Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, and teacher. In this column, he answers reader-submitted questions pertaining to faith, morality, religious traditions, and other spiritual ponderings. His most recent book is The Rabbi Rami Guides: Parenting (Spirituality & Health Books). To send him questions, email [email protected]
I’ve lost my job, my house, my health insurance, and now my health. My friends say I’m like Job, that I should confess my sins and beg for God’s forgiveness. But I’m innocent, so why would God hate me?
God didn’t hate Job; he just didn’t care about him. God sacrificed Job’s children and health in a wager with Satan to see what Job would do. I don’t believe in Job’s God, but I do believe in Job. He refused the blame heaped upon him by his “friends,” maintained his integrity, and faced the inscrutability of life without flinching. In the end, God won his bet, and Job recovered. I can’t guarantee you Job’s outcome, but I urge you to follow Job’s path.
My 12-year-old daughter is struggling with her alcoholic father (my ex). His visits, though rare, are a disaster, and she is falling into real despair. She’s tried Alateen and therapy, but nothing works. How can I help her frame and understand her experience?
Your daughter is embarking on a journey of self-discovery, and this includes learning to deal with the darker forces her dad represents. Try reading Jean Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman together. And use Jeremy Taylor’s The Wisdom of Your Dreams to encourage your daughter to start a dream journal as a way of accessing her inner world. I would also suggest a women’s retreat for her next birthday where you, your daughter, her grandmothers, aunts, and other important women in her life gather to share with her what it is to be a woman. Each woman would present your daughter with a “gift of power,” totems of sorts, that she can store in a treasure box, and return to again and again to regain her bearings and reconnect with her goddesses.
I want to devote my life to spiritual pursuits, but so much of what passes for spirituality seems self-serving and narcissistic. How do I know the real thing?
You know you’re on the right path if your capacity for holding paradox expands, your sense of humor broadens, your commitment to justice deepens, your compassion for and protection of life grows, and your love of people transcends race, color, creed, tribe, religion, politics, and sexual preference.
My parents argue all the time over “works versus faith.” Mom says works matter more than faith, dad says the opposite. What do you think?
I think this is a false dichotomy. The greater your love for God, the more you engage the world with godliness. The more you engage the world with godliness the deeper your love of God becomes. Chances are if you don’t engage in both you may not be engaged with either.
A Jewish friend died recently and members of his family placed stones on the grave. When I asked why, they didn’t know. Do you?
Thousands of years ago, Jews would bury their dead and cover the graves with stones to keep wild animals from digging up the bodies and eating them. Whenever Jews passed a grave with scattered stones, it was customary to re-pile them as a sign of respect for the deceased. While animals are no longer a threat to our dead, placing a stone at the grave affirms our ongoing love and respect for those we loved.
I’ve just moved into a new community. How do I find a religious community that’s right for me?
Just as every good restaurant offers helpful service and great food, well presented in a safe and comfortable setting, so every good religion offers helpful service and spiritual food, well presented in a safe and comfortable setting. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, disrespected, or unsafe in either a restaurant or a religion, go somewhere else. It’s fun to broaden your tastes, but chances are, over time, you will prefer one cuisine over another and settle on your favorite restaurant or church. My metaphor isn’t perfect, of course, and breaks down completely when we imagine a restaurant insisting that its customers eat nowhere else and threatening them with social ostracism or eternal damnation if they go elsewhere. Restaurants don’t do this. Some religions do. And when they do, you should ask yourself why you would want to continue going there.
How do I measure the quality of a spiritual teacher? What if he or she teaches independently of any religion?
It doesn’t matter if the teacher speaks for an historical religion or from his or her own experience. If she lives justly (showing respect for others), lovingly (having compassion for others), and humbly (focusing attention on the teaching rather than the teacher), and helps others to do the same, trust her. If not, move on.
I attend church every Sunday, but something is missing. No matter how loud and intense the music, it seems like a cheap high rather than true ecstasy. Any idea what’s missing?
What’s missing is alchemy: the transformation of the lead of ego into the gold of spirit. Too many houses of worship substitute theatrics for shamanism; turn wise myth into bad science; literalize parables; replace transformative chant with cliché pop; use prayer to drape the ego in self-serving bling rather than strip it bare; and remove deep silence, the true leaven of the spirit, from the service altogether. If religion is to be more than an arm of politics and social control, it must reclaim and reimagine myth, parable, chant, prayer, and silence to help people remake themselves in the image of God, rather than remake God in the image of themselves.
I don’t see the value of interfaith panels. Panelists just repeat their respective religious talking points. Is this the best we can do?
There are many levels of interfaith dialogue: sharing accurate information and correcting misinformation, sharing our personal faith journeys, sharing our respective scriptures on topics of mutual interest, working toward shared social goals, etc. All of these are important, but I value most those rare and unscripted conversations where participants are transformed, where they see beyond the different maps they hold sacred and glimpse the common ground that is truly holy.
During a séance, I was confronted by the spirit of my dead aunt, who complained about how I was planning to dispose of her knick-knacks. I have decided to do as she wishes. Am I crazy?
Not at all. While the thought that we can die and still be attached to ego, possessions, and negativity troubles me, I have no need to challenge your sanity. Either your aunt is very strong-willed, or your medium is very attuned to your own ambivalence regarding your aunt’s belongings. Regardless which is true, I would do what your aunt says; she may not feel better, but I suspect you will.
My wife won’t kill an ant. I say it doesn’t matter because in the scheme of things, they are puny and insignificant. Care to take sides?
I’m with you. People killing ants is no different than tornados, floods, hurricanes, wild fires, and tsunamis killing people. It is all a matter of size. Puny humans. Hulk will smash.