Rabbi Rami: Should I Feel Guilty about Being Happy?

Rabbi Rami: Should I Feel Guilty about Being Happy?


Rabbi Rami answers your spiritual questions.

Reader Question: My life has been blessed in so many ways, yet I feel guilty being happy when there is so much suffering in the world. What should I do?

Rabbi Rami: Unless your blessings come to you unjustly, illegally, or unethically, your guilt is self-indulgent. Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon taught, “While it is not up to you to complete the task (of saving the world), neither are you free to abandon it” (Avot 1:16). Do something to make the world a little kinder and more just for your having been born into it, and enjoy all the legitimate blessings that come your way.

The last 12 months have been hell for me: divorce, illness, and loss of full-time employment. My friends insist everything turns out for the best. Is this true?

Since everyone’s perspective is partial, no one can know what is “best,” and saying everything turns out for the best is simply a dodge that allows your friends to sound helpful without being helpful. True friends don’t point out some hoped-for paradise just over the horizon; true friends help you walk through the shadowed valley of death (Psalms 23:4) you are in now.

Do you believe our souls choose the lives we live before we are born?

While this helps explain why bad things happen to good people, I worry that such thinking hardens us to the suffering of others. After all, if people contracted for suffering, who are we to alleviate it? The point of life is living kindly, justly, and humbly now, and not dwelling on some imagined before and after.

I’m deeply moved by the teachings of Jesus, but not drawn to Christianity. How can I explain this to Christian friends?

Make a clear distinction between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was a first-century rabbi whose religion was Judaism—understood as love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:29–31, citing Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18). Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who died as ransom for our sins “that whosoever believes in him should not die, but gain eternal life” (John 3:16). Christ is to be worshipped (Matthew 2:2; 14:33); Jesus asks only to be followed (Matthew 16:24). Worshipping Christ makes you a Christian. Following Jesus makes you a mensch (a loving and just human being).

My friends and I play this game: If you were moving to a planet without religion, what half-dozen books would you bring to establish one? Your answer?

I prefer pointing toward Truth to establishing a religion. In this regard, I would bring Talks with Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti’s First and Last Freedom, Alan Watts’s The Book, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. And, if I can squeeze it into my carry-on, a copy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If God exists in space/time, then God’s not God. If God exists outside of space/time, then God’s irrelevant. Do you have an alternative?

God isn’t in space/time or outside space/time, God is space/time—what the ancient rabbis called HaMakom (literally, The Place), and St. Paul defined as “that in which we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is Reality, and space/time is a part of that Reality. There is no alternative to that.

Richard Dawkins says raising children in a religion is child abuse. I’m a devout Catholic. I believe “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 846). What’s wrong with raising my children to believe the same?

In 1858, Italian Catholic authorities broke into the home of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy secretly baptized by his Catholic nanny, and took him from his parents to be raised as a Catholic by Catholics. (Edgardo became a priest at the age of 21, and died in Belgium in 1940.) Despite great protest, Pope Pius IX refused to release Edgardo, believing he was acting in the boy’s best interest: “All salvation comes from Christ.” Weren’t Edgardo’s parents abusing their son by denying him salvation? Pope Pius thought so. Was he wrong?

The older I get, the less a “joiner” I become. Is this normal?

As I enter my later 60s I find most people annoying, and most organizations more annoying still. I was never a “joiner” unless I could also be “the leader,” but now I don’t even want that. I feel little need for community, and none whatsoever for the politics community necessitates. I’m not saying this is good or normal, it’s just what is true for me at this moment. My advice: Be present to what is true for you in this moment, know that things may change in the next moment, and forget about the idea of “normal.”

My kids are asking hard questions about God, fairness, and death. I tell them they will get the answers when they are older. What would you say?

I’d praise your kids for asking great questions, and help them understand that the greatest questions have no answers—and in fact invite ever deeper questioning. Train your children to ask questions and to question every answer.

I know your magazine isn’t political, but will you unabashedly condemn Islamic extremism and the violence it promotes?

Too easy! I condemn every religion that excuses, sanctions, or promotes violence in this life, and/or fantasizes about violence in an afterlife. I challenge every believer to do the same, even if the religion they condemn is their own. I’ll start: I condemn, reject, and refuse to support any Judaism that excuses, sanctions, or promotes violence, oppression, and exploitation of Palestinians, women, LGBTQ folks, other Jews, animals, nature, and anyone with whom it disagrees. Now it’s your turn.

One for the Road

I’m dying. My doctors say I have six months to a year left to live. I’ve made peace with this. But when I look at my bucket list, everything in it seems so frivolous. How should I spend my last days?

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