I’ll admit it, I get lonely sometimes.
It can be really hard to feel alone, especially during the holidays; especially this year, being more distant than usual from my family.
When I have shared this loneliness with members of our temple community, I have been met with the same wonderful and uplifting response: “Don’t be lonely, you have us!” And indeed, when I am here with you all, loneliness is the farthest thing from my mind.
And I know that I am not the only one whose loneliness is allayed by community. In fact, I suspect that many people who come here regularly come because they are lonely, or because they would be lonely if they didn’t come regularly.
That’s part of what community is all about. The word community implies togetherness, it connotes sharing and commonality;
Last month when we invited members of this temple to participate in Parlor Meetings many of you shared with us why being part of this community is important to you: “This (temple) gets me out of myself,” one of you said, “I feel involved (in something more than my own immediate life and concerns)”. “(Being part of the temple gives a) rhythm to my life”, said another, and someone else said, “(when I’m at temple) I can cry, and someone always gives me a hug”.
One of our most basic human instincts is to seek out others – for survival yes – but also for company and for context, since communities help us to know who we are in relation to others.
Religions have been characterized by “the three B’s”: Believing, Belonging, and Behaving. When it comes to religions, these three are inseparable. Believing and behaving don’t require one to be affiliated with a religion. But having a community where we belong – with others who believe and behave in the same ways and according to the same values – is something that only happens within the context of religion.
These days, many people shy away from the term religious. According to the latest Pew report, almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, as Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in a recent Time Magazine article, “they have some feeling, some intuition of something greater (than themselves), but feel allergic to institutions.”
Rabbi Wolpe explains that spirituality is an emotion while religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes while religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself while Religion is dissatisfied with the world, and provides actions for us to take in response to this dissatisfaction. Being spiritual makes us feel good, but spirituality in and of itself doesn’t push us to better ourselves and our world. However religion does.
Our values and our sense of right and wrong don’t exist in a vacuum. We need to be part of a religious community in order to give our values a context and a structure, in order to balance our human flaws with scriptural guidance, and in order to have something and someone against which to measure ourselves.
And yes, these communities can bring with them frustration and, dare I say it, an expectation of commitment. You might even be asked to sit on a committee or attend meetings!
Then again, as Rabbi Wolpe writes, “there is something profoundly, well, spiritual about a committee meeting. It involves individuals trying together to sort out priorities, to listen and learn from one another, to make a difference…
Institutions…frustrate,as do families and every other organized sector of human life. If you want frictionless,” he concludes, “do it alone.”
Then again, even if we find reasons to overlook the challenges of religious institutions, there may still be inherent flaws with religion itself. Rabbi Joshua Heschel once wrote about the decline of religion, remarking on how it is commonplace to blame science and philosophy for what he calls, “the eclipse of religion in modern society.” He felt it would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.
“Religion declined not because it was refuted,” he writes, “but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive (and) insipid. When faith is completely replace by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit…when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”
Heschel is acknowledging that religion can be problematic. It can be misunderstood, misconstrued and manipulated. Its intent can be hijacked and misdirected by those with intentions of their own. But when religion is practiced with good and pure intent; when faith and meaning and compassion are at the fore, it can be beautiful. It can add something of value to our lives.
And yes, faith and meaning and compassion can all be practiced without being part of a religion, but not if we want to share these things with others, and not if we want to have a structure and a context in which to place our beliefs and values.
Religion is spirituality, belief and practice PLUS community and structure.
Take Judaism, as an example.
I once heard it explained that spirituality opens our hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience. Our religion does the same thing, but it grounds these practices and experiences in Jewish mystical, textual, and historical traditions.
What are these very High Holy Days if not a spiritual accounting of our souls? But without the structure of our Holy Day worship services; without the teachings and traditions of our religion, would we be able to account for our souls in the same way? Without a community in which to gather, who would we share this spiritual journey with?
There are very few forms of spirituality that don’t involve a communal practice of some kind. Even when people meditate they often do it in a room together. This is because there is an energy in communal spirituality that is lacking in the spiritual moments we seek out by ourselves.
