by Rabbi Rami Shapiro
“You are,” my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi told me years ago, “a Jewish practitioner of Perennial Wisdom.” He was trying to help me understand my relationship with Judaism.
I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, but in my mid-teens I found myself more at home in Zen practice and Taoist philosophy. After completing a degree in Buddhist studies, and hoping to find in Judaism what I treasured in Buddhism, I pursued ordination as a Reform rabbi, founded a Reconstructionist synagogue, and eventually became a hasid (disciple) of Reb Zalman’s neo-hasidic Renewal movement in the early 1980s, all the while deepening my contemplative work in a variety of religious settings: Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Christian, Theosophical, and even Masonic. Eventually I reached a point where labels no longer mattered to me, and I contemplated dropping the title rabbi — but not my identification as a Jew.
“Judaism is your spiritual mother tongue,” Reb Zalman said to me. To deny that would be to become mute, or at best to render my teaching mere talk, hollow words, echoes of things I’ve read about but not experienced or lived. I’m a Jew. But the Judaism I hunger for is the Perennial Wisdom at the mystic heart of all religion. “You are,” he said, “a Jewish practitioner of Perennial Wisdom.”
He was right. And the rightness of his insight freed me to be who I am. It makes no difference to me where a teaching comes from. All that matters is whether or not that teaching is true. And by true I don’t mean true in some relativist sense of “this is true for you” and “that is true for me” but in the absolute sense that what is true is true for all or it is not true at all.
Spiritual truth no less than scientific truth is testable. To test a scientific theory, I must become a scientist with expertise in that theory. I must know how to probe it, verify it, and, more importantly, prove it false if I can. This takes years of study and practice. It is the same with spiritual truth. To test it, to prove it wrong, takes years of study and practice. Few of us want to put in that kind of time and effort, so we settle for belief instead.
Beliefs cannot be tested. Beliefs cannot be disproved, and for the believer they need not be proved. Beliefs are expressions of confirmation bias that avoid being revealed as such by hiding behind the sanctity of religion. We believe what we believe because it is easier to believe than to know. I am not satisfied with belief. I am only concerned with what can be known directly, personally, without the intermediary of tribe, text, or creed. And it is my experience that when we discover what can be known, we discover it has been known by the mystics of every civilization for millennia. What is known is the nonduality of God, woman, man, and nature, and the ethic of compassion and justice that arises naturally from this knowing. This is Perennial Wisdom.
As a Jew I tend to use the language of Judaism to express this wisdom, but it is in no way limited to Judaism. As a student of religion and professor of world religions I take delight in learning to speak this wisdom through other languages, and to teach others to do so as well. And as a seeker of the fragile voice of silence that is the ultimate “word,” I take refuge in the greater quiet that precedes all speech.