Rabbi Rami: Everyone Says “Follow Your Heart.” But How?

Rabbi Rami: Everyone Says “Follow Your Heart.” But How?

Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler


I have a terrible time making decisions. Everyone says, “Follow your heart,” but how?

Rabbi Rami: Forget your heart and follow your stomach. Work through your options two at a time. Label one “heads” and the other “tails.” Flip a coin to see which option physics chooses for you. Then check your gut: Is it tight and resistant, or relaxed and welcoming? Keep flipping through your options until your stomach says yes. Sometimes, of course, your stomach has no opinion. In those cases assume you’re stressing over the irrelevant; not every decision is worth making. Sometimes your stomach rejects every option. In those cases follow your heart.

I work for a very progressive company that offers yoga and mindfulness classes to reduce stress and increase productivity. Does this work?

Yes it does, and that concerns me. The purpose of yoga is to awaken you to the Absolute. The purpose of mindfulness is to reveal the impermanence of life, and to cultivate compassion toward all the living. Using these practices to become a more productive cog in the consumerist machine is not what Patanjali or the Buddha had in mind.

I love my faith, but the worship is lacking. Any idea what might be missing?

What’s missing, I suspect, is alchemy—transforming the lead of self into the gold of spirit. Too many houses of worship replace poetry with propaganda, spontaneous passion with scripted emotionality, and self-transcending ecstasy with self-help platitudes. Religion has been robbed of its punch and purpose. Myth and story are mistaken for science and history. Perennial Wisdom is buried beneath a barrage of New Age clichés. Soaring music is exchanged for sentimental kitsch. Chanting that uplifts the soul is reduced to responsive readings that flatten it. And silence, the true liberator of the spirit, is banished almost entirely. If religion is to be more than an arm of commerce and politics it must reclaim and reimagine its ancient and timeless tools—myth, story, wisdom, music, chant, and silence—and use them to challenge ignorance, injustice, barbarism, and uncritical thinking masquerading as truth.

My mother is dying and wants a religious funeral. I’m an atheist and have no interest in the rituals of her faith. I want to honor my mom, but the funeral is for the living, isn’t it?

What would you do if you were planning your mom’s birthday party, and she expressly asked for chocolate cake while you prefer vanilla? My guess is you’d have a chocolate cake for your mom, and a vanilla cake for those who don’t like chocolate. Do the same regarding her funeral: Follow her wishes, and add readings and rituals you find meaningful as well. In this way you honor the living and the dead.

We are Catholic but send our four-year-old daughter to a Jewish preschool. Now she wants to be Jewish. What should we do?

Let her be Jewish the same way you let her be a ballerina, a pirate, a superhero, a scientist, a princess, or a soccer star. Let her enjoy the various costumes humans invent, and experiment with the different games we play and beliefs we hold. As she matures, those that suit her will stay with her, and those that don’t won’t. If she reaches adulthood and still wants to be a pirate, you might worry a bit, but until then relax and encourage her to play as widely as she desires.

My nephew’s dog Allie died, and I told him, “Allie went to heaven.” What he heard was, “Allie went with Kevin.” Now he wants to know who Kevin is and where Kevin went. What do I say?

You told him a story about heaven, now tell him one about Kevin. Kevin is an angel who takes all dogs to a great farm in a faraway land where they are well cared for and play all day. Only dogs can see Kevin or visit the farm, and he loves them the way your nephew loved Allie. Eventually, of course, you will have to tell him that Kevin is made up. Do this when he starts to doubt Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the future viability of Social Security.

My favorite teaching of Jesus is “the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). It comforts me to know that the 1 percent will suffer while I revel in their luxuries. When do you think this will happen?

Perhaps it has happened already. Perhaps in a prior life you were among the first and in this life are now among the last. But no worries, since as one of the last now you will be first again, though that may be worrisome because being first will only doom you to being last again. Or maybe you are missing Jesus’ point altogether. In Jesus’ Kingdom there are no firsts and lasts, no winners or losers, no saved and damned, no chosen and not chosen, no true believer and infidel. The Kingdom is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all game of “us against them,” but a nonzero celebration of “all of us together.” The Kingdom is around you and within you (Gospel of Thomas 77b), so this will happen whenever you choose to stop playing your game, and start playing Jesus’ game.

I am a Conservative and worry about young girls having to share the ladies room with strange men. What’s your solution to the transgender bathroom crisis?

I feel similarly about young boys having to share the men’s room with strange men as well, but equating transgendered people with pedophiles is completely inaccurate. The solution is simple: Rather than label restrooms “Men” and “Women,” label them “Liberal” and “Conservative.”

One for the Road

I believe everything happens according to God’s will. Six months ago my neighbor, driving drunk, caused an accident that killed her 12-year-old daughter. Did God do this to teach her sobriety? Couldn’t God have found a better way? What kind of God do I believe in?!?

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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.

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