In Conversation – Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Published: November 19, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya said:

“To bring Truth to humankind,
Reality creates Sages
who carry it into the world.
The Sages of Israel carry it as Torah.

“To carry Torah into the world,
The Sages ordain mitzvot:
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly…”

Rabbi Rami Shapiro not only strives to live out this principle, but inspires others to do the same.

An award-winning poet and essayist, Rabbi Rami’s liturgical poems are used in prayer services throughout North America. Two of his books have directly inspired me with their relevance to every day good sense – Wisdom of the Jewish Sages and Minyan, 10 Principles for Living Life with Integrity.

A recent opportunity led to a conversation on ethics and religion.

What is the connection between ethics and religion?

“It is very common for us to assume that the purpose of religion is ethics; that ethics becomes the basis of religion. But I don’t really believe that’s accurate. First of all, I think you can have religion without ethics. Second, you can certainly have ethics without religion. And third, it depends on how we’re defining ethics, what passes for the ethical in many religions, I would consider to be obscenely unethical.

“For example, divinely sanctioned genocide is rampant in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“When God says to the Israelites, go in and wipe out every man, woman and child of the Amalichites.  I think that’s simply unjust, unethical, and immoral.  And yet it’s put in the mouth of God.

“It’s much easier to get people to do something that is intrinsically immoral when you tell them that God tells them to do it. So, you raise armies and have a Crusade, because God wants you to do this.”

How important is it to live an ethical life?

“The simple answer is: I think it’s really important that people are ethical. But the question is: What does ethical mean and where is it coming from?

“If the ethical life is merely one of conformity, then I think it can be dangerous.  To whom and to what system of ethics am I conforming?  Who is defining my ethics for me?

“In some ethical systems it is ethical to strap on a bomb belt and blow oneself with the intent of murdering as many people as possible.  Those who define this kind of action as ethical are simply using me as a tool for their own ends.

“In that sense, ethics can be very dangerous.

“If we’re talking about an ethic that actually arises from a higher or deeper level of consciousness that sees the interconnectedness of all life, an ethic rooted in Jesus’ teaching, ‘Love your enemies,’ or some version of the universal Golden Rule, ‘Don’t do unto others what you wouldnot want others to do unto you,’ then I think we are talking about an ethic that is intrinsically creative and that sees people as ends in themselves and not means to someone else’s ends.

“The question is:  Which comes first – the system of ethics or the level of consciousness that gives rise to it?

“The ethics I admire and strive to live by are rooted in a level of consciousness that honors life, all life.  But many ethical systems are rooted in far narrower levels of awareness that place one’s group above all others and justifies any action, no matter how immoral, as long as it serves the needs of one’s group.  This is why you can have religions arguing for ethical codes that are clearly immoral – they serve the religion and such service is taken as the highest good.

“In fact, you might argue that most people are willing to follow the system, assuming that this system is rooted in a higher insight. But I don’t think that you can make that claim. I think that the ethics of any given religion contain these evils that are sanctioned by their divine source, but really aren’t ethical at all.”

Does the subject of ethics come up much in the talks you give around the country?

“Ethics plays a huge role in Jewish life, and the more secular the Jew, the more crucial ethics becomes. But even outside the secular limitation, the whole idea of salvation in Judaism is based on ethical behavior.

“Most Jewish people when they think of ethical behavior think of generic, good-guy stuff. But when I teach at Churches, their main concern is belief and that, while they certainly have a Christian value base that they consider ethical and right, they have this added issue of, ‘Do I believe correctly?’

For many, if not most believing Christians, it’s belief rather than behavior that’s going to get them into heaven. If I screw-up ethically God’s going to forgive me that, but if I don’tbelieve properly, God will not forgive me that.”


  1. Author

    I love your conversations with Rabbi Shapiro. He really jumps clean and clear to the heart of the group-mind of religion’s crowd appeal for non-critical thinking. Reminds me of the book, “Deer Hunting with Jesus.”

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