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I'm a Believer (But Not In the Right Things)

During a wonderful conversation I had this morning it struck me (once again) why I have such trouble fitting in even with interfaith groups: I am not a believer.

I don’t believe religions are of divine origin; I don’t believe theologies tell us anything about God (though they may tell us a lot about the humans who invent and adhere to them); I don’t believe scriptures are written or revealed by God; and I don’t believe the claims a religion makes about itself are anything more than self-serving marketing slogans.

I do believe all beings are manifestation of a singular Reality I call God; I do believe that we can realize this Reality in, with, and as ourselves through a variety of contemplative practices found in all of the world’s religions; I do believe that when we realize the Divine this way we move beyond religion to a state of open-hearted compassion and hard-headed justice and reason; and I do believe each of the world’s religions and all of their sacred texts contain timeless truths, but that these truths have to be culled out from a lot of time-bound bias and religious propaganda.

My beliefs make it impossible for me to hold “the Jewish line” on anything. Certainly I can challenge misinformation about Jews and Judaism, but I cannot personally assert that the Jews are the Chosen People or that the Torah is the one true revelation, or that Israel is the Promised Land (though I can explain why many Jews do believe these things). As the only rabbi in an entire county, however, I am expected to believe things I have long since abandoned. And when I don’t it is very confusing to people.

I love Judaism as a civilization of argument and doubt; I love its iconoclasm; I love its capacity to hold multiple and conflicting meanings on issues of doctrine, practice, text, and life; I love that Judaism is at home with paradox; but what I love about my people and our civilization is so very hard to get across to those who expect all faiths to be fundamentally creedal: We Jews believe “X;” I’m a Jew therefore I must believe “X” as well, and if I don’t I am no longer a Jew.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for a Christian or a Muslim to deny the divinity of Christ or the authenticity of the Qur’an and still be a Christian or a Muslim. But Jews have been denying the truth claims of Judaism for centuries and still cling to being Jews. I refuse to abandon my people or our civilization, but I wish it were easier to explain the nature of the Jewish mindset.

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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