Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Four words have been inscribed on my whiteboard for some time because I struggle to understand what they mean. They are, in no particular order: Religious. Devout. Observant. Pious. I am interested in what they mean to us as Jews, why and how we use them, and what they have to do with faith and soul and spirit.
Religious, according to Merriam-Webster, is: “Relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.” Observant is: “Careful in observing rites, laws, or customs.” Devotion is: “Commitment … to religion or to religious duties or exercises… expressing piety or religious fervor.” And Piety is: “Marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship.” Unfortunately, the definition quickly devolves into “Marked by shame or hypocrisy.”
My concern is that when these words and their meanings are conflated, and especially when they are used as the definitive measuring stick for “authentic” Jewish life, they can be interpreted as a line in the sand – the demarcation who is “in” and who is “out” in Jewish life. And that is a shame because our souls know better.
Some years ago, I learned what I consider to be a pretty terrific definition of religion in the context of spirituality. Spirituality, the author posed, is what is essential to the soul. Religion, on the other hand, is how we enact that which is essential to our daily lives.
Under this definition, Jews can be religious by drawing on Jewish faith and tradition to care for their souls and families, give to the needy, strive for moral and ethical justice, and commune with God – even if they never set foot in a synagogue, pray the traditional liturgy, read Hebrew, or know how to conduct a Passover seder. Don’t get me wrong — I am not saying that every Jew can be an island and make it up as they go along. Indeed, I have the utmost respect for those who devote their hearts and souls to a non-judgmental, observant, pious, religious and devout Jewish life –particularly when the soul’s spiritual quest is the driving force.
While I feel that ongoing Jewish learning and integration with a healthy community may deepen and strengthen their Jewish experiences, I can’t ignore the fact that so many who are on the “outside” don’t necessarily agree. They may have strong differences with what they understand to be basic Jewish teachings. They may have had difficult experiences with organized Jewish life. They may not wish to engage in a model that they feel defines Jewish life in terms of concentric circles — with those who are considered, in traditional terms, to be “Pious, observant, religious and devoted” in the inner circle, and everyone else orbiting somewhere around them. I have heard from so many that this model does not have much of a gravitational pull – and can actually serve more as a centrifuge – sending folks scattering out to seek their own spirituality, religiosity, piety, and observance in accordance with what is essential in their souls.
I refuse to believe they are “lost” to Jewish life and community. I sense they are teaching us that the spirit of Judaism is alive and well – but needs have changed as has the method of engagement (or disengagement).
The questions for me are: Can we see ourselves on different paths that converge at a point beyond the limits of our own vision – rather than on one path that splits into different directions? Can we devote as much of our energy to intra-faith work as we do to interfaith efforts? Do “we” have the courage to stop trying to “bring them into Jewish life” as it has been traditionally defined – and learn from the wisdom of their spirits? Are we willing to be vulnerable enough to say there is no one right way to be Jewish – just as our ancestors and sages have done for millennia? Can we work together to enhance one another’s spirits and promote the beauty of all of the facets of Jewish life?