On a Friday evening earlier this spring, 30 people gathered at an Episcopal center in Sewanee, Tennessee, for one of the quarterly weekend retreats that make up Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s One River Wisdom School. The event started at sundown with the lighting of Shabbat candles, singing Hadlakat Nerot, and chanting “om” while Shapiro, wearing a multicolor knit yarmulke, squeezed his shruti, a droning harmonium-like bellow used in Indian music.
Throughout the weekend, Shapiro continued to reach across religious and cultural boundaries. One discussion session was dedicated to “Buddhism and Buber,” mixing elements of Japanese psychology and Martin Buber’s I & Thou. A lively Bible discussion one evening included sections from Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the New Testament—all illuminated by Shapiro’s knowledge of ancient biblical languages. The rest of the retreat, whose theme was “Gratitude,” included extensive periods of meditation and chanting, as well as 12 hours of scheduled silence. Between sessions, the attendees seemed eager to discuss their evolving spiritual practices and beliefs. Shapiro encouraged this: He’s not into God as much as he is into “God-ing,” experiencing the divine as an action verb rather than a noun.
“Judaism is my root tongue,” Shapiro told me at the retreat, “but I speak a lot of languages.”
Ordained at Hebrew Union College as a Reform rabbi and for many years leader of a Reconstructionist congregation in Miami, Shapiro has also has been trained as a Zen Buddhist and as a Hindu of the Ramakrishna Vedanta order. He feels a deep connection to the late Sister Jose Hobday, a Seneca elder and Franciscan nun whom he calls “a Catholic Native American medicine woman.” He has also been a frequent participant in events with the Catholic priest Father Thomas Keating, the Colorado-based founder of Contemplative Outreach and proponent of increasingly popular meditative “centering” prayer.
The 30 participants in the March retreat at St. Mary’s Sewanee: The Ayres Center for Spiritual Development were from all faiths. But for Shapiro, that’s part of the point. “I try to explain wisdom through the traditions of Judaism to people who aren’t Jewish,” he said. “At this stage, Judaism is too much involved with the tribal and the ethnic, and that’s not the future.”
Shapiro’s mixed feelings about conventional religion developed early. Raised in Western Massachusetts, he grew up in a kosher, Orthodox home. But his spiritual epiphany came studying Asian religions in high school, particularly the meditation at the heart of Zen Buddhism: His ambition was to become a Buddhism professor. His Zen roshi, or master, Joshu Sasaki, wanted Shapiro to become a Buddhist monk. Shapiro felt he lacked the discipline. “I told roshi I planned to be a rabbi instead,” he told me. “That was news to both of us.”
Shapiro’s father didn’t know what was worse for Rami: becoming a Zen Buddhist or Reform rabbi. (“Reform! But that’s a church!” his dad told him.) Shapiro had never actually been to a Reform synagogue, but he was inspired by the ideas he’d heard in a Jerusalem lecture series by Dr. Ellis Rivkin, a leading Reform thinker and a professor at Hebrew Union College. “I loved my five years at HUC,” Shapiro said. “I continued my meditation practice and my study of Eastern wisdom traditions on my own.” After graduation, his own personality (“I don’t play well with others”) and theology, “informed as it was by Kabbalah, Hasidism, Vedanta, and Zen,” made it difficult to find employment as a congregational rabbi.
After graduation, in 1981 he started his own independent shul in Miami called Beth Or (House of Light), which became aligned with the Reconstructionist movement. “Having created the synagogue in my own image and likeness, Beth Or was a wonderful place to work,” Shapiro said. “And yet, after 20 years I left. During that time I had written a number of books, expanded my teaching far beyond the Jewish world, and realized I wasn’t giving the synagogue my full attention. I needed to move on.”
The first short stop was Metivta, a center for Contemplative Judaism in Los Angeles, which fit Shapiro’s ardor for meditation. He and his wife Debbie and their son Aaron moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to care for his mother-in-law, who had retired there. Murfreesboro is home to Middle Tennessee State University; since moving to Tennessee, Shapiro has taught numerous courses there on the Bible and religion.
“The most important thing about Rami for me is his fluency with Hebrew and Biblical stories,” Ronald Hill, a Presbyterian elder from Brentwood, Tennessee, told me. “He’ll give me Hebrew translations of passages I’ve read all my life, which enhances the contextual understanding. And I’ve really gained a lot from his insights in Judaism.”
Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Judaic Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said of Shapiro in an email: “He does not water down traditions but rather introduces them in such a way that both similarities and differences are respected.”
“He is able to synthesize some sort of unity [from all the teachings], but he doesn’t have all the answers,” said Dee Doochin, a life coach from Nashville who introduced herself as one of the Jewish attendees at the March retreat. “He respects that there is a different truth for each one of us, without dogma or doctrine.”
