away health care for millions and millions of people would seem like not a loving, compassionate thing to do, but both men and women are willing to do it.

My argument is simply that when a portion of the population is becoming more open to the divine feminine and the values you’re talking about, another portion is seeing it, being frightened by it, and shutting down.

So now there’s something crazy going on. I’m hoping it’s simply a reaction to the elevation of consciousness; the group that wants to go the other way, it’s their last gasp in this cycle. I have no idea if that’s true, but if not, I can believe it’s the Kali Yuga and the whole thing’s going to hell anyway, so it won’t matter because then we’ll have another Golden Age.

But I’m hoping that that’s not going to happen, and that this is just a reaction to what maybe is the deeper transformation. There’s no guarantee. You can’t sit back and simply say don’t worry about it, God will take care of things.

Richard: One of the main themes of the Kabbalah is a balance between Hesed (mercy) and Din (judgment). A lot of your work has to do with teaching compassion and lovingkindness, so what do you see as the best way to balance these two forces?

Rabbi Rami:  Yes, in the Kabbalah, they are two opposing forces, and only when they’re balanced is there health in the system. The whole Kabbalistic Tree of Life is about balancing these opposing systems. Reb Zalman used to have this thing where you’d stand, and he would look at you, and he was like a spiritual chiropractor. He’d say, “There’s too much Din, too much judgment, not enough compassion. Work on compassion.” The idea was to balance that always.

My own sense is that justice and compassion really are flip sides of the same coin. It’s not that they’re opposing forces. You really can’t be compassionate if you’re not also just, and you can’t really be just if you can’t have compassion. Justice without compassion is violent, and compassion without justice is just wimpiness. So it’s a matter of what the Buddhists would call upaya, skillful means, knowing what’s really necessary here. I don’t think it’s ever just compassion or just justice, as if they were separate, but compassion and justice.

Richard: I have had any number of sincere, practicing, intelligent, educated Jewish friends say that Judaism has no teachings about the afterlife. Could you respond to that?

Rabbi Rami: Judaism has no official teachings about the afterlife. We don’t have a theology. We don’t even have official teachings about God. Really, it’s pretty wide open, but we have a variety of possibilities that different Jewish teachers have entertained. So, for some, and maybe most Jews, the answer is there is no afterlife. You die. That’s it. You’re finished.

Then there are some strands of Kabbalah that say, no, we believe in reincarnation. Some who believe in reincarnation say you get three shots at fulfilling your destiny, and if you don’t do it the first time, you come back, and if not the second, you come back again. If after three chances, you’re still not an awake, aware, loving, caring human being, then you come back as a rock. Not a little rock, but a rock that someone could sit on, and you’ll be a rock until a wise sage sits on you, at which point you enter the reincarnation cycle and you can try again.

There’s a teaching that says when you die, you, the Bible says everyone, goes to a place called Sheol, which is like a Motel 6 where they don’t leave the light on for you. It’s this gray area. Everybody’s there until the resurrection, and then everybody gets out.

We don’t have a notion of eternal damnation. That Judaism just doesn’t have. What speaks to me more powerfully than any of those is the notion that the nondual Jewish mystics have that you arise in the divine and then you simply return to the divine. Then, the question is, is there a personality that survives death? I’m of the school that says no.

What happens to all my experiences? Who knows? I haven’t died that I know of, but one theory says they just go into Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields. They just go into that, and they enter into the human consciousness pool, so people can learn from your experience forever. Some people say it’s that way. Some people say nothing remains, it’s all gone. I have no idea. I find very comforting the idea that I arise from this infinite divinity, and then I return to that.  So that’s my afterlife scenario. You go back to being what you already and always are: the divine, the energy, the universe, whatever you want to call it.

Richard: That’s very powerful and very beautiful. Is there anything else you might add?

Rabbi Rami: Here’s my plea to people of any religious tradition. Lots of people don’t have one, but if you do have one, don’t let them dumb it down for you. There’s this deep, mystical core in every religion that we talked earlier about—this perennial wisdom that everything arises from the one thing, and you can know that directly.

That’s at the core of every religion, and we let our clergy just ignore it and teach us the surface. We should not be satisfied with the surface. We let religion off the hook. We shouldn’t let it off the hook. Whatever your religion is, you’re at the tip of the iceberg, and there’s so much more that, for whatever reason, you’re not being taught.

So my plea is go to the heart of it. Go to the depths of it, and when you’re there, you’ll discover that everyone is at that same deep point. We’ve transcended religion, we’ve transcended language, and now we’re in this spiritual deep point where we gather in silence in the face of or as manifestations of the ineffable.

Chris Bolger: Would you talk a little bit about your thoughts on the Theosophical Society?

Rabbi Rami: I became aware of the Theosophical Society in my teens, and I didn’t even know what it was. I used to spend a lot of time at a used bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts, Johnson’s Bookstore. It was a huge loft with all these books, and there was a lot of stuff from Annie Besant and Mme. Blavatsky and Theosophy.

 At the time, I was just getting into this comparative study of world religions, which is one of the Three Objects of the Theosophical Society. Here was a group that’s been around since the 1870s, I guess, that had been doing this all along, and I was like, “Wow. These people have done the hard lifting. All I have to do is now learn from them.” It was very eye-opening.

Then I lost track of it. It fell off my radar. I went to the university. I got degrees in different religions, but when I rediscovered Theosophy, and I first came across it just a few years ago at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, and they had a booth. I said, “You’re still here. How amazing.”

Then, when I was invited  to come and speak here, I really felt this was an opportunity to go back to that period in my life when I first found it, but come to it at a much higher level. I am very, very excited that it’s still thriving and that there are still people out there who don’t have to be convinced that there’s a deeper, shared, esoteric perennial wisdom that the religions have, and they don’t have to be convinced that we should study from all of these different religious traditions. Here’s a group that’s been doing this forever, and it’s already inclined to go as deep as they can go with it.

So, my own sense of it is A, hallelujah, and B, it needs a bigger megaphone. I go to places, interfaith conferences, but only at the Parliament did I see the Theosophical Society represented.

So I’m trying to reinvent the wheel. You have the wheel, and it’s not rolling. My concern is that there’s been a disconnect between the gift that the Theosophical Society has and the people who need it. Somehow people have to become reacquainted or acquainted for the first time with the work that the Theosophical Society is doing and has been doing for so long. This is a gift that has to be sent out again so people unwrap the genius that it has to offer. I guess being here now is such a gift for me personally.


[*] In Hebrew, these two words are spelled exactly the same.