Are You Religious?



by Michael Doyle

I’ve been kicking this one around for awhile: Am I religious? I mean, by whose standard? After all, Jewishly or otherwise, there are so many benchmarks by which to measure. Especially now, during the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), I’ve been trying to take the pulse of my religious life.

All Jews are familiar with the traditional–but totally false–continuum that allegedly goes from secular, through Renewal and Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform, and Conservative, on its increasingly observant journey towards Orthodoxy. Except, every Jew who davens in an Orthodox community knows someone (or likely some people) whose observance is less than the letter of the law–just as most liberal Jews know fellow congregants who go above and beyond the ritual norms in their communities.

As with all things Jewish, really, it’s a moving target. Well-known liberal Jewish blogger David A.M. Wilensky closed in on the issue in his response to people who criticized him for choosing to undergo Conservative conversion rituals in order to fully participate in a Conservative synagogue community. He said everything depends on the community in which you wish to daven (pray.) Wilensky’s father was Jewish, which qualified him as Jewish and for participation in the religious activities of his Reform shul. When he wanted to be able to fully participate in a new Conservative shul, though, such patrilineal descent didn’t matter. So he made the decision to undergo conversion rituals to make himself halachically (legally) Jewish in the eyes of the Jewish movement in whose religious life he wanted to participate actively.

Not a direct comparison to pegging whether a given Jew is religious–or not, and how much–but the answer still depends on your frame of reference. We’ve been discussing this for awhile in a thread on the JewishByChoice.org forum (“What Does It Mean to Be Religious?”.) One Jewish commenter complained that her husband, a Christian, didn’t consider her religious because she concentrated on performing mitzot (commandments) and ethical action rather than on obvious (to him) expressions of faith.

As I wrote there, it’s really an apples/oranges debate. Christianity emphasizes faith over action; Judaism emphasizes action over faith. For Jews, such action includes ritual activity that both demonstrates faith and affiliation and brings both into daily life–hence keeping kosher, lighting candles, saying brachot (blessings), acting ethically, etc.

But does doing all those things make you religious in a Jewish sense? As my rabbi would say, I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. I think there are, however, two responses: your own; and the one your community might give about you. It’s both absolute and relative.

Take me, for example. I say brachot throughout my day before eating, lay tefillin regularly and try to daven three times a day, wear a full-time kippah (yarmulke) and occasionally a tallit katan with my strings out, attend Erev Shabbat and Shabbat Shacharit services regularly, and try to refrain from writing lists, shopping, or watching TV on Shabbos. Yet I don’t keep a kosher kitchen, will use electricity on Shabbos, and only sometimes refrain from eating treyf (non-kosher food.)

On the whole, I consider myself a religious, fairly observant Jew. But how religious would other Jews consider me to be?

In an Orthodox community, I wouldn’t be considered very religious or observant at all. In a Conservative community, my religious life would be about par. In my own community – I daven at a Reform shul – I’m actually considered extraordinarily religious and observant.

Ultimately, though, empty actions have little merit with God or our fellow human beings. No matter how outwardly religious anyone portrays themselves, if what’s in their hearts doesn’t match up to their actions, there’s little point in their actions in the first place. (Witness, for example, the small, violent minority of allegedly pious Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem engaging in an ongoing campaign to undermine and eliminate women’s secular rights on fallacious religious grounds–Jews who give other Ultra-Orthodox Jews an undeserved bad name, I would add. Not to mention, HaShem.)

So, back to the original question. How religious are you? Maybe there’s a third response. A response that combines both the absolute and the relative in one. Figure out what’s really in your heart. Compare that to your actions. And be honest about how often the twain meet. Then ask yourself how that affects your fellow residents of the planet.

Forget about how it affects God for now. From a Jewish perspective, God is more concerned with how we treat each other than how we treaty God. And you’ll eventually have your response from Deity, anyway (hopefully a long, long time from today.)

I try hard to inform my actions with my Jewish faith, ethics, and values. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. (For better or worse, there will never be a year where the teshuvah of the High Holy Days will not have pungent and useful meaning for me.) Still, I’m loved and I love back and that counts to a degree no human benchmark can truly measure. How can that not be the best response of all?

So, faithful or agnostic. Zealot or atheist. How religious are you? Are you sure about your answer? Sometimes we’re not as religious as we think. And sometimes we’re closer to God than we ever realized. Want the quickest response? Leave God out of it and look for the answer in the eyes of those around you.

May you be blessed by what you find there.

Michael Doyle is a member of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, IL.

Originally posted at Chicago Carless

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2 Responses to “Are You Religious?”

  1. avatar

    Thanks for this insightful post, Mike! I think that the most important thing to remember is that things such as “religiosity”, “observance”, and “piety” should be measured by what happens inside a person, and not outside. Empirically speaking, there is indeed a spectrum of ritual observance, but in a Reform setting this should not have a value judgement attached to it. If we deem someone praiseworthy for their observance, it should be for their attainment of the ends to which ritual as a means, and NEVER, EVER for the rituals as ends-in-themselves. I hope nobody here deems it inappropriate or controversial for me to say that it is possible for the strictest orthoprax Jew to be totally irreligious and impious, while a radically minimalist Classical Reform Jew can be a tzaddik (and I know a few)!

    We must summarily abolish the practice of using the word “religious” as a synonym for “orthodox” or “orthoprax” or even “traditionally ritually observant”. Of course, this begs the question: “If a non-ritually observant Jew can be spiritually observant, religious, and pious, while an orthodox Jew can be irreligious, then can an atheist be said to be religious? In modern mainstream non-orthodox Jewish life, it is rather normal and unremarkable for atheists to participate in Jewish religious and communal life, and to be accepted as “religious” because they go through the motions of ritual observance, and may even find spiritual meaning and emotional comfort in doing so. Is this religion, or just spiritually-framed ethno-cultural affirmation?

    As a religious studies major, I think about such questions frequently. There are indeed non-theistic “religions” such as Confucianism, Daoism, and some forms of Buddhism. Some would even call atheism a “religion” of sorts. So, are we to acknowledge that non-orthodox Judaism can be either a theistic religion OR a non-theistic religion, or are we to dig in our heels and say “Wait a minute–we are the ORIGINATORS of ethical monotheism. Don’t we have a responsibility to be its custodians in an age of hedonism, materialism, and little faith in something greater?” Can we re-assert our mission to be fervent representatives of liberally-framed monotheism without being unkind to those in our midst for whom traditional belief in God is difficult or impossible?

    I think we should all think deeply about these questions.

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