Friday, September 18, 2015

Rabbi Rami Shapiro: An Interfaith Conversation

Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Andrew Smith
Rabbi Rami Shapiro joined us for Wake-Up Wednesday this week for the first leg of our interfaith journey.  Shapiro is a prolific author and practical mystic who lives in Murfreesboro. We expected an in depth discussion about Judaism and how it fits into the interfaith web.  What we got was much better. 

Rabbi Rami presented us with a smorgasbord of faith traditions and opened up the conversation to little known pieces of Hebrew translation that make all the difference.  For another curve ball, he even expressed this idea that Judaism, his chosen path, is only one path to a universal truth and ultimate reality, or God, depending on your individual path.

One of the points Rabbi Rami talked about was this idea of drawing teachings from many different faiths.  Yes, all religions are mutually exclusive as religious doctrine.  If you ask a Christian how to get to heaven, she will tell you to accept Jesus Christ into your heart.  No other answer will fulfill her faith requirements.  The same goes for any other religion and whatever their answer may be.  But are there not things we can learn from other faiths that may even enhance our own spiritual journey? 

You may believe that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as your savior, but does that prevent you from learning a thing or two about life from other faith traditions?  We don’t think it should.  We all have something to learn, even if it is just respect, from other faith traditions. 

As Rabbi Rami said, “I was only interested in what worked.”  His statement says it all.  If what works for an individual on his or her path to this universal truth we all so desperately seek happens to be a collection of teachings and beliefs from a multitude of faiths, who are we to say that person is wrong?

As a translator, Rabbi Rami was able to give us some insights into the original Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  Certain words or phrases can often get lost in translation causing us to lose the original meaning of the text.  One such instance occurs when Abraham is called in Genesis 12 to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 ESV).  Another translation of the Hebrew could be “go inside yourself” instead of “go from”.  This interpretation changes everything.  It makes Abraham’s journey and our own journey not one of physical travel but one of pscyhospiritual exploration.  It calls us to free ourselves from ourselves rather than the external world so that God can do His work.  The translation means everything. 

Another translation issue Rabbi Rami spoke about comes in the opening lines of Ecclesiastes. The English translation says “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV).  The Hebrew word that was translated into “meaningless” is hevel, which can also mean “impermanent.” This completely changes how we read this entire book.  Rabbi Rami put his understanding of the text like this, “Life is no more permanent than the morning dew.”  Nothing in life can be meaningless.  Even a single drop of morning dew is meaningful.  It is God—or a piece of God.  It becomes words to a poet and perfection to a painter.  We simply cannot reconcile ourselves to a life where anything is meaningless.  It hurts more the more meaning you have, but imagine carving your heart out of your chest every day, rather than sit with absolutely nothing where everything should be.  A simple translation difference can change a life perspective. 

One of the most powerful pieces of our talk with Rabbi Rami came when he talked about this idea that God cannot be named but only experienced.  A brilliant illustration of this came when he explained about contemplatives (people who spend their lives praying and meditating) of different religions coming together to meditate in their own way and having a discussion about their experiences.  Rabbi Rami said that no matter what faith each person came from, he or she had the same experience as everyone in the group.  Each person experienced this oneness with God. 

Alternatively, he or she experienced God even though each person would have a different name for what they were experiencing.  No matter your faith, God can be anywhere.  We may not be able to put a name to what we’re experiencing, though we’ve been using the term “God” throughout this blog simply from habit or lack of a better term at the present time or because of the comfort that familiarity brings.

Perhaps the most fascinating piece of our evening was Rabbi Rami’s discussion on goddesses and femininity in the Bible and religion in general. In the original Hebrew text, the Holy Spirit is feminine.  Just another thing we lost in translation. 

Mary could be said to be a type of goddess particularly in the Catholic tradition.  Protestants tend to shy away from the existence of goddesses or femininity in religion at all, even though Lady Wisdom appears in Proverbs 8: “Does not wisdom call out?/ Does not understanding raise her voice?/At the highest point along the way,/where the paths meet, she takes her stand” (Proverbs 8:1-2 NIV).  The masculine cannot exist without the feminine.  The creative energies of both the masculine and feminine are needed to maintain balance.  More importantly, when the presence of the feminine is acknowledged it must not be with the attributes of soft, delicate, and nurturing only.  In fact, even in Proverbs the feminine is strong calling her people to understand their own failings. 

Students crave meaningful interfaith conversations that are honest. Surely not everyone shares Rabbi Rami’s interreligious approach, but we all wanted to learn from him, as this was our best attended Wednesday night discussion to date.

Join us next week for a discussion of Islam with Dr. Wali Kharif. 

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