Shapiro discusses ‘radical amazement’ as path to happiness


Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Rabbi Rami Shapiro delivers Tuesday afternoon’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Shapiro spoke about how people of the Jewish faith find happiness in their everyday lives.

According to the Palestinian Talmud, when Jews die, they will be asked one question, and the answer will determine whether or not they can enter heaven.

“Did you partake of all the legitimate pleasures that life offered you while you were alive?” Jews will be asked.

If they answer “yes,” then they will be allowed to enter. If they say “no,” then they won’t — because heaven would be wasted on them.

“Whatever time you’ve got left, now is the time to live so you can answer that question in the affirmative,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro said. “But you won’t. And the reason you won’t is that you’re going to forget.”

People need to be reminded to live their lives fully. During his Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Shapiro shared the reminder that Jewish people use to inspire themselves, a prayer called “Ashrei,” which in Hebrew means “happiness.”

Shapiro is an award-winning author and poet. He co-directs One River Wisdom School and the Holy Rascals, a non-profit educational media company with the goal of changing the world “by changing hearts and minds.” He is also a columnist for Spirituality & Health magazine.

Ashrei” is a prayer derived from the Psalms and is traditionally recited three times each day in Jewish prayers. In English, the beginning of the prayer translates to:

Happy are those that dwell in your house.

They praise you ceaselessly.

Happy are those for whom this is so.

Happy are those whose God is Adonai. 

“So what’s God’s house?” Shapiro asked, beginning to explore the song’s meaning.

“In Judaism, there are no numbers, so the letters do double duty — the aleph is one, the bet is two, the gimmel is three,” he said. “And we have this tradition that, if any two words share the same numerical value, they are interchangeable.”

Elohim,” one of the Hebrew words for God, and “teva,” the word for nature, happen to share the same numerical value. Thus, in Jewish numerology, they could be interpreted to be one and the same.

“Everything that exists is a manifestation of God, so the house of God is where you are right now,” Shapiro said. “The universe is God’s body. So happy are those who dwell in that, who are alive in the natural world.”

Moving on to the second verse of “Ashrei,” Shapiro argued that everyone would be in awe if they really attended to the fact that the universe, including all the people within it, are manifestations of God.

“It’s what I would think St. Paul meant when he says we should pray ceaselessly, because if you know who you are, a manifestation of [God] … then we are in, what Rabbi Abraham Heschel called a state of ‘radical amazement’ — and that makes us happy,” Shapiro said.

The question that people have to ask themselves, then, is whether they can remain amazed, whether they can continue to praise God, even in the midst of suffering. Shapiro turned to the Book of Job to find an answer.

Over the course of the story, Job loses everything — his children, his business, his health — because God made a bet with Satan that, no matter how much he suffered, Job would never curse God. In Chapter 2, Job has already lost his children and his business and he is covered in oozing sores. While he is scratching at his sores with bits of broken pottery, his wife accosts him.

“Why don’t you just curse God and die? Get it over with,” Shapiro said, paraphrasing the words of Job’s wife. “And then in 2:10, Job says, ‘No, that’s not what you do. You have to accept the bad and the good from God.’ ”

Though it may be difficult to accept that God is not all good, Shapiro believes that this idea is presented in the Bible.

“In Isaiah 45:7, God says, I create light. I create darkness. I make good. I make evil. I, the ineffable one do all these things,” he said.

Everything comes from God, both the bad and the good. And if people realize that God is omnipresent, they can experience radical amazement wherever they are. As an example, Shapiro referred to the ways some Jewish women ritually washed each other’s faces while they lived in the Nazi concentration camps.

“Even in this horrible, horrible place, they wanted the divine face to shine through each individual face and to somehow honor the humanness of the person and … the divinity of the person as well,” he said. “Even there you can find a moment of grace, a moment of joy when you can clean another’s face or have your face cleaned.”

Verse three of “Ashrei” is “Happy are those who for whom this is so,” but it can also be worded as “Happy are those for whom things are the way they are.” Without accepting things as they are, Shapiro argued, there can be no acceptance of reality; without acceptance of reality, there can be no radical amazement; without radical amazement, there can be no true pleasure.

“Happy are those whose God is Adonai,” Shapiro said, referring back to the prayer. “Now, we all have different Gods. We don’t like to admit that, but we do. We all make up God in our own image.”

In the Book of Micah, there is the exhortation, “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Centuries after the Book of Micah was written, rabbis began to wonder why it said “your God” rather than just “God.” They concluded, Shapiro said, that each person must have his or her own understanding of God.

“Walk humbly with your understanding of God, because whatever God really is, you can’t figure it out,” he said.

The God understood in Judaism is a verb rather than a noun, Shapiro argued. In fact, in the universe, there are no nouns at all.

“This isn’t Maureen,” he said, pointing to Maureen Rovegno, assistant director for Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion. “This is God ‘Maureening.’ And when we realize that, we have to step out of our theologies into a state of not knowing.”

God is fundamentally undefinable, Shapiro said. God can’t be located or discussed as a thing because God is the subject — not the people. Only God experiences God’s own self.

“So happy are those whose God, whose ultimate reality, is unfathomable,” Shapiro said. “Happy are those … who can step into a state of unknowing … and simply be present to what is. And in that moment, there is this radical amazement that clears your mind to see the legitimate pleasures that are available to you.”