A couple of weeks ago during a Q&A session after a talk I gave I was asked, “Why aren’t you a Christian?” I was intrigued by the question and its corollaries: Why I’m not a Muslim, Hindu, etc. Here are some thoughts on each of these.
Why I’m Not a Christian
Christianity is based on the following proposition expressed so beautifully in the Gospel According to John:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3: 16-18, NRSV)
I can’t accept any of this. First I don’t believe that love, even God’s love, necessitates the murder of one’s child. Second, I don’t believe that God has a son. Third, I don’t believe in eternal life if by this we mean the unending existence of an egoic self capable of belief or disbelief. Fourth, I do not believe that people are saved or condemned by God, and, if God were in the saving and condemning business the criteria God would use for making the distinction would not be based on belief but on behavior. So I can’t be a Christian.
Why I’m Not a Muslim
Islam is rooted in the Shahada, from the verb šahida “he witnessed”: Lā ʾilāha ʾilá l-Lāh, Muḥammad rasūlu l-Lāh, There is no god but Allah (God), and Muhammad is the messenger of God. A Muslim is one who accepts this testament of faith and voluntarily submits to the will of Allah as expressed in the Qur’an that Allah dictated to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.
Again I cannot accept this. First, I don’t believe in a God who dictates books. Consequently I don’t believe Muhammad was the recipient of a divine Book or that the Qur’an is the word of God; for me, all sacred texts are written by people. Third, I cannot abide by the idea of submission to the will of God as expressed in Islam when I am convinced that Islam, like all religion, is a human creation. While I can believe that there is nothing other than God, and that Muhammad was a bearer of this insight, I cannot believe that Islam is what God wants. So I can’t be a Muslim.
Why I’m Not a Hindu
While it is true that the nondual teachings of Advaita Vedanta (an ancient and on-going school of Indian thought) are so close to my own personal beliefs that it is impossible for me to reject them, and that the teachings and practices of Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and Nisargadata Maharaj are central to my life, still I am not a Hindu.
First I am not a Hindu because I cannot accept the notion of karma and reincarnation central to almost all systems of Hindu thought. Second, I cannot believe the Vedas, the founding scripture of Hinduism, are divine. Third, I cannot abide by the caste system or submit to the authority of gurus. So while I borrow much from Indian philosophy, I cannot call myself a Hindu.
Why I’m Not a Buddhist
Many people insist I am a Buddhist, and I admit that there is much in Buddhism that I find compelling especially the notions of pratityasamutpada (the interdependence of all things in a singular system of ever changing reality), sunyata (the notion that all things are in the process of emptying and no thing is ever permanent), the bodhisattva ideal that elevates the goal of human life to the alleviating of human suffering, and the linking of prajna (wisdom) with karuna (compassion), yet I am not a Buddhist.
I am not a Buddhist because I cannot shake the notion that there is a permanent process reality out of which and into which all things rise and fall, and that there is an atman, a greater Self of which all egoic selves are a part—two ideas anathema to Buddhism. Oh, and I talk about God all the time, something that Buddhists never do.
Why I’m Not a Jew
Of course I am a Jew. My mother is Jewish and her mother was Jewish and her mother was Jewish all the way back to Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Or so I’m told. But I’m tribally Jewish, culturally Jewish, and not so much religiously Jewish. And the reason I’m not religiously Jewish is not surprising.
Judaism as a religion posits a Creator God who chose the Jews, set aside a Promised Land, and revealed both Torah both written and oral, and I can’t believe in any of this. While I personally keep kosher and observe Shabbat, I do so in my own way, and can’t imagine a god obsessed with my diet and how I spend my Saturdays. So while I am proud to be a Jew, my pride is rooted in our history of iconoclasm and our passion for justice rather than our allegiance to rabbinic law.
What I love about being Jewish is that you can be a heretic and still remain in the family; or at least the liberal end of the family. As I understand it the ban against Spinoza is still enforced among the Orthodox.
Why I’m Not Religious
The truth is I’m just not very religious. The reason why is simple enough: I don’t like being told what to do. I have a terrible time submitting to the will of rabbis, priests, preachers, imams, swamis, masters, and gurus of any kind. I like to learn what the world’s religions have to say, but I am not keen on spouting it back as what I have to believe. I find great value in some of the teachings and practices of the world’s religions but not enough in any one religion to bring me into the fold of that religion.
As soon as I admit this another question is raised: Why then am I still a rabbi? There are three ways I can answer this, each is true but only the third is personally motivating.
The first reason I’m a rabbi is that I spent five long years earning that title and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give it up so easily. The second reason is, “Rabbi Rami” is a brand like Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Drew. I’m not yet cool enough to go with my first name only like Oprah, Cher, and Madonna, so I cling to the title “rabbi” and slog on.
I admit to the cogency of these two reasons, and I would be a liar and hypocrite to deny them. But neither is really motivating. What motivates me to remain a rabbi is the sense that I belong to a lineage of rabbis who dared to reinvent Judaism in their own image: Hillel, Jesus, Abraham Abulafia, Isaac Luria, Shabbatai Tzvi, the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Nachman of Breslav, the Alter Rebbe, Isaac Meyer Wise, Mordecai Kaplan, Sherwin Wine, and others. Not that any of these rabbis would agree that the Judaism of the others was Judaism as all, but that each of them refused to play the game as it was handed to them, but invented it anew for themselves and their time.
Nor am I claiming to be of the caliber as these rabbis. I’m not. Nor do I imagine that my legacy is in any way equal to theirs; it is not. Each of them built a movement, and articulated a new Judaism in their wake, while I eschew organizations, have no desire to create a movement, and have no coherent teaching at all. I write books. None of which is divinely revealed.
What I Am
What I am is curious. What I am is an itinerant wanderer through the ideas and spiritual practices of others. What I am is a holy rascal, an iconoclast, an entertainer, a vegetarian who delights in slaughtering sacred cows, and a lover of truth (dare I say Truth?) who wants only to be free and help others be free as well. Being free isn’t the same as being awake, enlightened, saved, or blessed. It is just being free. And for me, at least for now, that is just enough.