December 24, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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Whenever I hear people talking, or see articles about religion in general and Judaism in particular, I feel disconnected.
The word conjures up a lot of negativity because of the abuse of religion. But it’s also because when we talk about questions of faith, belief or religion, it is usually a system of thought, a doxy, orthodox or not. This is where the word religion comes from. But there is no such term for it in the Torah itself.
Judaism, like other religions, is founded on the idea that there is a creator and a spiritual dimension to the universe. But this idea was not defined in Judaism in a structured or theological way until medieval times, in response to both 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 dates back over three thousand years and covered all aspects of personal and societal behavior. It was this unique and holistic approach that helped him survive, mutatis mutandis nowadays.
The Bible uses human language to discuss and explain something beyond the normal parameters of lively human life. God speaks, listens, changes his mind, has a right hand, a finger and expresses emotions. This is all what humans do. They are anthropomorphisms. But the God in the Bible is non-human, beyond time, space, and other physical dimensions. Immaterial, subjective, mystical. While the idea of ââGod is universal, being a Jew is an experience that goes beyond the conventional idea of ââreligion. It is a practical tool, a way of life and of identity. It provides a pattern defined by actions rather than thoughts.
I would be surprised if 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 would hardly expect them to react in the same way. As Wittgenstein said, âWhat we cannot talk about we have to keep silent about. Or if we can’t agree on what we want to say, we won’t be able to communicate about it. Yet, it is possible to be “God intoxicated”. Even though it can be self-induced, it is still a powerful phenomenon that many people recognize.
It’s not that I want to take the Idea of ââGod out of religion. Quite the contrary. Some characters like the Talmudic Honi HaMaagel (the one who told God that he would not go out of his circle until God brought the rains) or fiction Tuvya the milkman, chatted and bargained with God as if God were a friend, just like Abraham. But has God answered them? Or was it enough to express his thoughts? And haven’t many others also conversed with God in other places and cultures?
But there is one problem that is particularly relevant today where individuality is so prized and rightly so. The flip side is that so many people abandon support structures, such as families and communities, and instead rely on civil and secular bureaucratic systems for support or communication. So it becomes so much more difficult to join in a Jewish life unless you have a support group of family, friends or a community.
Much has been said recently (although it has been a hallmark of Judaism throughout its existence) of the catastrophic demise of those Jews who either reject Judaism out of ignorance or seriously accept only moral and abstract messages. of Judaism. In doing so, they find themselves more attentive to other less demanding ways of life and culture. This is because most human beings behave according to dominant patterns of behavior, more than ideas. Not thoughts but actions. So that a religion which focuses primarily on thoughts offers a less intense experience. Jews who are only engaged with ideas and causes but have no experience to root them in a behavioral culture see little reason to stand out from the dominant majority.
On the other hand, for those who go to the other extreme and focus almost entirely on clothing conformity and conventional wisdom, religion is all about behavioral conformity, a habit acquired from an early age and rooted in most. Some, of course, will go far beyond that to the very heights of passionate spiritual commitment. But only a small chip. For the rest, it is a world of protection and security where material and religious needs are taken care of. And there is much to recommend as long as one is able to comply with it.
Religion in my life is above all behavioral. It’s my way of life rather than what I believe. How my Jewish calendar takes precedence over my secular or civil calendar. It’s how I measure my days in the morning, what I eat and how I behave during the day. The way I dress, the way I stop to think and give a blessing before I surrender. All of these ritualistic elements add to a predominantly Jewish way of life. Although I rarely enjoy most of the synagogue or communal services, although I do appreciate and appreciate the need for communal organizations and facilities. It’s a gift that allows me to live in two worlds, to compare and contrast and to get the best 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 by both dependence and need. What worries me is not those who choose to suppress their individuality for what they see as the greater good, but those who cannot live in this kind of world. There is of course an alternative within Judaism. To be an individual in his constitution. Choosing what to do and what not to do, face the consequences for better or for worse.
The Torah tells us to “behave like God” because God represents and prescribes in the Bible a standard of good and evil to which we should aspire. It offers a life with structure, discipline and ritual as a way to deal with the challenges we face. He does not command that we are to believe or what we are to think. If God is important, the theology around him is not so important. It is either speculative or didactic and subject to the intellectual fashions of each generation. Theology exercises very little of my time or my mind because it is not rational. It starts with its conclusions. Whereas true philosophy must begin with an open mind. True religion is experiential and existential, it totally resists rationality. I can understand a relationship that influences our actions, but not a mental state that defines us. Theology can neither justify nor 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 met however the moment takes us. Therefore, for the sake of religion, theology must 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 virtually impossible to define. I see no better support for my thesis than the famous statement of the prophet Micah (6: 8). âYou have been told, men, what is good and what God requires of you to do justice, to love goodness and to walk humbly with God. ” Beautiful in theory. The challenge is to relate it to the practice, how to walk!
What Judaism offers, regardless of theology, is a mechanism of social cohesion to hold together a group of people who share certain values ââand practices. Live a Jewish life according to the rules and customs that we have had for thousands of years and which are constantly changing and evolving. Its rituals are something to appreciate, sometimes a discipline providing a life structure that matters and enriches life whether it is through the calendar or the days that the dominant society.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings cover religion, culture, history and current affairs – whatever he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.