Q: What can I do not to get angry when fundamentalists bludgeon me with their religion?
Rabbi Rami: Practice compassionate curiosity, and listen carefully to their beliefs and concerns. The fundamentalists I have known inhabit an anxious and fear-filled world where God, the afterlife, difference and diversity, and even their own thoughts and feelings are problematized. When you understand the enormity of their fears, your heart will break and you will embrace them with kindness even as you reject their theology and resist their politics.
I’m not Christian and hate it when store clerks wish me “Merry Christmas.” How do you handle this?
For me this goes way beyond Christmas. I resent being told to “Have a nice day!” Maybe I want a crappy day. And when people say, “Take care!” I’m infuriated by the assumption that without their intervention I would live carelessly. And when they say, “God bless you” I demand to know which God they have in mind. So yes, when people wish me “Merry Christmas”—by which they mean “May this be a season of hope and peace for you and all humankind”—I, like you, am deeply offended. Then I realize how silly this is, and say with all sincerity, “Thanks! Merry Christmas to you, too.”
I don’t belong to a synagogue and wonder if community is all that important?
Community can be invaluable in any religion, but I would distinguish between community and crowd. A community is a network of people who know and care for one another. A crowd is just a large of number of people who show up at the same place at the same time to engage in the same behavior. If a synagogue offers community, consider joining. If it simply houses a crowd, don’t bother.
I don’t want to offend anyone, so what’s the right Christmas gift to give my Jewish and Muslim friends?
Jews and Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, and no gift is necessary. If you still want to give something, however, let me be clear as to what not to give: fruitcake; especially a regifted fruitcake from last Christmas. And avoid giving anything even remotely associated with pork or pork products. Other than that feel free to gift friends with anything you think they would appreciate. No real friend will take offense at a sincere act of gift giving.
We’re Muslim Americans and my kids want a Christmas tree. This may be a crazy thing to ask a rabbi, but is it kosher for a Muslim to have a Christmas tree?
You asking the question is no crazier than me answering it, but I would say no, it isn’t hallal for a Muslim to have a Christmas tree. Here’s why: whether you associate the tree with pre-Christian paganism or with 15th century German Christianity it has nothing to do with Islam. I suggest you use the Christmas season to share with your children what Muslims do believe about Isa and his mother Maryam. So, yes to Jesus, yes to Mary, yes to presents, but no to tree.
President Jimmy Carter is facing his death with equanimity and grace, while I am terrified of dying. Where do I go when I die?
Nowhere. You are a unique, precious, and never to be repeated “wave” of an infinite and endlessly waving “ocean” I call God. Where was your wave before being waved? Nowhere. Where does it go when it is no longer waved? Nowhere. You were God before you were born, you are God now, and you will still be God after you die. Know this and you will be as calm and graceful in the face of death as Jimmy Carter.
I’m Christian and my daughter married into a Jewish family and my son converted to Islam and married into a Muslim family. I want them all to come visit me for Christmas, but I’m afraid my love of Jesus will make everyone uncomfortable. Should I just forget about Jesus in the interest of family harmony?
On the contrary: Ask your Jewish family to read David Zaslow’s Jesus: First-Century Rabbi and share ideas from the book that speak to them. Ask your Muslim family to read Tarif Khalidi’s The Muslim Jesus and share teachings from the book that they find affirming. And ask your Christian family to read Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth and share insights from the book that moved them. Put Jesus at the center of Christmas, and in this way deepen you’re sense of being a differently believing and yet deeply loving and inclusive family.
Despite all efforts to the contrary, I will be the same person on January 1st that I was on December 31st. How can I make myself new?
You’re going about this all wrong. On January 1st be the exact same person you were on December 31st. Think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, say the same words, and do the same things. And when you realize you can’t do any of this because everything is constantly changing and is always new—just relax.
I’m pregnant with my first child. What can I do to ensure that she knows God from the moment she’s born?
I think you have this backwards. Your daughter is a unique manifestation of God born knowing God in a way that is uniquely her own. Over time, however, she will be taught to repress her knowing of God and accept some idea about God in its place. Your challenge isn’t to help your daughter know God, but to protect her from those who want her to forget God and believe in their theology instead.
One for the Road
My little one is old enough to ask the tough questions. Today it was this: “Why did God make Jesus if He knew Jesus was going to die? Why is dying better than living? Why didn’t Jesus live longer so he could love us longer?” How would you answer these?
Share your responses at spiritualityhealth.com/one-for-the-road.
Author and teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro has been called “one of the best bridges of Eastern and Western wisdom.” His newest book is Embracing the Divine Feminine.