‘Everything I need to know I learned on a zafu,’ writes Rami M. Shapiro about his formative experiences studying Zen and meditation. Shapiro, or Rabbi Rami as he is more popularly known, is a rabbi, a Scottish Rite Mason, and an initiate of Vedanta Hinduism. He has written extensively about spirituality from the perspective of liberal Judaism and the extract below is from a book called Open Secrets: The Letters of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael which is a collection of teachings and reflections written through a fictional rabbi for one of his congregation. In it, he addresses the question of spirituality and its relationship to religion, and the way in which the two realities interact and support one another: ‘There is no living sap without a tree to house it.’
My dearest Aaron Hershel,
Your business is good, Sarah Leah is with child, and you still have time for me. I am blessed. And I must admit to being flattered by your letter when you wrote that my letters to you were like messages from the prophets. Flattered, but not fooled. And do not allow yourself to be fooled either. I make no claim to insights. What I think I know of truth is just what I think I know. It is my opinion. It is not Torah mi Sinai (divine revelation). If you find our sharing helpful, good. But do not make more of it than it is.
Now, to your questions about spirituality. This is not a Jewish idea, Aaron Hershel. Should I worry that you are becoming too much the American? I am intrigued by the between religion and spirituality, and perhaps I can learn from it. We shall see.
If I understand your letter properly, spirituality is a personal feeling of connectedness to God that arises outside the confines and structures of what you called organized religion, If you imagine that Judaism is organized I suspect you have not been to shul lately. A more disorganized religion I cannot imagine. But I understand what you mean. Do we need religion or can we rely on our inner feeling of connectedness to God?
“Do we need religion or can we rely on our inner feeling of connectedness to God?”
If we were all prophets and sages, if we were all capable of setting aside the self and opening to the insights and truths of God, then I would say: No, we do not need religion for each of us would tap the One God, the God that is oneness, and know for ourselves what is true. And this knowing would be the same for all of us. Look to our prophets. They lived at different times and in differing circumstances, yet their message is a shared call for justice and compassion. Did they need the organized religion of their day? No.
We need religion because for many of us access to the higher worlds is too difficult to achieve. We need religion to remind us that these higher worlds exist, even if we ourselves cannot reach them. We need religion to point to the truths these higher worlds impart. We need religion to help us put our self-centered lives in a larger context so that we can appreciate the mysteries of birth, love, and death.
Of course, the religion we need is a religion of great humility; a religion that does not lay claim to being the sole embodiment of truth; a religion that can laugh at itself and reform itself and continually realign itself with truth rather than the distortions of truth that happen over time. I suspect that the religion we need is itself in need, and what it needs is this spirituality of which you speak.
“The religion we need is a religion of great humility; a religion that does not lay claim to being the sole embodiment of truth.”
So our question is not do we need religion; the question is does religion need spirituality? And the answer is yes. If spirituality, as you defined it for me in your letter, is the higher awareness of Atzilut and Adam Kadmon then spirituality is to religion what sap is to a tree— its lifeblood. Religions should teach people how to move from self-centered Beriah to soul-centered Atzilut and spirit-centered Adam Kadmon. Religions should cultivate prophets and and not run from them. And to do this religions need spirituality.
The question now becomes, how can religions remain open to spirituality? If the nature of religion is to give way to distortion and power disguised as truth and piety, can we expect it to welcome those men and women of the spirit who come to return the faith to the truth? The history of religion is often stained by the blood of its prophets and saints murdered at the hands of its most pious rulers. So what hope is there for religion?
I believe that while it is no doubt difficult, it is still true that religions do reform. I place my hope not in the willingness of the leadership to change, but in the bravery of the people to transform both themselves and their world, and in this way push their religions to realign with the higher truth of one God, one world, one humanity, and one moral code based on universal justice and kindness.
“There is no living sap without a tree to house it. The tree needs the sap and the sap needs the tree.”
I believe that as long as the people continue to struggle for their own connection with God and godliness, as long as you and I commit ourselves to tikkun and teshuvah, there is the opportunity to free religion from the idols of power and fear, and return it to the universal truths of freedom and love.
Another question comes to mind as I think of this: Can there be a spirituality without religion? You spoke of meeting people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. I don’t know if this is possible. I am not sure what it means. Sap with no tree to reside in, is this possible? I think that spirituality needs religion to give it a voice.
Let me end with this: There is no living sap without a tree to house it. The tree needs the sap and the sap needs the tree. Indeed, neither can be either without the other. What is true for trees and sap is true for religion and spirituality. They need each other.
Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro