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Ram Dass Was “Only Jewish on My Parents’ Side”

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Ram Dass Was “Only Jewish on My Parents’ Side”

This essay is part of the Lucid News “God on Psychedelics” project, reported and written by veteran religion journalist Don Lattin. To read the complete series, visit the home page.

Judaism and Christianity each have centuries-old mystical paths. But since the 1960s, and in the current psychedelic revival, countless North American psychonauts have turned to Buddhism, Hinduism or shamanism to understand their sudden connection to divine reality.

In the next few installments of “God on Psychedelics,” we’ll hear from two scholars — Rabbi Art Green and the Rev. John Mabry, both of whom have thought deeply and written extensively about Jewish and Christian mysticism.

How do they view a spiritual revival fueled by psychedelic drugs and sacred plant medicines? Will these revelatory glimpses of transcendence, unitive awareness and divine love inspire seekers to take another look at the mystical traditions hidden within their ancestral faiths? 

But before turning to the rabbi and the reverend, let’s first consider a more familiar name in the pantheon of psychedelic spiritualists.

That would be Richard Alpert, a Jewish psychology professor fired from his post at Harvard University in 1963 for giving psychedelic drugs to undergraduates. In 1964, Alpert co-authored an influential psychedelic guidebook with Harvard colleagues Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner that was based on the Buddhist theology of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In the late 1960s, Alpert went on a celebrated pilgrimage to India, became the disciple of a Hindu guru, and took the name Ram Dass.

Alpert was a master of one-liners, including the quip, “I’m only Jewish on my parents’ side.”

Leary and Alpert were encouraged to interpret their psychedelic experience through Eastern mysticism by two earlier psychedelic pioneers, the British writer Aldous Huxley and his friend and mentor Gerald Heard, an Anglo-Irish philosopher and mystic. Heard and Huxley were deeply influenced by two modern Indian spiritual movements — Vedanta and Theosophy, along with the spiritualist writings of William James, the so-called “father of American psychology.”

DMT researcher Rick Strassman argues that many of today’s psychedelic scientists and other psychonauts are biased toward a “unitive-mystical” model that is more in line with Eastern mystical traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism. They downplay the “interactive-relational” model that may be more reflective of Jewish or Christian mysticism. Strassman no longer believes in “neurotheology,” at least if that is defined to mean that psychedelics cause feelings or hallucinations that we interpret as spiritually significant. He now puts God first, as in “theoneurology.” This God, the Jewish creator God of the Hebrew scriptures, “constituted our mind-brain complex so that we can communicate with the spirit world.”

Strassman — who was raised as a Jew but as a young man became a serious student of Zen Buddhism — told me in an interview some years ago that he was disinvited to conferences and talks because his more recent monotheistic ideas “were ‘too religious,’ whereas somehow Buddhism, Hinduism and shamanism were not.”

It’s no secret that psychedelics often inspire profound mystical experiences, even among people who previously considered themselves atheists or long ago fell away from organized religion. These plants, fungi and chemical compounds have the power to deconstruct our preconceived ideas about the nature of reality and how we relate to ourselves and the world around us.

Yet mystical experiences — whether occasioned by psychedelics or some other path — often lead the spiritual seeker away from religious orthodoxy. This is why some Christian theologians warn that myst-i-cism “begins with mist, puts the I in the center, and ends in schism.”

Psychedelics can spark blessed connectedness, but they can also fuel grandiosity, paranoia and existential dread. It may be wise to recall an old Jewish tale from the first century about four rabbis who saw the face of God. One died, another went crazy, the third became a heretic, and only the fourth “entered in peace and departed in peace.”

One of the key Jewish-born messiahs of the psychedelic religion that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s was the aforementioned Ram Dass. His journey to the East and devotion to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, inspired the 1971 hippie classic, “Be Here Now”, and decades of service lived according to the spiritual teachings of bhakti yoga. Ram Dass encouraged a significant cohort of the acid subculture to go beyond the ephemera of psychedelic insight to pursue meditation and other kinder, gentler forms of mind expansion. At the same time, he became the poster child for turning your back on the faith of your forefathers.

Like millions of other Jewish Americans, Ram Dass’ ancestors emigrated to the United States from Russia and Eastern Europe around the turn of the twentieth century. They came in search of economic opportunity and to escape various forms of anti-Semitism, some of it deadly. His Judaism, like that of so many others, was more social than spiritual.

