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Religious, not Spiritual

The following is a teaching that Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek offered on the second day of Rosh Hashona, September 6, 2013. 

There is a member of our congregation who has mixed feelings about Judaism – just one, I think - and not long ago, he asked me if I, perhaps together with my colleague Pastor Larson-Wolbrink at First Presbyterian, would consider just starting our own religion. We could call it Beaconism

I have to admit, it had a certain appeal. We could drop the crazy stuff, like liturgy in a language we don’t understand or food rules that keep us from bacon and keep the good stuff, like loving your neighbor and blessing your children.

It’s not just him. According to Robert Putnam, one of the leading scholars of American religion,  today one out of every five of Americans define themselves as “spiritual” – meaning that perhaps they feel a deep connection with the earth or believe in God but they don’t define themselves as religious; among people under 30, its one out of every three.

There is a lot to be said for being spiritual, but not religious, for inventing Beaconism and losing the baggage.

Statistically speaking, there are probably a number of people in this room today who think that some form of Beacon-ism might not be such a crazy idea. I don’t even think it’s such a crazy idea, but I’m not going to do it. I’m going to stick with Judaism and I’d like to say a little bit about why.

First though, I want to give two reasons that aren’t the reasons why I’m committed to Judaism.

The first is because we’re better. There are those, such as the medieval author Yehudah haLevi who claim that Judaism is inherently superior to other religions. He writes that the Jews are the true, perfect descendants of Adam and that other people are like husks and rotten fruit – somewhat similar to perfection, but actually putrid.

Worse, some claim that Jews as a people are somehow inherently superior to other peoples. “Did you know that 900% of Nobel Prize winners are Jews? we must be better than the goyim!”

That’s nonsense. We have heros and villans, saints and sinners like every culture. Judaism is no better than other religions than English is a “better” language than Chinese. There are some ideas or concepts that English is uniquely good at expressing and the same is true of Chinese, Russian, Italian or any other language. I’m not committed to Judaism because it - or we - are somehow better. We’re no less than any other religion, but no more, either.

The second reason that is not a reason why I’m committed to Judaism is because God likes it better. I don’t know God’s religion and neither does anyone else. I have no doubt that I am Jewish and I am equally certain that the Holy One of Blessing is bigger than any one religion.

So then - if I’m not committed to Judaism because God wants me to be and I’m not committed to Judaism because it - or we - are the best, why am I committed to Judaism? In this day and age, it is a real question, a question asked - even if silently - by the majority of Jews in America and possibly the majority of Jews in this room. It’s a question that deserves real answers and I’d like to offer the three that ring most true to me.

The first is the wisdom of our predecessors. Alison and I were once celebrating her birthday on a beach in Tel Aviv with some sushi and she called her grandmother Irene, of blessed memory. Irene observed that there was nothing about this call she could have imagined as a child in rural Germany – not having a granddaughter, not the existence of Tel Aviv, not sushi, not a telephone you can carry to the beach.

In an age such as ours, it’s tempting to think that the issues we face are entirely different than those of our predecessors. Some issues are different - but many are the same. We fear death, navigate human relationships, mark the passage of time in ways not entirely unlike our predecessors. While I might not want to do everything my predecessors did, I am proud to inherit them and draw on their insights.

Very recently I talked to a member of our community who was wrestling with one of the most difficult decisions a person can make - whether to put their spouse in hospice care. I shared with her a story of Rav Yehuda HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishna, who was deathly ill but was kept alive by the prayers of his students. Out of love, someone disrupted their prayers, allowing R. Yehudah to pass away and the tradition sees this as a great and meritorious act. This story doesn’t offer a clear and unambiguous way to deal with the complex situations, nor would it be worth much if it did. I don’t turn to the Torah because I expect it to be a recipe book for a life well lived. I turn to it for a language, a framework to reflect on some of the core issues of life.

So the first reason I turn to the Torah and it’s traditions is because I recognize I am not an utterly unique snowflake with problems and challenges that no human has ever before encountered. More to the point, I recognize that I have something - not everything, but something, something valuable, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart - to learn from my ancestors.

The second reason I’m committed to Judaism is because the rituals and practices of Judaism - whether or not they are exactly what I would design in Beaconism - acknowledge and celebrate the fact that I am part of something larger than myself.

Social scientists found that children who were strongly connected to their own extended families tended to report a greater sense of control in their own lives, rate higher on every measure of emotional health and happiness and be more resilient when faced with stress. The rituals of Jewish life – regular Shabbat dinner with friends and family, come to shul, keeping kosher – connect us to something larger than ourselves and our immediate families.

Knowing that you are part of something larger than yourself - even, perhaps particularly if you have to wrestle with that larger reality - is not just a resource for resilience; it’s a source of joy.

Some of you were in this room for my son Abraham’s bris about two and a half years ago. He is named Abraham after my grandfather, Abraham Weichselbaum, so that his name connects him to an ancestor he’ll never meet, a family history larger than just him. The bris itself was a way of connecting him to the spiritual covenant of the Jewish people, to something larger than even our family. At Abe’s bris I shared a letter that my grandfather wrote to his mother describing being a camper at Surprise Lake camp and hiking over Mount Beacon and down Breakneck Ridge. I don’t know if there is any practical outcome to knowing that we have five generations of connection to the trails that go up and down these mountains, but when I take my son on those trails, it gives me a sense of joy to know that my family has been doing that for quite a while.

