In Defense of Having a Religion

by Steve Taub

The High Holy Day season was not an easy time for my family this year, as my son passed away in January. Rosh HaShanah includes a Torah portion about a father who almost sacrifices his son; I would not have passed Abraham’s test. When my son died at the age of 17, I learned firsthand that there are times when there is no ram in the bushes. I also felt, firsthand, the embrace of a compassionate religion.

So why is it that, these days, religion seems to be blamed for so much? Here’s what I can tell you about my synagogue:

  • Recently, we coordinated with other local houses of worship, including many black churches, to oppose a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage.
  • In order to become a bar or bat mitzvah, that religious school student is required to complete one or more community service mitzvah projects, volunteering at least 13 hours to directly helping other people. They work with the elderly and the poor; they tutor, visit new immigrants, and help those with special needs. By doing this, they do more than learn about what is written in the Torah; they live it.
  • Our high school students go on “mission” trips that have nothing to do with proselytizing. They go to New Orleans to help rebuild homes and lives, and they go to Washington, D.C., to learn about public policy issues and Jewish values through the RAC’s L’Taken seminars, lobbying our Congressional representatives about issues from economic justice to civil rights to immigration reform.
  • Like many temples, ours has a lay committee whose sole purpose is social action. Another committee maintains a synagogue garden and gives away everything grown in it to those who might otherwise be hungry. Our Brotherhood and Sisterhood each work monthly at the local soup kitchen.
  • During the High Holy Days, we hold a major food collection drive. The amount we take in and give away is measured, quite literally, in tonnage.
  • Of course, we also take care of our own, as I found out when my son died. I didn’t know that kind of support existed until I was on the receiving end.

In a Rosh HaShanah sermon, my rabbi said that our version of organized religion brings three things to the table: community, continuity, and ethics – and I agree. As I see it, religion has two imperatives that often compete with each other: vigilance and compassion. Whenever vigilance has the upper hand, be careful; when compassion has the upper hand, however, the positive outcomes are numerous. Though others look at religion and only see vigilance, I know that at the heart of my religion – and most others – are kindness and compassion, even if this isn’t universally apparent. For example:

  • In my home state of North Carolina, slavery was once legal – but in my community. a number of abolitionists assisted with the Underground Railroad, a movement heavily supported by local Quakers.
  • Through Habitat For Humanity, volunteers have built thousands of homes for people who might otherwise not have a roof over their heads. Many Jews (including me) have volunteered with Habitat, but this isn’t a Jewish movement; it’s a church-based, Christian one.
  • Sadly, the positives of Islam are too often ignored in the West. In his blog, American Muslim Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa writes about Islam’s well-developed compassionate side and its impact on his life.

I’ve heard enough times that religion is, over all, a negative influence on the world. Of course there are people, like the Osama Bin Ladens of the world, for whom religion is a negative influence – for whom religion is all about vigilance and compassion is, at best, an afterthought. That’s not remotely true for me because that’s just not how Reform Judaism works. For my family and me, as we mourn our son’s death and prepare for our daughter’s bat mitzvah, religion is an extremely positive influence in our lives

Chesed, the Hebrew word for kindness, appears 248 times in the Torah. Ancient doctors used to (wrongly) claim there were 248 bones and organs in the human body (science sometimes hypothesizes and then adjusts). Using this parallel, Jewish tradition concluded that kindness should run through every fiber of our being, and compassion should be as central to us as our own blood and guts. As far as I’m concerned, Reform Judaism is getting it right – and our lives are better for it.

Steve Taub has been a member of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C., since 2006. Tragically, his beloved 17-year-old son, Jonah, died in January. Jonah is also survived and missed by his mother Deb and his sister Rose.

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13 Responses to “In Defense of Having a Religion”

  1. Robb Kushner

    This is a beautiful and important piece, Steve. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  2. avatar

    I am so very sorry for your loss. It is good that you have those there at the temple where you worship that can be considered and appreciated as an extended family. We are all God’s aren’t we?

  3. avatar

    While many faiths teach that man was created in the image of God. Too many adherents believe that God was created in image of them & use their own hatreds to prove that God hates… To the above I would add a 3rd religious dimension of some but far from all faiths the desire to control a population and force conformity-Inquisition, religious wars of the 16th century. Shia v Sunni. Hindu v Islam in India, Christianity v Islam in Nigeria etc

  4. avatar

    freat article and i approeciate so much, i will share in our reform congregation in florence in italy

  5. avatar

    Thank you so much for this – it is a gift to us. You have given and continue to give so much to our community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Our family has shared your heartbreak, and continues to mourn with you. We are also in awe of how you have incorporated courage and grace into everything you do. May God bless you and Debbie and Sam.

  6. avatar

    Thank you all.

    I came up with this because a site I normally blog on has a lot of atheists who knock religion a lot. I get why but I got sick of the generalizing. I look at Reform Judaism and ask them: Aside from some philosophical objections to the idea of faith, how does my religion lead me to anything you’d object to? It seems to me that it does quite the opposite. This is not to say that religion is a prerequisite to compassion but it can certainly support it, which ours absolutely does. Also, the role of faith in Judaism (not just Reform) is very different from what it looks like in Christianity or Islam, and I get sick of being painted with the same brush because people aren’t aware of the differences. We come from a religion where conduct is a higher priority than faith.

  7. avatar
    Melissa Hunter-Kilmer Reply October 3, 2012 at 11:31 am

    In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I bet Islam holds a similar core concept. Even my younger son, who is an atheist, believes in doing good for others. We don’t have to agree on religion to work together for the good of our neighbors.

    On another note, I’ve been praying for you and your family since I heard that Jonah had died. Please accept my sorrow and condolences.

  8. avatar

    Thank you both.

    First of all, hi.

    Secondly, from what I know of Islam, it does.

    Generally speaking, the issue of the compassion/vigilance balance is less a function of any given religion than it is of sects or movements within each of the major western religions, and sometimes the gradations are finer than that, going to disagreements within movements or sects. My remark about the role of faith in Judaism isn’t about that balance, it’s more about how some who criticize religion make assumptions about religion in general without knowing a whole lot about individual religions. They’re more inclined to think the differences are along two continuums (continua?): the nature of the deity(s) being worshipped along with backstory and the degree of observance.

    I know most about Judaism in this regard. Two things that are true about Judaism are that conduct is a higher priority than faith (not just Reform Judaism, all Judaism) and that historical Biblical truth is less of an issue than moral truth: We study scripture primarily in order to learn how and why to behave, not what happened or even what to believe. I very much doubt that that’s what atheists would assume about any religion.

  9. avatar

    Deb and Steve,
    Although Dave and I came to TE shortly after Jonah’s passing, we too have been deeply moved by your story and the support of the Temple. I concur wholeheartedly that Reform Judaism is “getting it right.” The freedom to ponder, study and learn a better way of life is so liberating! As the movie title says, “Heaven Can Wait.” We cannot leave a true legacy on earth unless we actually live life…and sometimes get our hands dirty.
    Continued thoughts for your family.

  10. avatar

    Thank you both.

    I agree wholeheartedly, dirty hands and all.

  11. avatar

    well said my friend

  12. avatar

    Thank you. I’m listening to you on the radio at the moment

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