Judaism understands this. It is first and foremost a religion of community. Jews are often referred to as the “Jewish People”, the “People of Israel” and “The Tribe”, all of which convey belonging. Judaism is a “Belonging-Based Community”
In his book, Becoming Jewish, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben explains how “the same concepts of believing, behaving and belonging apply to Jewish identity, except Jews value a slightly different order and importance. For Jews,” he writes, “identity does not spring from belief…Instead, what gives us identity is belonging.”
He points out that since belonging is what gives us the foundation of our religious identities, the behaviors of Judaism – acts like eating matzah on Passover or fasting on Yom Kippur or even speaking Yiddish (Oy Gevalt!) – are behaviors which strengthen the feeling of belonging. Judaism includes more than just the aspects we think of as religious. It includes language, literature, art, history, music, and a shared homeland.
“Most Jews you meet,” Rabbi Reuben writes, “experience their identity primarily through what most people see as Jewish culture…It’s (why) we feel Jewish when eating a bagel…when we hear jokes or read stories about Jews. It’s why we feel Jewish pride when we hear a Burt Bacharach song, watch an Adam Sandler movie, see a (Streisand) concert or witness Steven Spielberg walk away with yet another Academy Award. We’re even proud (in a motherly way) of Howie Mandel.”
We don’t usually think of these feelings, experiences and behaviors as being religious, but Rabbi Reuben is arguing that, in fact, they are.
There is a generally accepted stereotype that the term “religious” refers to those who are observant on a regular basis. But religious, as Rabbi Reuben concludes, “isn’t a label that is reserved for those that frequent a temple, church, or mosque. It’s a broad category that includes striving to make sense out of difficult times and the struggle to impart values that move the world closer to our collective dreams.”
That is why I think of all of us who are here as religious even though many of us might see ourselves as primarily cultural or spiritual. I say this because we are here, sharing in that desire to make sense of the world and our place in it; because we felt it important, for whatever reason, to be a part of the Jewish community on this most sacred of days; because we share at least some, if not all, of the values and beliefs of the Jewish religion, and because by being here, we express our desire to share those values and beliefs with others who value and believe the same.
Being religious isn’t dependent on observing specific rituals, services, ceremonies, holidays or customs. Rather, it’s an all encompassing approach to life, people, family, relationships, and the world’s well-being. We express that approach to life in a number of ways. Some of those ways, as Rabbi Reuben explains, include the rituals that Jewish tradition has developed. “But the main point isn’t the rituals or the prayers,” he writes; “it’s the values they symbolize. (They) are cultural reminders of our…historical events and ethical values – they are group-building symbols that help bind us together”.
Take Shabbat as an example: I once read about a woman named Renee, who shared this reflection about growing up in a Jewish community: “My parents were divorced,” she explains, and my family life was splintered, so I spent much of my time with my Jewish friends. My best friend….came from a devout Jewish family. I spent much of my time with her, and I recall every Friday her family observed the tradition of (Shabbat) dinners (and) I would join them regularly. (It) was a welcomed sense of family, a sense of tradition and belonging.”
The tradition of observing Shabbat in the way that Renee is describing, is a religious tradition. But more than that, it is a tradition that binds us to community through common practice.
Take gratitude as another example: You don’t need to be part of a religion to express gratitude. Most spiritual disciplines promote an awareness of gratitude. However Judaism has had its share of challenges, and its traditions and teachings emphatically promote gratitude despite life’s griefs and sorrows. It is too easy, Jewish sources say, to fall back on being dissatisfied with life and focusing on what you lack. Taking time to recognize what you have in life is one of the uniquely beneficial rituals we can undertake.”
Thus, an awareness of gratitude is both a religious ritual and a spiritual discipline. It is spiritual because it requires a degree of personal reflection and introspection, and because when we experience gratitude, we feel connected to that which is beyond us; and it is religious because our religion encourages us to do it and suggests words and rituals to aid us in endeavoring to do so.
