Monday, January 3, 2011
By Susan Esther Barnes
I’m religious. I’m going to guess this doesn’t come as a great surprise to readers of my blog. I have to say, though, it did sneak up on me slowly over time, and it’s not something I often admit to myself in so many words.
This was brought to my attention a few weeks ago when I was speaking with someone who was at our synagogue for the first time. After some small talk, he asked, “Are you religious?” and I said, “Yes,” but then I immediately felt embarrassed. “He’s going to think I’m a nut,” I thought, regretting my hasty response.
But why should I feel embarrassed? Maybe it’s because when I think of the word “religious” a whole bunch of images come to mind that don’t represent me at all. These include faith healers, people who shout, “Praise Jesus!” repeatedly, Orthodox Jewish women who think it’s immodest to let their own hair be seen in public but who think it’s okay to wear someone else’s real human hair instead in the form of a wig, priests, nuns in traditional habits, Jewish men hurling chairs across the mechitza at the Women of the Wall, etc.
As Rabbi Lezak says, why should we let other people define for us what it means to be religious? Isn’t it way past time for the word to be reclaimed by those of us who may be more moderate than some of those listed above?
I used to think religious people were either out of touch with reality or hypocrites. Out of touch with reality for believing things that can’t be real, like the parting of the Red Sea or the resurrection of Jesus, or hypocritical for following a religion even though they don’t believe in some or all of the things it says are true.
However, that analysis relies on the assumption that religious people have to take the Bible literally. I have since learned that a person can look at it as a source of inspiration and learning without believing that everything happened exactly like it says. Which is a good thing, since there are several places where the Bible gives more than one, contradictory, version of events (such as the creation of humans in Genesis).
So that begs the question, what do I mean when I say I’m religious? Is it that I go to synagogue most Friday nights and most Saturday mornings? I have talked to plenty of people who go to services who say they’re not particularly religious.
Is it that I learn about the mitzvot (commandments) and try to find ways to incorporate them into my life? No, I think people who do that to excess are edging closer to obsessive compulsive than they are to being religious.
Is it because I believe in God? Is it that I talk with God pretty much every day? I think that’s getting closer to it. I bought a piece of art in Tzfat in Israel that says “Ein od malvado,” which means, “There is nothing but God.” I see a bit of God in everything, from every person I meet to every tree and plant, and even in inanimate objects. I guess that makes me religious.
The thing is, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with much of what I wrote in the paragraph above, even though it’s all absolutely true. There is a part of me that is concerned it’s possible those feelings and beliefs mean I’m crazy.
To show how irrational my discomfort is, the clergy people at my synagogue are religious, but, on average, I don't think they're any more crazy than the average Joe. It makes no sense for me to think religious equals crazy for me but not for them.
So the only reasonable option I see is to go forward in the world believing what I believe and feeling what I feel. And as long as I remain a fully functioning, upstanding member of society, I guess that’s okay. Even if it may be a bit embarrassing from time to time.