The Torah of Being Here Now

Ram Dass’ Understanding of Judaism as a Spiritual Path

Ram Dass (right) with his colleague Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi
Joan Halifax (Santa Fe, New Mexico), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1967 a Jewish psychologist-turned-psychonaut named Richard Alpert reluctantly followed an acquaintance into an ashram in the Himalayan foothills. At this small roadside shrine, he met a Hindu guru named Neem Karoli Baba Maharaj-ji and the direction of his life changed forever. A few months later, he was sent back to the United States with the name Ram Dass, or servant of God. Clad in flowing robes and beads, Ram Dass quickly became a leader of the New Age movement, publishing his classic Be Here Now in 1971 and inspiring thousands to embark on spiritual quests. Although raised Jewish, he spent most of his career teaching an amalgamation of Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist traditions. 

But there was a shift in 1992 when Ram Dass was invited to speak at the University of Judaism on the topic of “Judaism and Spirituality.” This offer gave him cause to plunge into the sources of his heritage seriously for the first time and the resulting lecture provided exclusive insight into not only why he did not turn to Judaism originally but also how his non-Jewish spiritual experiences helped him reframe Judaism as a potent spiritual path.

To understand this history, we must look at Ram Dass’ five decades of teaching, which can be divided into two distinct eras. Originally his teachings centered on divesting from corporeality and dissolving into the One through meditation, chant, and guru worship. This began to shift around 1975— marking the start of a constant wrestling with what it means to be an incarnated being with all its cultural trappings. This reframing also marks his first reconsiderations of Judaism. In turning his attention back to the Jewish canon, the tradition that spoke most to his mystical sensibilities, was the Eastern European mystical revival movement of Hasidism. More particularly, it was its romanticized presentation by neo-Hasidic writers such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Like his transmission of Eastern spirituality to the West, this “neo-Hasidism” attempts to make the material accessible to those outside its cultural context and was therefore an easy entry point for Ram Dass. The union of his previously held spirituality with this neo-Hasidic influence resulted in a unique understanding of Judaism as a spiritual path of “awakening” that systematizes “being here now.” Since he only spoke about this union at length during this single lecture at the University of Judaism, and this lecture was only first made accessible online in late 2021, we are now afforded a never-before-heard window into Ram Dass’ relationship to Judaism. (You can watch the full lecture at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXJy00v4J8Y.)

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ASSIMILATION

To fully understand his spirituality, we first need to understand how Ram Dass thought about Judaism growing up. Almost every quote of Ram Dass referencing Judaism in the first few decades of teaching fits into two categories. First, his understanding of Judaism as essentially a religion of regulating behavior but lacking mystical experience. And second, Jewishness as merely a political identity that breeds anxiety-ridden high-achievers. For example, in the introduction to his classic Be Here Now, he writes that “Until you know a good middleclass Jew, upwardly mobile, anxiety-ridden, and neurotic, you haven’t met a real achiever!” Similarly, if you look up “Judaism” on Ramdass.org, the only thing that comes up is an excerpt from a lecture he gave in 1973 in which he stated that “Judaism [is]… designed for people who in one lifetime are not going to begin to awaken… it’s designed to keep them cool. To keep them moral and cool and together… the Jews aren’t primarily interested in what happened to Moses up in the Mountain – their primary interest is what he brought back.” 

In the first hour of his “Judaism and Spirituality” lecture, he explains at length that he was taught Judaism as a mere “social-communal-political” influence. He describes the assimilation of the 20th century as “a time when Jews were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of their parents. And their parents were conspiring in it for their children.” He goes on to ask, “Can you feel the pain of all that?” 

Ram Dass’ grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe and Russia at the turn of twentieth century. After their deaths, his father supported the family, attending law school during the day and playing violin at night. Eventually, his father was lucky enough to infiltrate the “yankees” who ran the upper-class law scene in Boston and rose swiftly through their ranks. He made enough money to move to the suburbs, transition into the business sector, and eventually became the president of the New Haven railroad. The success of the Alperts was exemplary, to say the least. 

And yet, with this upward socioeconomic mobility came the shedding of religiosity. “During the time of my growing up,” Ram Dass explains, “we started out as Orthodox and became liberal Conservative, I would say… The pain for my father and mother was that they went through that transition. I never knew the other end. They went through knowing what the laws were and then choosing not to follow them.” By the time he was growing up, “nobody care[d] that I be religious, they just cared that I be a Jew.” Young Richard Alpert became a Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed, but the primary pressure placed on him was directed at his becoming “successful,” which he eventually achieved in the form of professorship at Harvard. Ironically, it was here that he was first exposed to psylocibin by his collogue Timothy Leary, and both were forced out of Harvard, and subsequently crowned counter-culture icons. 