Spirituality alone might promote an awareness of gratitude and we may value gratitude regardless of what Judaism teaches, but Judaism gives us a tradition of appreciation in which to root ourselves – a context in which to measure what we have in relation to others, and a community in which to express and celebrate that for which we are grateful.
As a final example, take belief in God: You can believe in God – in something beyond yourself – without being part of a religion. However there is something lost by seeing your beliefs as a purely “personal truth”, something you can explore by yourself and keep to yourself. To do so, is to deprive others of the ability to learn from your experiences and the conclusions you have drawn from them; To do so, is to deprive yourself of the textual history and interpersonal dialogue that, in my experience, are such a crucial part of theological development.
For those of us who believe in something greater than ourselves, we need a community among which to search and struggle with those beliefs. When I had my theological crisis in rabbinical school; when all the things I thought I believed about God were called into question and challenged in the most painful of ways, it was only through speaking with others and through plumbing the depths of our religious tradition, that I found my way out of the darkness of grief, anger, and the painful sense of separation from God.
Jewish tradition names that dark place I was experiencing. It is called Sheol – the pit, the place where God is absent. The Psalms are filled with descriptions of Sheol, and filled with the experience of descending there, and also filled with the experience of being lifted out. Sheol is not permanent, Judaism told me, and having a religious context in which to place and name and affirm my experience was profoundly comforting. I was not the first to feel what I was feeling. I did not have to feel guilty about what I was feeling. I was not alone.
I have heard the claims that a spiritual life, a life imbued with solitary spiritual discipline – yoga, meditation, a daily writing practice or what-have-you – enables a state of bliss that communal religious practice cannot achieve.
I couldn’t disagree more.
To me, the opposite of loneliness is bliss. And while I love the peace and relaxation that meditation bring me, for me, that sense of bliss is something I mostly only feel when surrounded by my community; when we’re singing Debbie Friedman in harmony; when our eyes meet and we smile at one another; when I am touched by the liturgy, or see how it is touching someone else.
I feel spiritual bliss when I gaze into the ark and sing Avinu Malkeinu, or Aleinu, or Adonai s’fatai tiftach, with all my voice and emotion behind each word – “O God open my lips that my mouth may praise your name!” This verse moves me because it hints at an important truth – the importance of active participation in prayer. We cannot praise God’s name if our mouths are not open; if our hearts are not in it.
Last week, I shared an earlier draft of this sermon with my mom. In responding with her feedback, she remarked on her own experiences: “When I let the words and sounds (of prayer) and the community of voices get deep inside me, it is meditative,” she said. “I feel it, and I feel moved and refreshed, (but) if I just read the words and sit and stand on command, I feel like a part of the community but not that I have let it really touch me. I have to make a conscious effort, but it is there, within the Jewish liturgy for me to find if I look for it.”
Now granted, my mom was married to one rabbi and raised another, but she’s not a rabbi herself, she’s not an expert in Jewish liturgy, she’s not a fluent Hebrew speaker. She’s just a Jewish woman who goes to services often enough to know that doing so is a spiritual practice in and of itself, and that like any other spiritual practice, it takes focus, discipline and intention.
Jewish tradition calls this intention kavanah and without it the prayers are just words on a page. Only when we add our own personal intention; only when we seek to connect to the words in a way that is personally meaningful to us, and to connect with the people and the God beyond the words themselves, will we feel spiritually elevated. Only when we stop worrying about whether what we’re doing is religious or not or whether we are religious or not, will we let go, and begin to feel something more than our own fears, insecurities and judgements.
Today is the Day of Atonement. For Jews, it is arguably the most religious day of the year. And since you are here, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are, at least somewhat, religious.
And maybe you’d be moved to atone for your sins even if you weren’t here; Maybe you feel your inclination to do good has nothing to do with your Jewishness.
“If (it’s) the spirit (that) moves you to goodness,” Rabbi Wolpe writes, “(then) that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls (doing the hard) work (of repairing the world in accordance with their beliefs).
Join in.” Rabbi Wolpe instructs us.
Embrace your religiosity.
“Together is harder, but together is better.”
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it Be God’s Will.