Celebrations: Rabbi Rami Shapiro
10 Years of Roadside Assistance
Photo Courtesy of Sam Cooper
With this issue of Spirituality & Health, Rabbi Rami turns 65, so let’s wish him a very happy birthday! For the past 10 years he’s been answering our spiritual questions, doing his best to avoid personal questions and focusing instead on more universal issues. But for this “birthday edition” of Roadside Assistance, he wanted to share and respond to more personal questions regarding getting older. As he explains, “Many of these questions focus on my death, which to the best of my knowledge is not impending. Nevertheless, I have included them. You never know….”
How are you dealing with the health challenges that arise with aging?
Poorly. I ignore what I can; seek medical advice when I must; and trust that with regular exercise and a diet of fish, vegetables, fruit, and ice cream, I won’t live a moment longer than I should.
Are you afraid of dying?
Yes. I have a very low pain threshold, a phobia regarding catheters, and a strong desire not to be a burden on others. To the extent my dying involves any or all of these, I’m afraid of dying. If you are asking if I am afraid of being dead, my answer is no. That’s the wonderful thing about death—you’re dead; nothing left to fear.
What has been the meaning of your life so far?
Meaning is like midrash (biblical commentary): I invent the narrative of my life and then create meaning out of it. While I do this all the time, I leave my life’s true meaning to others, knowing that they too will be spinning a yarn.
What do you think happens when you die?
You get dead; funeral directors get wealthier; insurance companies get busy finding loopholes in your policies; and family and friends get to grieve or rejoice depending on how they remember you. All of which is beside the point, which is you’re dead.
What do you think happens after you die?
Nothing. There is no “me” after I die, just as there was no “me” before I was born. What you think about your fate after death depends on who you think you are right now. My sense is that “Rami” is a temporary, unique, precious, and never to be repeated wave of an infinite ocean of creativity I call God. I was the ocean before I was waved. I am the ocean as I am waved. And I will be the ocean after I am waved, but the only time there is a “me” to know this is now.
What is the key to dying well?
Living wisely. When you know you and all life are a part of God and never apart from God, you embody wu wei, living without coercion, doing justly, loving kindness, and walking humbly. When you live this way, you will die this way as well.
Is there life after death?
Yes. Just not mine.
What is the most important thing you are doing as you enter late life?
Breathing. I also walk, bike, do Qigong, chant, meditate, and write daily.
How is your life changing as you enter old age?
I’m decluttering: donating my books to the local university, and other stuff to Goodwill; expending less energy on guilt, anger, and fear; paring away opinion; simplifying my religious life by largely abandoning organized religion; and teaching only those few things I know to be true, what I call Perennial Wisdom.
What is the role you hope to play in old age?
When I was in my teens and twenties I wanted to be a famous writer. When I was in my thirties and forties I wanted to be a famous rabbi. When I was in my fifties and early sixties I wanted to be in my thirties and early forties. Now I want to be a zayde, a grandfather, not only to my grandson, Jack, but also to the world. A zayde is an old man who tells stories, shares wisdom, points out the truth, and loves you because he is too old not to.
Do you still consider yourself Jewish?
Yes. But I now see Judaism as a means for teaching universal truth rather than an end in and of itself. I still have a tribe but I’m no longer tribal.
Do you feel a greater or lesser need for community as you age?
I’m a loner and an introvert, and I don’t play well with others. So community is not a high priority for me. Friends are something else. I have a very few with whom I can talk about almost anything (there are some things only my dog understands), and they are a great treasure to me.
When we’re young we want things to be perfect. What about when we’re old?
I practice the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the wisdom and beauty of imperfection. As rabbi Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
With whom do you want to be when you die?
That depends how I die. If I die in a crash I hope to be alone so no one dies with me. If I die with enough mental clarity to say something profound at the moment of my death I hope to be surrounded by journalists. If I die at home I’d like to die with my dog lying next to me. Mostly I would like to die after speaking with each of my beloveds, and then to be alone to chant, breathe, marvel, and breathe no longer.
Do you anticipate heaven or worry about hell?
No. I suspect these are fantasies invented to promote conformity and control. But if Dante is right and I am wrong, I hope to land in his First Circle of Hell along with Buddha, Socrates, Chuang Tzu, and other freethinkers. To me, that would be heaven.