As his spiritual career went on, one can find more evidence of Ram Dass intentionally engaging with Judaism, such as his long-term friendship with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and his participation in panels with Jews that similarly excelled as teachers of other spiritual traditions. And yet even in these contexts, he often joked about only being Jewish “on his parent’s side” and usually represented a non-Jewish voice. Insidiously, much of this humorous sentiment contained within it kernels of internalized antisemitism that Ram Dass would have to struggle with for the rest of his life. 

But what was so wrong with Judaism that Ram Dass and his co-panelists traveled across the world to find viable alternatives?

CRISIS OF GOD IN JUDAISM

It was his experiences with psychedelics that first made Ram Dass interested in spirituality at all. He explains that he was looking for “maps” of the expanded consciousness that he experienced on these chemicals. “At that point,” he explains, “had I been in a warm relationship with Judaism, it may well have been that I would have found—through the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Book of Brilliance—the maps that would have given me some structure to what I had experienced. But I didn't have that entree. And the result was that we were given by Aldous [Huxley] the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which had a whole structure about what I had experienced.” As he tried to find answers to consciousness— first through chemicals and then from his guru— Judaism just became nothing more than corporeal baggage to transcend.

One story that became a persistent example in his lectures for the lackluster spirituality of Judaism was a conversation he had with a rabbi upon returning from India and attending his mother’s unveiling: “I'm in robes and the rabbi is there with his sunglasses and his soft hat and we do the service. And then he comes up and grabs me by the elbow— as rabbis are wont to do at times— and he says, "what have you been up to?" Whether he was there to save me, or his curiosity got the better of him, I don't know… So, I said, “do you really wanna know?” He said “yes.” And so... we leaned against two tombstones, and I proceeded to tell him about all these miraculous things that happened to me in India with my spiritual teacher. And as he listened, I saw his face soften and then he said to me, "You know, when I was studying for my finals, I took too much NoDoz and I was reading the Bible and suddenly it fell away and I was on the Sinai desert and it was all happening to me.” For a Jew to experience that truth of “we are all in Egypt! We are escaping from Egypt!” And he was lit up. And I said, “what a wonderful, wonderful experience. I bet you have given a lot of sustenance to the congregation through that story.” And he looked at me strangely and he said, "You know, until now I have never told it to anyone but my wife." He said "Judaism is a folk religion and I’m an interpreter of the law. Why don’t we join the rest of the group?”

This disconnect is representative of a larger problem in Judaism that continues to push many seekers to other traditions: “Judaism’s deepest crisis concerns God,” argues scholar Alon Goshen-Gottstein in his book The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism: History, Spirituality, Identity. “Judaism is a religion that centers around God,” he goes on. “But that has lost touch, to a large extent, with… the awareness of God at its center and the ability to structure the entire life of the religious community around access to the divine presence and its grounding in the community’s life.” 

Ram Dass’ experience clearly confirms this assessment, and Goshen-Gottstein shows that most Jews identify the pull of other traditions as one of searching for the spirituality that they deem missing in their own. “Although there are certainly exceptions to the rule,” Ram Dass explains, “the Judaism that's available to most people in this society has treated the Kabbalah, or the esoteric Judaism, as available only to a few. And it has not been widely available in a living spiritual transmission. And so many of us went to other systems.” Neo-Hasidic leader Arthur Green has shown in his book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love that inherent to this “mainstream Judaism” that Ram Dass speaks of was the exclusion of “the mystical tradition, along with anything else that seemed like an embarrassment to a Jewry that sought to have its faith accepted as liberal and rational.” 

And while Ram Dass’ fame grew, his negative association with Judaism grew with it as he was simultaneously blamed for dwindling Jewish engagement and became a target for Orthodox outreach to “return to the fold.” Yet as he evolved in his Eastern spiritual practice, he realized that the details of his incarnation could not be a mistake, and thus he must ultimately contend with his Judaism. 

TAKING THE CURRICULUM

The path taught to Ram Dass in India was what he called “a renunciant path.” In this tradition, “the stress was on getting free [from] being bound to the earth in order to be back in the light with God.” Despite this training, he explains in another lecture that starting in 1975, “I began to see that I was missing a boat about honoring what a human incarnation was about… I was throwing out the baby with the bath.” This realization arose after one of his teachers chided him by saying, “you humans are so stuck in your dualistic mind… you came to the earth to come to school and why don’t you take your curriculum instead of trying to skip school all the time.” Repainting “transcendence” as “skipping school” forced Ram Dass to come face to face with that which he would rather meditate away from, such as his queerness, his Americanness, and his Jewishness. (For more on Ram Dass’ struggles with Judaism and queerness, see https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ram-dass-the-jew/. )

After this, Ram Dass “realized that there was function in my humanity and function in the experiences that were being presented to me. And I had to, as the Buddha said, ‘honor the preciousness of my human birth.’” 

