Sunday, April 12, 2009


Last weekend, during the most recent meeting of the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I recognized something about myself: few things bother me more than listening to people judge which forms of religious expression are authentic, and which are not. I could say the same about listening to people evaluate which conceptions of God are worthy of the term, and which are not. For some “men of God,” if you don’t conceive of your deity the way they do, you must be an atheist. Still, it is one thing to deny another person’s status as a believer in God; it’s a far greater offense to claim that a person who regularly goes to a place of worship isn’t even religious. Yet that is precisely what I heard last weekend. A Muslim friend, who began his statements by acknowledging that he doesn’t know much about Judaism, went on to declare that “Reform Judaism isn’t REAL Judaism.” I’m not a Reform Jew, but when I heard that statement (and other similarly dismissive) remarks about “progressive” approaches to Judaism), I began having doubts for the first time about whether a dialogue can be constructive.

Fortunately, I’ve since calmed down. Now I’m actually looking forward to the next dialogue more than ever. But that’s only because I’m now an interfaith Jew on a mission. I can’t wait for an opportunity to explain to my Muslim cousins that Judaism is something more than Islam-Lite. By that last term I’m referring to a statement made by a dear friend, but one whose theological views differ radically from my own, that because Muslims are required to pray to God more often each day than Jews (five versus three) and because Muslims are required to perform cleanliness rituals that Jews are not (such as removing shoes before entering holy places, a practice that dates back to the Book of Joshua but is not observed today by Jews), it follows that “Muslims are more Jewish than Jews.” That sounds like a joke, but given my friend’s view that the Torah is a “corrupted text” and the Qur’an is the literal word of God, I think he really meant it.

Truth be told, Judaism is hardly a more casual version of Islam. In fact, Judaism is an altogether different kind of animal than what many Muslims and Christians envision when they hear the word “religion.” Traditionally, Muslims and Christians view religions as systems of ritual practices grounded in various articles of faith. Yet Judaism decries the whole notion of articles of faith. And though we have plenty of rituals, we observe these rituals to greatly varying degrees depending upon the individual Jew. If there is one thing that unifies us – and I’m not talking about ethnicity, because many Jews are converts – it’s our commitment to certain VALUES. As one of these values is the pursuit of truth, some people’s Judaism has led them to question traditional teachings about God, and to ground their spirituality on a more humanistic plane. I can envision such a person deriving inspiration from Jewish sages and Jewish culture to struggle tirelessly for justice, march passionately for peace, learn tirelessly for learning’s sake, honor all their promises, avoid deception at all costs, and invariably treat others with kindness and warmth. To me, that person – regardless of how many rituals they observe – is a “religious Jew” in the deepest sense of the term. The idea that someone like that who also regularly attends Jewish services at a Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal synagogue is somehow not a “real” Jew … I’m sorry, but that attitude has always set me off.

Why do I care so much about the chauvinism described above? Because I truly believe it has a stifling effect on religious expression. My view is that spirituality is much like music, art, dance or sports – we all have the capacity to benefit from these forms of expression, but they have to be introduced to us in just the right ways. Typically, that means that each individual needs to be able to choose when to enjoy them and how to enjoy them. As a child, I loved sports primarily because nobody told me precisely how to play them and I was allowed to do so at a relatively low level of competence without being criticized for my lack of skill. By contrast, until I went to college, I hated art from the day that a grade school art teacher pointed out my ineptitude.

All traditionally religious people claim to want others to enjoy the benefits of living a spiritual life, but when many of them witness the manifold ways that people express their religiosity, they feel free to judge the authenticity of the expression. Non-theistic churches like secular humanist or Unitarian-Universalist meeting halls are treated with ridicule by most of America’s “religious” communities. Similarly, Spinozists like myself who proclaim a belief in a God that is very different from the God of Scripture evoke the reaction that we’re really just atheists who are using the word “God” when we simply mean “nature.” To many “men of God,” only traditional manifestations of spirituality are worthy of the effort. God must be seen as omnipotent and omni-benevolent, or else He’s not God. And religion must be seen as defined by observance of traditional, Scripture-based ritual, or else it’s not religion. I could be wrong, but I think these reactions on behalf of traditionally religious people take their toll. I think they cause many non-traditional spirits to become enemies of religion, consumed by the resentment that inevitably flows from being constantly judged and put down.

“If music be the food of love, play on!” said Shakespeare. I would add that this applies equally to religion. If a Reform Jew derives meaning from her faith, let’s celebrate that. Why would anyone put that faith down? It’s as silly as a fan of Beethoven hearing Miles Davis and then yelling “that’s not REAL music, get that crap off my CD player.” Is it surprising that those whose faiths are attacked as irreligious would claim that “religion is bullshit” or that “we don’t need religion?”

No, you don’t need religion, any more than we need music. Or art. Or dance. Or sports. Or, for that matter, community. The list of wonderful things we can live without is a long one. But what do you say we discourage that sort of asceticism? If you see a little boy throwing a ball at a hoop, grab the rebound and play with him for a minute. If you see a girl drawing a painting, find the beauty in it and point it out. And if you see a person leaving church, smile at the fact that they’ve found a reason for going … regardless of the church’s name or denomination. Most importantly, if you feel compelled to evaluate which forms of religious expression are authentic and which are not, stay with that thought. Maybe the person who needs to leave their church is looking at you in the mirror.

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