General Topics

Why Religion


Whenever I hear people talk, or I see articles about religion in general and Judaism in particular, I feel disconnected. The word conjures up a lot of negativity because of the abuses of religion. But it is also because when one talks about matters of faith, belief, or religion it is usually about a system of thought, a doxy, orthodox or not. That’s where the word religion comes from. But there is no such term for this in the Torah itself. 

Judaism,  like other religions, is predicated on the idea that there is a creator and a spiritual dimension to the universe. But this idea was not defined in Judaism in any structured, or theological way until medieval times, in response both to Christianity and Islam. God has always been there as a challenge, an idea, or an experience. But that alone was not what defined or differentiated Judaism. 

The Israelites were a people, with a unique system of governance that goes back over three thousand years and covered every aspect of personal and societal behavior. It is this unique, holistic approach that has helped it survive, mutatis mutandis to this day.

The Bible uses human language to discuss and explain something beyond the normal parameters of human, animated life. God speaks, listens, changes mind, has a right hand, a finger, and expresses emotions. All of these are what humans do. They are anthropomorphisms. But the God in the Bible is non-human, beyond time, space, and other physical dimensions. Intangible, subjective, mystical. Whereas the idea of God is universal, being Jewish is an experience that goes beyond the conventional idea of religion. It is a practical tool, a way for life and identity. It provides a schema that is defined by actions rather than thoughts.

I’d be surprised if any two people could agree on a definition of God or how they experience God, if at all. Human beings are so different physically and mentally, that one could hardly expect them to respond in the same way. As Wittgenstein said, “ That about which we cannot talk we must remain silent.” Or if we cannot agree on what we mean, we won’t be able to communicate about it.” Yet it is possible to be “God Intoxicated.” Even if it might be self-induced, it remains a powerful phenomenon that a lot of people recognize.

It is not that I want to take the Idea of God out of religion. Quite the contrary. Some characters like the Talmudic Honi HaMaagel  (he who told God he would not step outside his circle until God brought the rains)or the fictional Tuvya the Milkman, chatted and bargained with God as if God were a friend, as did Abraham. But did God chat back to them? Or was it enough just to express one’s thoughts? And haven’t many others also conversed with God in other places and cultures?

But there is a problem that is particularly relevant today where individuality is so prized and rightly so. The flip side is that so many abandon support structures, such as families and communities, and rely instead on bureaucratic civil and secular systems for support or communication. So that it becomes so much more difficult to adhere to a Jewish life unless one has a supportive group of family, friends, or a community.

Much has been made recently ( although it has been a feature of Judaism throughout its existence) of the catastrophic disappearance of those Jews who either reject Judaism out of ignorance or only accept the moral and abstract messages of Judaism seriously. In so doing find themselves more attuned to other less demanding ways of life and culture. It is because most human beings behave according to dominant patterns of behavior, more than ideas.  Not thoughts but actions. So that a religion that focuses primarily on thoughts offers a less intense experience. Jews who are only committed through ideas and causes but have no experience to root them in a behavioral culture can see little reason to set themselves apart from the dominant majority.

On the other hand, for those who go to the other extreme and focus almost entirely on the conformity of dress, and received ideas, religion is a matter of behavioral conformity, a habit acquired from their earliest years and ingrained in most. Some will, of course, take it way beyond that to the very heights of passionate spiritual engagement. But only a small sliver. For the rest, it is a world of protection and security where one’s material and religious needs are taken care of. And there is much to commend it so long as one is able to conform to it.

Religion in my life, it is primarily behavioral. It’s the way I live rather than what I believe. The way my Jewish calendar takes priority over my secular or civil calendar. It is the way I measure my days from first thing in the morning and what I eat and how I behave during the day. The way I dress, the way that I stop to consider and make a blessing before I indulge. All these ritual elements add up to a predominantly Jewish way of life. Even if I rarely enjoy most synagogue or communal services, although I appreciate and value the necessity of communal organizations and facilities. It is a gift that enables me to live in two worlds, to compare and contrast and get the best out of both. It encourages adaptability for those who want variety and comfort for those who want security.

Religion ( indeed all human institutions ) can be used as a mechanism of control and power with alliances between the influential and the clergy,  held together both by dependency and need. What worries me are not those who choose to suppress their individuality for what they see as a greater good, but those who cannot live in that kind of world. There is of course an alternative within Judaism. To be an individual within its constitution. To choose what to do and what not to do, facing the consequences for better or worse.

The Torah tells us to “behave like God,” because God represents and prescribes in the Bible, a standard of good and bad that we should aspire to.  It posits a life with structure, discipline, and ritual as the way to cope with the challenges we face. It does not command that we must believe or what it is that we should think. If God is important, the theology surrounding it is not so much. It is either speculative or didactic and subject to the intellectual fashions of each generation. Theology exercises very little of my time or mind because it is not rational. It starts with its conclusions. Whereas true philosophy has to start with an open mind. True religion is experiential and existential, it resists rationality altogether. I can understand a relationship that influences our actions, but not a mental state that defines us. Theology cannot justify or explain our loyalty to the specific Jewish way of life which has an integrity of its own.

God is there lurking in the background waiting to be encountered in whichever way the moment takes us. This is why for the good of religion, theology, should take a back seat to the needs of human beings. While a constitution to keep us together is imperative, the way we relate to God is so personal that it is all but impossible to define. I can think of no better support for my thesis than the famous declaration of the prophet Micah (6:8). “You have been told, humankind, what is good, and what God requires of you, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Beautiful in theory. The challenge is to relate it to practice, how to walk!

What Judaism offers regardless o theology, is a socially cohesive mechanism of keeping a group of people with certain shared values and practices together. Living a Jewish life according to the rules and customs that we have had for thousands of years and are constantly modifying and evolving.  Its rituals are something to be enjoyed, sometimes a discipline offering a  structure in life that matters and enriches life whether it’s through the calendar or the days that the dominant society.