Although he explained it through Buddhism, this reframe was, in fact, his first turn back to Jewish traditional values. Unlike a renunciant path, the focus on worldly action is integral to Judaism—and especially to Hasidism. Since God is understood not to be a distant transcendent deity, but an immanent Divinity manifested in all things in the world, many Hasidic rabbis push against the urge to transcend beyond corporeality. Instead, they teach avodah b’gashmiut or “worship in physicality.” Rather than using meditations to enter alternate states of consciousness, Hasidism teaches that this awakening is done through a reframing of the corporeal world. It is precisely through engaging with the material world that the Divinity brimming within it can be uplifted to Holiness. 

Unlike the mere social identifier of his youth, in this Judaism Ram Dass found a tradition that “take[s] every part of your life: how you go to the toilet, how you make love, how you keep bills, how you make money, how you deal with your neighbors. All of it. [And says:] We've got a rule that covers it.” And yet this 1992 lecture at the University of Judaism is the only place where he unpacked this further by laying out his understanding of Judaism as a spiritual path.

JUDAISM AS A SPIRITUAL PATH

In preparation for this lecture, Ram Dass did a deep dive into the Jewish canon. As a mystic, we have already seen that he was most drawn to the Hasidic and neo-Hasidic traditions, wherein he recognized similar devotional modes to those he found in India. To unpack this theology more fully, we must look at a few specific topics. 

HOLY BEINGS:  Ram Dass’ teachings have always centered around the reality that there are enlightened beings: people who have used spiritual practices to tap into God consciousness and live an awakened existence. This is not necessarily an empirical reality but one that is proven through his experience with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba Marahaj-ji, and his years of spiritual practice. It is thus not surprising that central to his understanding of Hasidism was his assertion that in Maharaj-ji, he had met “a being who was very much like what we would call a tzaddik,” or a Hasidic leader. When he began reading stories of these Jewish holy beings, he recognized in their student’s descriptions the same reverence he held for his teacher and was therefore drawn in. “In any tradition,” he once said, “a mensch is a mensch.” 

In addition to his classic repertoire of Eastern monk stories, in his lecture at the University of Judaism he adds stories of the Hasidic rebbes. He even sometimes references Hasidic tales without specifically citing them, showing his familiarity with the tales. For example, in response to a question about finding a teacher, he said, “Obviously, if you can be around a tzaddik, jump at it. Grab it. Hang onto the feet. Watch him tie his shoelaces. The whole shtick.” Here he mixes the classic Hasidic tale of a devotee going to the rebbe not to learn Torah but to watch him ties his shoes with the Hindu practice of touching a saint’s feet.  This shows how familiar these sources felt to Ram Dass when read through the lens of guru worship.

JEWISH PRACTICE: “For the Jewish path,” Ram Dass explains, “…your incarnation is your curriculum. Your life is your path. It’s the playing-field. It is life focused. ‘Choose life.’ [Deut. 30:19]” He goes on to present the intricacies of Jewish law, or halakhah— with all its minutiae— as a systematized way for a community to “be here now” with the “the Oneness of all things.” When he describes Jewish law as “a way as to allow you to remember from moment to moment the divine nature of manifestation,” he is still speaking from mainstream Judaism, but once he starts invoking such ideas as God being concealed in “the dazzling hiddenness” of the world and “what we are in the system are just sparks of Divine that have been exiled from the totality and are somehow on the way back,” he is speaking from the influence of Hasidic and Kabbalistic thought that is central to his mysticism.  

This influence becomes even clearer when he speaks of the pitfalls of a legal, obligatory spirituality. “The tricky thing about it,” he explains, “is that if you lose the spiritual connection, those rules can become harsh law.” He cites this harshness as a reason for his original hesitancy towards Judaism but goes on to explain that he now sees within Orthodox Judaism—and Hasidism particularly— a “regularize[d] mystical experience” wherein there is “direct experience that is balanced with the imposition of the structure.” 