But it’s an accident of fate that I live in a place where my grandfather went to camp almost 100 years ago. Rootedness comes in many forms. My wife’s grandparents - Hazel’s parents - were German Jews who fled during the war and as you might imagine, they brought very little with them. But they did bring some small silver kiddush cups and every Friday night, it gives me tremendous joy to know that my family has been making Kiddush on these cups for generations. We have plenty of silly family rituals we make up and I love those but I also cherish the songs and practices and names and rituals that connect us to something much larger than ourselves.

The Ramban, one of the great medieval Kabbalists, wrote that part of the reason there are so many holidays is simply because it’s good for families to come together. At some level, we don’t have a large family meal for the purpose of celebrating Rosh Hashona; we celebrate Rosh Hashona for the purpose of having a large family meal. We invest in the rituals of Judaism in part because they are a container that allows us to come together, and being together with other people is one of the most basic of our human needs.

But being with people is a funny thing. In my life, there are people I like, people I consider friends who live here in Beacon, but I rarely see them - I’m busy, they’re busy, the kids have needs. Maybe twice a year we’ll make plans to get a beer or something like that. We haven’t invested in a common container. But then there are people I see every week because they come to shul and I come to shul and although we rarely make plans to see each other, they are some of the most consistent presences in my life because we have both invested in the container of Judaism. They are a community larger than an individual family and larger even than individual friendships.

So the second reason I am invested in the rituals and practices of Judaism is because they are a container that allows me to come together with other people in deep and sustaining ways.

The final reason I’m committed to Judaism is because I believe I have a right to be different. To be a Jew in America is to be in constant tension with the expectation and desire to be part of the mainstream. This comes up all the time in the way that we talk - there is Hebrew school and “regular” school; there is the Jewish calendar and the “regular” calendar.

To practice Judaism is to be highly irregular. Thank God, we don’t live in an era when we regularly face significant anti-Semitism because we are Jewish by background or ethnicity.

However, to practice Judaism, particularly if - like all of us - you don’t live in an all Jewish environment, brings you into constant tension with the world and not because the world is a bad place. There is just a “regular” way of doing things and those who practice Judaism do things a different way.

Not long ago, a neighbor asked my daughter what she was doing for Easter. It was a reasonable question and I know my neighbor meant no malice with it. Nevertheless, I was incredibly proud when my daughter said “Nothing. We’re Jewish. We celebrate Passover.” Those moments aren’t without pain – we often turn down invitations to do things we want to do because they are on Shabbat, and I suspect those issues will only become more intense as my children get older. But I also believe that the practice of asserting the dignity of difference, the ability to be irregular - queer, if you will - is at the cornerstone of social justice in America.

In every culture and subculture, there is necessarily behavior that is “regular” and there is nothing wrong with that.  

  • Sometimes the regular thing is to be Christian and it is good to assert the dignity of doing something different.
  • Sometimes the regular thing is to be straight and it is good to assert the dignity of doing something different.
  • Sometimes the regular thing is to be white and it is good to assert the dignity of doing something different.

All cultures have their expectations and orthodoxies; healthy cultures allow for greater variation from the norm.

Our Jewish community has norms and expectations too - about how we marry, how we celebrate our children and how we practice Judaism. I don’t think they’re oppressive expectations, but sometimes people in our community push against them too, and I’m glad they stand up for what they believe, even - perhaps particularly - when it is different from what I believe.

Thank God for the norms that hold a community together and thank God for those who press against those norms.

Its always on the individual to take the courageous stand and say no, I won’t sit in the back of the bus, no I won’t pretend that my partner is my roommate, no, I don’t celebrate Easter.

It takes a lot of courage to say “I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it,” and I’m glad that being Jewish gives us the opportunity to practice.  

So the third reason that I’m committed to Judaism is because in a million ways, overt and covert, America asks me to behave like a “regular” person and there is dignity in being different.

There is a lot I struggle with in Judaism - I struggle with how our tradition thinks about gender, and I struggle with how our tradition assumes heterosexuality. I struggle with my commitment to the land and state of Israel and I struggle with what that state means for the basic human rights of the Palestinians with whom we share the land. I struggle with what it means to maintain a commitment to spiritual practices that were developed in a world very different than the one I live in.

I imagine that everyone in this room has had their own struggles with our tradition.

But I am not simply a spiritual person - I am proudly committed to this religious tradition, even as a I struggle with it, because I believe that particularly in matters of the spirit, I have something to learn from the people and traditions which preceded me and I think I have something to offer to the people and traditions which will follow me.

I am proudly committed to this religious tradition, even as I struggle with it, because I want to be substantively connected to other people around me - I want to be in community with them and show up when they are in need and know that they will show up when I am in need.

I am proudly committed to this religious tradition, even as I struggle with it, because I believe the world would be a more boring and even oppressive place if we are all forced - or if we all choose - to be the same.

I can be spiritual all by myself on the mountaintop, with nobody to interrupt my bliss, but as the modern Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig put it, the Star of Redemption has the shape of a human face, and I am glad to be part of the Jewish community and a tradition of human faces - and their demands, and their baggage.

I hope and pray that in this coming year, we all are able to find ways of embracing and further developing the tradition that we are part of.

Shana tova.

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782