Ram Dass, right, born Richard Albert, with his friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (Joan Halifax/Wikimedia Commons)
Ram Dass, right, born Richard Albert, with his friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (Joan Halifax/Wikimedia Commons)

Discovering Ram Dass the Jew

The psychic bleeding had stopped, but my spiritual body remained near lifeless. After many years of infertility challenges and their attendant emotional terrors, we finally received news that this embryo transfer was successful, and a modicum of hope began to grow stronger every day. The material dimensions of this chapter were taxing enough — the miscarriages, the shots, the money spent, the searing pain after receiving more bad news — that I never expected that the greatest casualty of this process would be my religious life as I had come to know it.

After the bottom fell out, I could not read, listen to or speak about a spiritual matter without feeling the air was being sucked out of my lungs. Even when we were lucky enough to have a successful pregnancy, filled with the joy and relief of having our deepest hope granted, the sense of divine mission that I had felt since my teenage years continued to fade.

And then came Ram Dass, the Jewish psychedelics researcher, whose transformative encounters in Indian led him to become one of the counterculture’s chief spiritual figures, a formative exponent of New Age spirituality and a writer and speaker of international renown. He died Sunday at the age of 88.

In the fall of 2018, I found myself listening to “Ram Dass: Here and Now,” a podcast dedicated to sharing his decades of public teachings and lectures. I walked with him through the snowy streets of Boston he took magic mushrooms for the first time with Timothy Leary. In those days, Ram Dass was still Richard Alpert, a good Jewish boy and scholar of Freudian psychology. I stood with him as he was dismissed from Harvard after giving LSD to an undergraduate during the Harvard Psilocybin Project. I cruised with him on his Champion motorcycle as he realized that his ambition for fame and prestige and his acquisition of life’s finer things were empty. I journeyed through the Himalayas with him as he met Bhagavan Das, the yogi who encouraged him to “be here, now” — giving him the title of his influential bestselling book. I sat with him at the feet of Neem Karoli Baba or Maharaj-ji, as Alpert finally felt an unending and unconditional love looking back at him and accepting him exactly as he was. Maharaj-ji gave Richard Alpert a new name, Ram Dass — “Servant of God.”

While I had davened and sung with others, learned Torah with and from others, feasted on Shabbat and holidays with others, I had never been immersed in another’s inner journey toward the Divine so deeply as I felt I was listening to Ram Dass’ stories and teachings.

He talked at times in his decades-long career of the disappointment he felt in the “essential hollowness” of the Judaism he grew up with. His teachings blended the austerity of Zen Buddhism and the mythic dimensions of Hindu mysticism with Christ consciousness and various forms of yoga, among other traditions and practices. Though I had long embraced a Judaism that was not at all hollow, my spirit felt deeply bound up with his.

Like almost everything about Ram Dass’ life, his relationship with Judaism was ever changing. He liked to use his childhood in a bourgeois Jewish family as a rhetorical foil to the profound truths he had learned in his years of psychedelic exploration and intensive spiritual training. He peppered his talks with Yiddish words (while playfully saying they were Sanskrit) and was fond of quoting the Shema as a perfect paradigm of the unity that underlies all spiritual paths.

Ram Dass’ contact with Jewish mysticism in the 1980s was potent, and he began referring to Kabbalah, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and his friendship with Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi in his teaching and writing. He began to speak about his realization that he had spent years ignoring his current incarnation and understood that the full liberation of his consciousness would only occur in reconciling himself to his Judaism.

“I know that there are things about Judaism in terms of a quality of emotion, a quality of love of intellect, a quality of compassion, a quality of long-sufferingness, that are deep within me, and I know that I am incarnated as a Jew just this time,” he said in an interview in 1980. “I am in a Jewish form this time, and that’s what the Jews find offensive. That my identity isn’t first as a Jew, and then as a man, human being, and everything else. Because that’s the thing about Judaism — it’s a… first you’re a Jew — and I don’t feel that at all. I feel it’s merely part of the dance this time.”

Once Richard Alpert, then Baba Ram Dass, with Reuven HaLevi in there somewhere, he asked us all to love and feed everyone. For me, I found a teacher who told me that my loss was part of the game, an opportunity to relinquish old self-definitions in order to come into the present. Even without him here, he is still with me, now.

Rabbi Zac Kamenetz
Rabbi Zac Kamenetz

Rabbi Zac Kamenetz is the director of Jewish Living and Learning at the JCCSF and the executive producer of the Shefa Podcast Network.