Interview with Rami Shapiro

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October 28, 2009

ZEEK: This week, we are featuring a piece of yours about the Jewish prophet Enoch. In the essay, taken from your new book, The Angelic Way, you discuss the midrash that Enoch became the angel Metatron, highest of the angels. You are known for your interest in Jewish spirituality and kabbalah–what got you interested in angels?

Rami Shapiro: The book and the topic came to me via the publisher, BlueBridge. They were looking for someone to write a book on angels and got my name from my now-retired editor at Random House. At first I turned the project down: angels just seemed so “new age” to me, and I really had no feel for them. I did some research, however, and I discovered that many people I respect—Mortimer Adler, Matthew Fox and Harold Bloom to name three— had written about angels, and I became curious as to why. The more I looked into the topic, the more intriguing it became. In the end I was convinced that I could say something fresh about angels, so I took it on.

ZEEK: In an interview in 2007 you said, “If science can disprove some aspect of Judaism, then to hold onto it makes me, I guess, a loyal Jew but a stupid human being.” To many of us, angels are the apotheosis of modern culture, representing a displacement of human need onto an imaginary world.

RS: You could say the same thing about God, religion, and spirituality as a whole. Karen Armstrong’s new book, A Case for God, makes the point that pre-modern peoples looked at religion more allegorically than we moderns do. Certainly this is true of Judaism. Torah was meant to be interpreted; it was a living document with which we could dialogue. We were always finding something new in Torah and in this way the revelation was ongoing and contemporary. With the ascendency of science in the seventeenth century, facts began to displace poetry, and we demanded something from our texts that they were never meant to provide: science. This reduced revelation to a one-dimensional literalism that continues to fuel fundamentalisms of all sorts (religious and atheist), and is anathema to classical Jewish thinking.

So, to your question, there is no way I can look at angels as a scientist looks at facts. Angels are symbols of a spiritual capacity intrinsic to human beings. That is to say, I don’t believe in actual winged-beings flying around. I don’t believe we have guardian angels, or credit card angels, or parking angels. I do believe we have the capacity to transcend narrow egoic mind—mochin d’katnut, the mind that sees itself as other than God, other than nature, and other than our neighbor—and tap into spacious mind, mochin d’gadlut, that level of consciousness that sees all beings as interdependent aspects of the One Reality I call God.

Angels represent the human capacity to shift from narrow mind to spacious mind. Enoch is a perfect example of this. He was a person who becomes the angel Metatron, the Lesser YHVH. As Enoch, he was rooted in narrow mind; as Metatron, he is rooted in spacious mind. Enoch is paradigmatic of what each of us can become when we move beyond narrow mind to spacious mind.

ZEEK: Angels also seem too multiple to be Jewish. That is, Jews believe in one God, not in one God with many human-like manifestations. That seems more Christian or Buddhist (I’m thinking bodhisattvas). How can the notion of multiple spiritual beings be assimilated to a pretty rigid monotheistic theology?

RS: Let me take up your second statement first, that Jews believe in one God without human attributes. I’m not sure that is true. First of all, most Jews probably don’t believe in God at all. Second, Torah does in fact offer us a god who is just like us: jealous, angry, moody, violent, as well as loyal, compassionate, forgiving, loving, etc. The rabbis teach that we are not to take these descriptions of God literally, but I suspect that most people who continue to believe in God as a self-conscious Being “out there” somewhere who creates and judges the world, rewarding good and punishing evil, do in fact believe in a God who is basically a cosmic human.

As for the first part of the question, how could a rigid monotheism accommodate a multiplicity of angels, the question assumes, first, that Judaism is a rigid monotheism, and, second, that angels are alien to Judaism. I would challenge both assertions.

Torah makes it clear that Jews were always falling in love with the Gods of Canaan, especially the Divine Mother. In the medieval period Judaism imagines God as the transcendent masculine YHVH and the immanent feminine Shechinah. Even today we invoke the Sabbath Bride and Queen, harkening back to the much older theology of Baal and Astarte. So while it may be true that our prophets and rabbis sought to impose a rigid monotheism on us, the people themselves were not so easily convinced.

As for angels being alien to Judaism, I think it is clear that Torah and rabbinic Judaism are full of talk about and encounters with angelic forces. Why? Because you just cannot repress the polytheistic aspect of the human psyche.

It may be that a rigid monotheism doesn’t really work for humans. Ask yourself why, after thousands of years of so-called monotheism, we Jews continue to speak of God in the plural, Elohim? Do we continue to use the plural “Elohim” because we are innately polytheistic? And, if this is true, does it rule out monotheism, or does it invite us into a kind of Hindu Vedantist theology of the singular Brahman manifesting as a variety of Gods just as we might image the singular YHVH manifesting as the plural Elohim?

Theology mirrors psychology. This is what we are saying when we say we are created in God’s image. This is just a subtle way of saying our image of God—our image of God, not necessarily God itself—is a projection of ourselves. We see God as One and Many because we see ourselves as one and many. We are polytheists because we are polypsychists, to coin a word I plan never to use again. We refer to ourselves in the singular, and yet are quite aware that we contain a multiplicity of personae.

A healthy theology would allow for a polytheistic view of God’s images within a larger unimaginable singularity called God. As the Hindu Rg Veda says, “Truth is one. Different people call it by different names.” An unhealthy theology would deny the validity of any image other than one’s own. This is religious narcissism, and leads to the same sociopathic behavior that extreme narcissists display.

All you have to do is read the morning’s news to see this spiritual narcissism manifest as rigid violence–prone monotheism. Enlightened polytheists are not fooled by a multiplicity of forms or names, knowing them all to be aspects of the One Beyond Naming.

ZEEK: In your previous work, like the Sacred Art of Lovingkindness, you focused on the divinity within. Angels seem like the divinity without. Is there a reason that you are moving from inward to outward?

RS: I’m really not doing that at all. The whole point of The Angelic Way is to return angels to where they belong: the human psyche. Torah tells us as much in the story of Jacob dreaming of a ladder linking heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:12). The 18th century Jewish mystic Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye said the ladder was in fact Jacob’s head: his head reached from earth to heaven, and the angels were ascending and descending in his mind (Toledot Ya’akov Yosef, 50).

Wherever angels appear in sacred literature I think they are metaphors for our capacity to ascend to heaven, to shift from narrow mind to spacious mind, and then return to earth transformed and as agents for transformation.

ZEEK: How do angels change our conception of the divine-human relationship?

RS: If we see angels as independent intermediaries between God and humanity, I think we do a terrible disservice to reality. Just as there is no gap between an ocean and its waves, so there is no gap between God and humanity, God and creation. But narrow mind imagines this gap and then invents all kinds of ways to explain it and overcome it. Angels are symbolic of overcoming that gap.

We speak of them as other, but in time discover that they are part of ourselves. With this discovery comes the chance to ascend on angels’ wings to the Promised Land, Nirvana, the Pure Land, Heaven, Paradise—that state of consciousness that knows that the whole world is filled with Divine Glory and that the ground on which one finds oneself right now is holy ground.

This is the promise of angels: When we abandon our tendency toward narcissistic wish fulfillment that imagines angels, and even God, as our personal servants; when we mature spiritually and discover that all beings—human, animal, vegetable, and mineral—are the Face of God; then we have the capacity to actualize our angelic capacity to ascend to heaven, spacious mind, and then descended to transform narrow mind and to make heaven here on earth.

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