Spirituality & Health Magazine

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2013 November-December

Rabbi Rami: "Is My Friend Responsible for her Cancer?"

My closest friend has stage IV lymphoma. She’s always been a negative person. Could this be why she has cancer?

Rabbi Rami: While our mental and spiritual states can impact our physical health, there are far too many variables involved with cancer to blame your friend’s personality for her illness. More interesting is why you even consider doing so. Would it comfort her to know she’s responsible for her cancer? Or does it comfort you in that you can say to yourself, “This can’t happen to me since I’m not a negative person”? No one deserves to be ill or well. Illness and wellness are simply part of the scheme of things. What we deserve is to be treated justly and with compassion regardless of the turns our lives take. Don’t ask, “Why is my friend suffering?” Ask, “What can I do to help her bear her suffering more effectively?”

Do you ever doubt the truths you believe in? How do you maintain your faith?

I cherish doubt and cultivate it. I welcome the challenge of new ideas, especially those in conflict with my own. I embrace doubt to clear my mind of cherished opinions masquerading as truth. Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith, but its partner. Think of faith as a glass window looking out onto truth. Doubt is the way you keep the glass clean of distortion and distraction.

My pastor says that even the enlightened aren’t saved; that even the Dalai Lama is going to hell. Isn’t enlightenment the same as salvation?

No, it’s not. Salvation is being redeemed from sin through faith in Jesus Christ. Enlightenment is awakening to the interdependence and impermanence of all things, and, as a consequence, acting compassionately toward them. Salvation gets you into heaven in the next life; enlightenment helps you manifest heaven in this life. As for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I suspect he’d prefer bringing enlightenment and compassion to those in hell to hanging out with your pastor in heaven.

My coworkers and I are debating what to do about the practice of female genital mutilation. Is raising awareness of the issue adequate? Is it right for our government to visit specific countries and promote education and alternatives to this practice? Or is it improper to project Western values onto other cultures?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I am a man whose genitals were mutilated, and who participated in the mutilation of his son’s genitals as well. If the biblical God had cared as much about the clitoris and vagina as he did about the penis, chances are female genital mutilation would be no less common in the West than it is elsewhere. But your question isn’t really about female genital mutilation; it’s about the propriety of projecting Western values onto other cultures. How is promoting the end of female genital mutilation different from promoting civil rights, democracy, universal suffrage, universal education, reason, science, modern medicine, and the other values and benefits of the European Enlightenment that are essential (at least in theory) to Western civilization? Civilizations grow best when they are in dialogue with one another, so I welcome the philosophical clash of civilizations, and urge you to clearly, compellingly, and compassionately share your values. Just stay open to the wisdom of other civilizations as well.

Years ago my girlfriend got pregnant and opted for an abortion. I disagreed with her decision, but respected it. I stood by her and paid for the procedure. At the time I didn’t believe in God, but today I do, and I worry that my actions will separate me from God forever. Is this true?

It sounds like you have found God through his son, and, if this is so, you must know that Jesus died as remittance of all sin. Could it be that your support of your girlfriend is the one sin God cannot forgive? I suspect that your religion teaches that if you have accepted Christ, God’s forgiveness is realized. My suggestion is that you trust God’s love, and allow that love to open your heart that you may be no less loving and forgiving than the God you worship.

I’m spiritual but not religious, and check the “None” box when asked to identify my religion. How do I explain this to people without sounding negative about religion?

Call yourself spiritually independent. Just like politically independent people who weave together good ideas from different parties without aligning with any party, spiritually independent people weave together teachings and practices from different religions without aligning with any religion. Most Americans are politically independent, realizing that no party has cornered the market on good ideas. Recent surveys suggest that most Americans may soon be spiritually independent as well, realizing that no religion has a monopoly on wisdom, truth, or love. 

Mindfulness for Chronic Pain

I am in constant pain and this distracts me from spiritual practice. Is there a spiritual practice that will cure me?

I can’t speak to cures, but I suggest you make your pain part of your practice. Learning to observe your pain, to watch it ebb and flow, can give you some distance from it. The more you can rest in the observing mind, the more freedom you may find when dealing with the suffering mind. Read or listen to Philip Moffitt’s Dancing with Life and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. Also see if there are hospitals or clinics in your area that teach mindfulness meditation in the context of pain management. You may never be cured, but you may be able to find more freedom in (if not from) your pain.

One for the Road

I have this recurring dream of Jesus sending me to hell. I’m not certain I believe in Jesus, but I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in hell. What should I make of this dream?

Share your response at spiritualityhealth.com/one-for-the-road.


This season, Rabbi Rami Shapiro will be leading a retreat focused on preparing for the holy days through the practices of qigong and mindfulness, and by studying the book of Ecclesiastes.

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