Rabbi Rami on being authentic, spirituality vs. religion, and aliens.
Q: I have a dear friend who is always urging me to find my authentic self. How do I do that?
Rabbi Rami: The self is a never-ending flow of sensation: physical, emotional, and intellectual, none more authentic than another. Being authentic isn’t a state of being but a trait of behavior. Different religions and philosophical systems articulate this trait in different ways, but the core is always the same: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another” (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a). This is the only authentic self you need. You don’t find it. You live it.
Q: Our son came home from college over the holidays and announced he was a born-again Christian. We are Jews, and he insists we convert lest God burn us in hell. What can I say to him about this?
Rabbi Rami: If he were my son, I’d ask him if he loves me regardless of my religion. If he says he does, I’d ask him why he is choosing to worship a God whose capacity to love is less than his own. This might open a conversation that would soften his views if not change his faith. If he says he doesn’t love me, I’d stop paying his college tuition.
Q: The more I learn about climate change, the guiltier I feel over how I live my life. What can I do to feel less guilt?
Rabbi Rami: Guilt arises from doing things that yield results you know to be harmful, hurtful, and/or immoral. If you want to feel less guilt, stop doing those things. But you knew that. What you really want to know is how you can continue to do what you want to do without feeling guilty about doing it. You can’t. So, either learn to live with your guilt or change the way you live.
Q: Moments before she died, I said something horribly hurtful to my mom. I stormed out of her hospital room, calmed down a bit, and then walked back in to apologize, but she had already died. Now I can’t get over the notion that she hates me from the grave. Is this possible?
Rabbi Rami: No. No matter how one dies, death is the purging of ego and the thoughts and feelings that define it. As she died your mom awakened to the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and experienced a deep love from and for all reality. Your mom forgave you and died loving you. If she wishes anything for you now that she is gone, it is that you come to know while alive what she came to know as she died: the love that arises from realizing the unity of all beings in, with, and as that nondual Reality many call God.
Q: I’m fascinated by the idea of finding human-like beings on other planets. What impact would that have on religion here on Earth?
Rabbi Rami: Not much. Liberal religionists have long since recognized the limitations of their Earth-centric myths and would welcome these new neighbors and learn from them. Conservative religionists would see them as potential converts and set out into space to proselytize them. In time, gurus from these planets will set up shop in Los Angeles, where they will market their off-world religions to humans largely marginalized and dominated by a self–governing AI– driven capitalist economy that sees carbon-based lifeforms, regardless of the planet from which they come, as essentially useless.
Q: I’m an alcoholic. Not a recovering alcoholic, but an active alcoholic. I believe in God and pray to God every day to lift this curse from me, but nothing changes. I will do whatever God wants of me. Can it be that God wants me to be an alcoholic?
Rabbi Rami: Yes. God wants you to be an alcoholic. God wants you to be an alcoholic so you can get into a recovery program, live a life of sobriety and integrity, and share your experience with other alcoholics. Now, go do what God wants.
Q: I am dying a slow and increasingly agonizing death. I’m considering moving to a state that allows doctor-assisted death and have asked my daughter to help me make the move. She says God will punish me for this and punish her for helping. I do believe in God, but I don’t believe in a God this cruel. What can I say to enlist her aid?
Rabbi Rami: I doubt there is anything you can say, and I’m not sure getting her to change her mind is your first priority or even a good idea. If you did convince her to help you, she might suffer tremendous guilt and anxiety after you are gone. Instead talk with your doctor and investigate organizations like Compassion and Choices (compassionandchoices.org) and World Federation of Right to Die Societies (worldrtd.net).
Q: I’m spiritual but not religious. A co-worker asked me to explain the difference, but I couldn’t. What would you say to her?
Rabbi Rami: Religion is about answers, spirituality is about questions. Five questions in particular: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where do I go when I die? How should I live? and Why? Each religion offers its own set of answers to these questions and expects believers to adhere to them. Spirituality asks you to live with the questions and to question any answer that arises in response to them. Because religion is about answers, the religious are often (though not always) belligerent in their defense of their beliefs. Because spirituality is about questions, spiritual people are often (though not always) humble in their not knowing. If you say you are spiritual but not religious, make sure you are about inquiry and humility rather than belief and belligerence.
Q: My pastor says God chose President Trump to lead us now and in the future. Does this mean I have to vote for him in November?
Rabbi Rami: No, it means your vote is irrelevant because the election is rigged: not by billionaires or corporations or Russia and certainly not by Ukraine, but by God. If God wants Mr. Trump to win a second (or third or fourth) term as President, then Mr. Trump will win. That’s what it means to be God: You get to pick winners and losers in religion, politics, and sports. If you trust your pastor, don’t bother to vote at all and leave the election in the hands of God. If, however, you believe in American democracy, then vote your conscience even if God votes otherwise.
Q: I broke up with my boyfriend because he insisted my religious beliefs were false. Now I’m doubting them as well. Should I try to reconcile with him?
Rabbi Rami: This isn’t about him it’s about you. Allow your doubts to ripen and your beliefs to drop away until you find yourself spiritually naked before the Truth. Then doubt the Truth as well. Eventually you will come to a place free of -isms and ideologies where only love abides. From this place you can reconcile with your boyfriend, though I suspect by that time you will find him far too narrowminded for you.