Most of this man’s references to Judaism in his talks and writings, both as Richard Alpert and as Ram Dass, are laced with sarcasm and self-deprecating humor. “Until you know a good middle-class Jew, upwardly mobile, anxiety-ridden, and neurotic, you haven’t met a real achiever!” he writes in “Be Here Now.” Judaism, he said a couple years later, is for “people who in one lifetime are not going to begin to awaken.” Jews, he said, “aren’t primarily interested in what happened to Moses up in the Mountain. Their primary interest is what he brought back.”

As a journalist on the religion beat, I interviewed Ram Dass a half-dozen times over a span of more than two decades. Our final encounters were a long series of conversations in 2008, over the course of three days at his home on Maui, when I was doing research for my book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” His Jewish heritage rarely came up during those interviews. I didn’t press him on it, and he didn’t seem to want to go beyond his great one-liners about Jewish angst, such as, “If you think you’re enlightened, go and spend a week with your parents.”

Ira Rifkin, one of my friends and colleagues on the religion beat, did have an extended conversation with Ram Dass about his Jewish heritage. It was in the early 1990s. Ram Dass had just turned sixty and had been invited to give a lecture on “Judaism and Spirituality” at a Jewish college in Los Angeles. He crammed like he was preparing for a college exam, reading the Torah and studying the works of Jewish scholars like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber and Adin Steinsaltz.

“I started to get into what it would feel like to be a very religious Orthodox Jew. I began to see the heartfelt beauty of being a person who truly loves God in a Jewish way, how it related to lineage and community, how the mitzvah (life guidelines under Jewish law) are all requirements for remembering God,” Ram Dass told Ira. “My belief is that I wasn’t born into Judaism by accident, and so I need to find ways to honor that.”

In his talk at the University of Judaism, Ram Dass confessed that both he and his father, a successful Boston lawyer and Jewish philanthropist, believed that the best way to assimilate into American life was “learning how to be ashamed of their parents…Can you feel the pain of all that?”

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“During my time of growing up, we started out as Orthodox and became liberal Conservative,” he said. “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 came of age, “nobody cared that I be religious. They just cared that I be a Jew.”

 Ram Dass confessed in his talk that it saddened him to be accused of having “led more people away from Judaism than anybody else. It was not, certainly, my intention to lead people from Judaism. I was responding to the truth of my own heart.” In the end, Ram Dass never really embraced his Judaism. He remained devoted to his guru and committed to a universalist philosophy centered around Hinduism and Buddhism. But he admitted that “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” on psychedelics.

Last month, around the time I was putting together this article, I stumbled across the transcript of an interview I did with Ram Dass on March 2, 1993 — nearly thirty years ago. I’d been cleaning out old newspaper files as part of a major decluttering and must confess that I had completely forgotten this particular conversation. 

Don Lattin interviewing Ram Dass at his home on Maui during interviews in 2008 for “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” (Photo by Cheryl Shohan)

Back in the 1960s, Ram Dass said in that interview, “churches had the forms and the rituals. Younger people came to get the spirit and only got calcified ideas and a patriarchal, vertical religion. In Judaism, most rabbis had never had a spiritual experience.”

Through psychedelics and meditative practices, he said, many Jewish baby boomers “went off into the spiritual dimensions of their own experience.” In the 1990s, he added, some of those seekers were starting to return via the “Hassidic mystical wing” of Judaism to find a “more intimate relationship with God.”

“If you go deep enough into the mystical tradition,” Ram Dass said, “it feels like you are reading a Buddhist text.”

Four years after this interview, Ram Dass suffered a major stroke that left him partially paralyzed and severely limited his ability to speak. He died in his home on Maui in late 2019 at the age of eighty-eight.

 In our 1993 interview, Ram Dass specifically mentioned the work of Rabbi Art Green and his “far out” books exploring Jewish spirituality. In the next installment of “God on Psychedelics,” Rabbi Green recalls how Leary and Alpert supplied the acid for his first LSD trips in the 1960s and offers his own analysis on Judaism and the psychedelic revival.

Featured Image: Nicki Adams using adapted image by Robert C. Demarest

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