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Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler.

Byline: Rabbi Rami Shapiro

To these perennial questions, I offer some answers -- not to close a conversation but to broaden one. I make no claim to knowing anything you don't know, but if I can help you remember what you already do know, I am blessed.

Watching the news every day, I am so concerned that religion, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is killing us. Is there a way to reconcile these three faiths?

The problem with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is not with each religion but with the level at which we engage them.

On the tribal level, each one competes with the other over whom God loves best: Isaac, Jesus, or Ishmael. Such competition also exists within each religion itself: Shiite versus Sunni, Catholic versus Protestant, Orthodox versus Liberal, etc. At this level of engagement, winners are determined by body counts, both in terms of the numbers of living members and the number of dead competitors. Hence, the daily news.

On the worldly level, these three faiths see all humankind within the sphere of God's love and concern. Each one promotes an ethic of universal justice and compassion that leads to religious collaboration rather than competition. The issue is not whom God loves best, but how best to love God and God's creation -- and all three faiths have much to offer each other, as well as the world.

On the mystical level, God's concern embraces all life. All three faiths understand God as the One True Reality of which all beings are a part. On this level, each faith is seen by its practitioners as self-transcending, pointing toward the Absolute Reality beyond religious forms and formulae. Here, Jews, Christians, and Muslims gather together in silent meditation, ecstatic chant, and prayer -- sharing their ways to get out of the way of realizing the One who is all.

We need to understand all three levels of religion and promote the voices of the ethicists and mystics within each faith, rather than the shrill and fearful screams of fanatics who hew to the tribal vision of their religion. This would require support, on the financial as well as political level, for higher-level interfaith gatherings, something we have yet to see on a global scale.

I would like to practice meditation, but it's too time-consuming. Is there an alternative?

Yes, there is: Wake up! Wake up to the fact that you are not your body, your thoughts, or your feelings. Wake up to the fact that you are a wave of God's ocean. And then wake up from that awakening, and realize that ocean and wave are both water and you are that as well! If you know this -- not intellectually, but the way you know your thumb when you hit it with a hammer -- then meditation is unnecessary. If you don't know this, meditation is indispensable.

Let me suggest a meditation practice that is profoundly simple, universal, and transformative: the repetition of a divine Name that resonates with you: Jesus, Adonai, Allah, God, Krishna, or Buddha. Find a Name and repeat it silently all day long. Make it your constant companion. When you notice you are not repeating it, start repeating it. The repetition of a Name reminds you of God, and calls you to be godly. You are God manifest in your time and space in order to bring justice and compassion to bear on this moment. Knowing this, living this, is meditation.

I think religious people make things mysterious in order to mask the fact that they don't know what they are talking about. If you can't articulate your philosophy on a bumper sticker you're probably BS'ing me. What is your bumper sticker truth?

Here it is: Neti Neti ("Not this. Not that."). This Sanskrit saying from the Upanishads is all I know: whatever Reality is, it isn't what I imagine it to be. Knowing this is humbling and at the same time enlivening, opening me to a sense of wonder and curiosity. Neti Neti cultivates an intellectual fearlessness, taking refuge in nothing, simply being open to whatever is. Neti Neti means that the answer to every existential or spiritual query is, "I don't know, let's go see." Neti Neti doesn't mean I have no opinions, it means that I know they are only opinions. Neti Neti allows me to befriend people who think I'm crazy, and people who are, I am certain, crazy themselves. That's my bumper sticker. If you want to make me one, I'll stick in on my car.

Do you believe Jesus walked on water?

No, I don't. But Christ may have.

Jesus was a first-century Jewish sage who died because he challenged Rome's kingdom of cruelty and power with God's kingdom of justice and compassion. Christ is the state of consciousness Jesus attained, the state of awareness we need to cultivate in order to do as Jesus did: live out the consequences of God's kingdom. The real question isn't, "Did Jesus walk on water?" but rather, "What does it mean that Christ walks on water?"

Water is a metaphor for life -- constantly ebbing, flowing, and changing. To walk on water is to navigate the sea of impermanent, ever-changing reality. Most of us fear impermanence and desperately cling to anything that promises us permanence. Yet permanence is not the nature of reality, and the pursuit of permanence exhausts us. Rather than seek to overcome the laws of nature, we must put on the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), the mind that lets us let go of the illusion of permanence and surrender to the grace of God.

I can't follow a supernatural Jesus who defies the laws of physics and literally walks on water, but I will follow the human Jesus who shows me how to put on the Christ mind and navigate the uncertainty of life with joy and gladness, love and compassion.

I am 60 years old and still I don't understand the purpose of suffering -- particularly the suffering of innocent people. And most particularly innocent children. Can you give me an answer or an explanation?

I wish I could explain why such things happen, but none of the theories I have encountered work for me. Suffering is simply a reality. Evil is simply part of the warp and woof of humanity. To explain it away, to deny evil is real, or to hide behind the notion that it is all part of God's plan seems shallow and even callous to me. Good and evil exist for the same reason that up and down exist, and right and left exist. Good and evil go together and we cannot have one without the other. There is no "why" here.

I've always wondered why the Jews didn't accept Jesus, one of their own, as their savior/messiah?

Most Jews do accept Jesus as one of their own. He was born to a Jewish mother, so he is as Jewish as I am. Accepting Jesus as the messiah is something else. From a Christian perspective, Jesus solves a problem Jews don't have. Christians (and I am using a broad brush) believe that humans suffer from original sin, that the death and resurrection of Jesus can save you from the consequences of that sin. Jews don't believe in original sin. I welcome Jesus as a great prophet, teacher, rabbi, and Wisdom Sage. I have no use for him as the cure for original sin. Of course, if I am wrong I am going to Hell, so think for yourself.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, and teacher. His most recent book is The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. To send him questions, email His online column is at
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Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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