The breadth of Shapiro’s philosophy is evident in the range of subjects covered by the more than two dozen books he has written and edited. Some focus on Judaism: Amazing Chesed: Living a Grace-Filled Judaism, for instance, or Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom. Others cross boundaries: He has written two volumes of Mount and Mountain, a series of conversations that began as a blog about the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount between Shapiro and Dr. Mike Smith, a Baptist pastor. Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent is a collection of inspirational passages from many religious texts. Recovery: The Sacred Art takes a trip through the Twelve Steps in which Shapiro applies lessons about addictions from all religious paths—as well as his own experience in Overeaters Anonymous.
“I take a very Joseph Campbell/Carl Jung view, that there are myths that can carry wisdom,” Shapiro said. “Beliefs to me are problematic. I try not to hold beliefs; I see what I can experience, and I’ve had inklings of the non-duality of the universe.”
As a provocateur or “holy rascal,” as Sister Jose Hobday called him, Shapiro sometimes says things just to elicit a response, to see how it flies. ““I’m very bad at self-censoring,” he told me as we walked the grounds of St. Mary’s on Shabbat afternoon. “My ‘problem’ is that I’m an academic, and I love to talk, I love batting around ideas.”
Many of them are provocative. For instance, he talks about Jesus more than most rabbis. “He’s the most famous Jew who ever lived,” Shapiro said. “How do you not say his name?” He has no use for Messianic Jews, but has nonetheless been blasted as a “self-hating Jew” and even a “heretic” on his numerous blog posts, simply for discussing Jesus in a positive light. “One of the things I’m sad about Judaism is that we’ve written this guy out,” he said. “The idea that he is The Christ [savior or messiah] is certainly out; but Jesus should be in.”
Shapiro is anchored by his love for his rebbe, Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who also sought to open the door to a more ecumenical, less doctrinaire Judaism, and developed spiritual connections with numerous religious figures, from the essential Sufi leader Inayat Khan to Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama.
“I read his thesis when I was at Hebrew Union College, on Hasidic counseling techniques, and said, this guy is amazing,” Shapiro said. “I moved to Miami in 1981 and found out Zalman came there every year to speak with local rabbis. So I started learning, and after a couple of years, he came to my synagogue, and I formally asked to become his student, and he said no. I thought it was like a Zen thing, but it wasn’t. He really meant no. I told him I didn’t understand, and he said, ‘You don’t understand our relationship. Sometimes I will be your Rebbe; sometimes you will be my Rebbe.”
Shapiro still felt rejected. “I spent the next 20 years following him around like a little puppy. He was always loving and gracious, but he never let me in.” In the early 2000s, Schacter-Shalomi became ill, and Shapiro went to see him with what amounted to a demand. “I told him I needed a formal connection, I have nothing to show for two decades of loving you. I need something.”
Schacter-Shalomi gave him an assignment: to find the books of the 19th century Rabbi Avraham Weinberg of Slonim, the Slonimer Rebbe, founder of a pious Hasidic sect based in Belarus and Lithuania. “I did what he asked, ordered six volumes of books in Hebrew. I translated them, wrote a commentary, and sent it to him. A year went by, I heard nothing. I went to where he was teaching in New York, he said nothing. No gold star. No ‘good job.’”
Then Schacter-Shalomi sent for Shapiro early one morning. According to Shapiro, Schacter-Shalomi signed a scroll that was to be added to Shapiro’s diploma from Hebrew Union College. Shapiro was delighted: It was the “imprimatur” he had been seeking. Then the Rebbe told the student what he had meant when he had said, 20 years earlier, that sometimes Shapiro would be his rebbe. Ceremonially, Schacter-Shalomi “chanted the names of the rebbes in his lineage, from the Baal Shem Tov, to himself, and then my name.” Before he died last year, Schacter-Shalomi had finally become the father that Shapiro’s own father, with his conventional Orthodox beliefs, could not be.
Shapiro sees himself as performing a kind of shlichus. But instead of reaching out to Jews in every part of the world, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent his emissaries, Shapiro says Schacter-Shalomi gave him the mission to take Judaism to the non-Jewish world.
“Being in a town with no Jewish community is very liberating,” Shapiro said of Murfreesboro. “There’s no one to tell you, ‘That’s not Jewish.’ But people are very passionate about the Bible in a spiritual way, and open to discussing it.”
But they are generally accepting of the rabbi, and he has friendly conversations about the Bible with the evangelical Christian ladies who run the store where he picks up his mail.
Shapiro’s father recently died, and when he returned to Tennessee, the evangelicals offered the consolation that his father was “in a better place.” Shapiro responded with a deeply Jewish instinct: “You know my dad is an Orthodox Jew. You believe he’s burning in hell for all eternity. What do you mean a better place? Hell is a better place?”
Pondering his reaction, Shapiro said, “They are friends of mine. I was surprised I had been so blunt. But I make my living talking this way in religious circles, so I get used to shocking people.”
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Wayne Robins, a writer and journalist, teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. He also programs the ‘Rock: Today and Yesterday’ radio channel at eMusic.com. He is working on a spiritual memoir.