Monday, January 3, 2011

Ok, I Admit It: I'm Religious

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.


  1. :o) I think there are nuts in every faith, but what defines them isn't the faith, it's the nuts part.

    The same way that kids who were "driven to suicide" through music, or playing D&D had problems in the first place, it's not the music (or the game).

    Being religious means having a personal connection with our chosen religion. If you're nuts you'll be a religious nut. I know one, not a fun thing to witness ;op If you are a well balanced individual, then you can be strong in your faith, have a close relationship with God, the Goddess, whoever, and still function normally and totally in the world.

    I think you are safe :o) I'm not Jewish, I do not share your faith, and yet I find your writing greatly interesting and thought provoking.

  2. I can relate to your discomfort. I don't know how to answer the "are you religious" question either.

    I know some people to whom "religious" means totally observant of halacha. So by their definition, I'm not religious.

    But compared to most people I know, I'm pretty religious (at least if you judge by halachic observance- though of course, if you think about it by internal state of mind as you do, the question becomes even more confusing!)

  3. I love the honesty and vulnerability in your writing! This was such an interesting post. It kind of requires questioning some assumptions that I have here and there about religiosity, how we experience and perceive it and how others do. Interesting all the way around lady! Thanks! :)

  4. Great post, as usual.

    I once asked one of my rabbis about the chair throwing (and stone throwing) that is done by a very very few Jewish men dressed in 18th century Eastern European black and white clothing.

    I asked him, "This kind of violence is a violation of halacha. How can religious people do things like this?"

    His answer gave me great clarity. "Simple", the rav said, "They're not religious".

    Unfortunately, there are some people who do not have the deep, spiritual connection to G-d that their parents had; but they still live in the same religious community, and dress, eat, and act like the others, out of cultural habit, not religious commitment.

    So please, do not let those who break Jewish law while wearing a costume, define what it means to be "religious".

  5. Thank you all for your kind and thoughtful comments.

    To Former Reform Jew - I think your rabbi was right. I hadn't thought of it that way. Thank you for passing along the rabbi's wisdom, and yours.

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  7. Being "religious" has become a major issue for me. Since I spend every workday with Orthodox Jews, I do tend to indentify "relgious" with "Orthodox." So when I contemplate "becoming religious," I run into a whole heap of trouble. On one side are my friends, some of whom I've known for over 30 years, who think I'm "too religious" already and would be nuts to "go Ortho." On the other, well, perhaps extreme are some of the fine folks from my office whose attitudes would make me hesitate to identify myself as religious. There's the co-worker who won't touch "finger food" served without tableware lest he/she be "contaminated" by the touch of someone who hasn't washed his/her hands ritually (n'tilat yadayim) after going to the bathroom. There's the co-worker who wondered whether the Holocaust-survivor college professor who sacrificed his life to protect his students from a campus gunman should really have done so, given that most of his students probably weren't Jewish. There's the co-worker who thinks it's inappropriate to explain Jewish traditions to non-Jews. The all-time winner may be the never-married Orthodox female co-worker who insisted that wherever she lives is not really her home as long as she's single--when she applied for a job with our mutual employer, she actually needed to have it explained to her that wherever she actually lives is her legal residence, whether she calls it "home" or not. And you wonder why I've already decided that, even though I'm female and married, I won't cover my hair in public if I become Orthodox, unless I'm in synagogue, praying, or reading sacred texts. Why would I want to be associated with such people? I know exactly what you mean about "images . . . that don’t represent me at all." An interesting question to ask might be, "Why do the extremists get taken as "representative" of a group as a whole?" Certainly most of the Modern Orthodox Jews who comment on my own blog aren't the least bit like some of the folks I've just described.

    This reminds me of one of the chapters in "Hide and Seek," in which the author said she stopped covering her hair because a head-covering had politicial significance in Israel--and it was a political significance with which she did not wish to be associated.

    Word-verification: "ranting." I kid you not.