He calls this “an exquisite practice for awakening” and quotes the Baal Shem Tov, famed founder of Hasidism, who said, "Reality is a series of meetings, each of which demands of the person what can be fulfilled by that person, just by that person, and just in this hour." Unpacking it in a very Ram Dassian way, he continues “The Baal Shem Tov is saying ‘it's perfect. You're doing fine. You are the absolute perfect neurotic underachiever at this moment.’ It's not some terrible error. Most people go around life thinking they are in some terrible error. If I was only standing here, I would be free. The secret of Judaism is standing where you're standing and being free.” Thus the minutiae of Jewish law transform into self-affirming ways to become free through mindfully being in the moment. 

SHABBAT AND STUDY:  Of the 613 commandments in Jewish law, the two that stood out most for Ram Dass were those around Shabbat and the importance of study. For the meditation-minded, Shabbat shines forth as the definite pearl of all Jewish tradition. “True you will live in time on this plane,” Ram Dass comments, “but they play with time such that every seventh day, you will enter into eternity." He goes on: I mean if you can hear a more dazzling game! What its saying is that for six days you get caught and hung up in all the traps of power, sex, all the stuff. You’re working with it by kissing the mezuzah and doing everything you can, but you’re probably going under anyway. Even if you’re doing all 613 of the halakhic rules, it can all become rote, too. Which is the horror of a lot of it. But you're doing it.... but then comes

the Sabbath, the whole game changes.”

Just as setting aside time for spiritual work was already part of Ram Dass’ practice, so was the importance of study. He invokes the image of the Talmudic scholars poring over texts in ferocious debates as an exemplary spiritual path. “What it’s saying,” he argues “is ‘this is the word of God. If you keep studying it and studying and studying it, you get into deeper and deeper understandings of it and the process of studying it will transform your life.’" Of course, these two commandments are most possible when done within a community that supports the practice.

COMMUNITY:  Ram Dass’ conception of community starts with reformulating Judaism’s “chosen people” idea in the context of Eastern “priest class” discourse. In those cultures, there are a few individuals set apart from the laypeople who are held to a higher standard. “But for the Israelites,” he explains, “it was defined—to my understanding— that the entire population was the priest class and therefore everybody was expected to realize, in their own lives, the covenant that God had entered into with the Israelites through Moses. In fact, in Judaism the experience is that you– as I said earlier— you personally were there! You are part of that lineage, you are part of that covenant that was entered into, and that covenant is very much like a marriage. And it’s an interesting marriage. It says God and the individual will be partners in making the world just. And in bringing love and the spirit to the world.”

This communal sentiment is clearly very impactful for Ram Dass, who marvels that on the Day of Atonement the reading of sins is said as collectively, regardless of whether you committed those sins in the past year. “In other words,” he says, “you’re taking everyone's sins. We're all in it together.” 

That the Jewish people are understood as one coherent body seems to be a relief for Ram Dass, who openly struggles with being seen as a traitor to the community. “I read articles in which it says I have led more people away from Judaism than anybody else,” he laments. “It was not, certainly, an intention to lead people away from Judaism. It was responding to the truth of my own heart. And I just don’t have too much choice in that matter.” And yet, in this lecture we have seen him wonder how his life would have differed had he been in a “warm relationship” with Judaism at the time of his spiritual awakening. 

Although he admits that he does not plan on returning to practicing Judaism, he says that through the process of preparing for this lecture, he started “returning to my heart being open in the presence of Judaism. To loving it.” This can be felt in the opening of this lecture, where he beautifully introduces himself not as Ram Dass, but instead as Reuven ben Chaim Yoseph.

CONCLUSION

Shortly before this lecture, Ram Dass bought a mezuzah. “So, I’ll start. I’ll kiss the mezuzah every time I go out the door.” he explains. “That happened twice… pretty soon I was so busy going somewhere, I forgot the mezuzah. The minute I realized that, I took a string and hung it over the door. It hung down so it hit my forehead when I walked out… which reminded me the mezuzah was there, which led to me to turn and kiss it. Because you gotta retrain yourself, it takes a while.” 

This anecdote perfectly encapsulates Ram Dass’ relationship with all of Judaism. It is one of give and take; of acknowledging the perfect imperfections of your birth and working with them despite the discomfort. Engaging with it was unnatural at first, but he recognized an inherent spiritual value in the practice and that—as an incarnated being born into a Jewish family— it is beautifully required of him to participate in some capacity. It was part of his curriculum.

At this 1992 “Judaism and Spirituality” lecture, Ram Dass was introduced by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz. In his remarks, Schwartz tells of first meeting Ram Dass and presenting him with a button that said, “Nice Jewish Boy.” He expected him to accept the pin and graciously place it in his pocket. But to his surprise, Ram Dass proudly put it on. 

Note:

I would like to thank Rabbi Zac Kamenetz for posting the Ram Dass lecture at the University of Judaism online and for a long conversation on a walk that sparked the idea for this article.


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