Be a Heretic


Explore what it means to be a heretic, how to measure the health of your soul, and the importance of Paganism for our time.

I find meaning in religious stories as literature rather than revelation. For this, my believing friends call me a heretic. Do I have to believe in these stories to value them?

RABBI RAMI: Not at all. I, too, love religious stories and find meaning in many of them, and those who mistake story for history call me an Apikoros (Hebrew for heretic). The world needs more heretics, so wear the label proudly.

I’m serious about my physical and spiritual health, and I have tools to measure the former but not the latter. Are there tools to measure the health of my soul?

Here are two: your speech and your checkbook. Listen to the words you speak aloud to others and the ones you say silently to yourself. If your speech is negative and judgmental, if it divides people into warring camps, and if it separates you from those around you, chances are your soul is ill and shriveling. If your speech is measured, caring, and focused on justice, you can assume your soul is healthy.

Then, look at where your money goes. If you spend money on yourself alone or in support of media and organizations that promote fear, falsehood, and othering, this suggests your soul is alienated and unhealthy. If you spend money in service to the wellbeing of humans, animals, and nature, and you support media and organizations that promote truth and justice, your soul is probably healthy. I’m not talking about how much you spend; only where you spend it.

In his sermon this past Sunday, our pastor said Psalm 23:4, “Thy rod and Thy staff shall comfort me,” referred to automatic pistols and assault rifles, and called us to arm ourselves against those whose beliefs differ from our own. How do I respond to that?

A shepherd’s rod is used to ward off predators, and a shepherd’s staff keeps the sheep in line. To equate these with military-style weaponry suggests your pastor is leading your church into a terror-cult. Every religion is susceptible to this poison. My advice to you is this: Get out before you get hurt.

I have been in 12 Step recovery for some time and I’m still struggling with the idea of a higher power. I’m basically an atheist. How can I make peace with this?

In The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. writes of a power greater than yourself: greater, not higher. You can call this greater power God or Nature. The key is to realize that you are more than you imagine yourself to be, and that drawing on this More opens you to the grace of recovery as you work the Steps, one day at a time.

My daughter has renounced her faith and left our church, saying it is more about Q than Christ. Leaving our church is one thing, but leaving Christianity is far worse. What might I say to make her stay a Christian?

I can’t answer this question, but Jesus can: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). To follow Jesus is to love God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy (Matthew 5:44, 22:36-40; 25:31-40). The world is desperate for this boundary-shattering love, and if true Christians are such lovers, ask your daughter to be a true Christian and to risk all for love and the justice that flows from it.

I’m a Pagan. I believe the earth is sacred and I pray to a Goddess rather than a God. My friends think I’m insane, yet I think Paganism is important to our time. What do you think?

For me, nature is a sacred manifesting of God, whom I too encounter as Goddess. As so many religions succumb to violence against nature, women, and “the other,” humanity needs courageous Pagans to point toward an alternative.

I think religion is like the lottery: a scam. Do you agree?

No. Religion differs from a lottery in that winning a lottery can be verified in this life while winning the religious jackpot cannot since winning only takes place after you die. The odds against winning a lottery are so skewed against me, however, that I choose not to play. I feel similarly about religion. Given the number of religions and the claim that only one is true, the odds against me choosing the right religion (and the right sect or denomination within that religion) makes my winning—even if winning is possible—next to impossible. Yet I still play, because for me the value of religion is in the playing not the winning.

My granddaughter and I argue with (and sometimes scream at) one another over abortion. I’m pro-choice; she is pro-life and calls herself the Post-Roe Generation. Is there a spiritual answer to this issue?

Before I answer your question, let me lay out my biases. First, I trust the pregnant over politicians. While some pregnant women and trans men may use abortion indiscriminately, the vast majority take abortion very seriously: consulting their doctor, loved ones, and perhaps counselors, spiritual directors, and clergy before making their decision. Second, as a Jew I accept that personhood starts at birth rather than conception. While the unborn is a human life, it is not yet a human person, and rights are limited to persons. And third, while thoughtful and caring people can disagree on this issue, many who do so are neither: I am wary of those whose position on abortion can be reduced to a chant, a slogan, or a cardboard sign. That said, let me respond to your question.

Spirituality is the practice of seeing the sacredness of all life and acting accordingly. When arguing with your granddaughter, honor her sacredness and engage her with deep humility: listening compassionately and speaking passionately. If you find yourself screaming, however, chances are you have stopped listening and probably stopped thinking as well. When I find myself in difficult conversations, I practice mantra japa: silently repeating Harachaman, a Hebrew name of God meaning “the Compassionate One,” to ground myself in compassion. Spirituality speaks to the quality of your arguing rather than the argument itself.

What is the best religion and spiritual practice?

The best religion is one that teaches the sacredness of self and other. The best spiritual practice is one that awakens you to the truth of that teaching.

Be A Heretic

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