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True Religion

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I have a question, “What is true religion?” If your first thought was an expensive pair of designer jeans, then you are not yet in the proper “Yom Kippur” mood. If you thought something like “Judaism is” or “Islam is not” then you did not understand the question. I did not ask what is THE true religion, but what is true religion? How do we best understand religion? How can we judge the validity of religion – not on a denominational basis, but as a concept?

Let’s start with a dictionary definition: “Belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator and ruler of the universe, and the expression of this belief in conduct and ritual.” This definition certainly contains elements of truth. Religion acknowledges a power beyond ourselves, but do we want to call it superhuman? What then is the difference between believing in God or Spiderman? Religion definitely contains ritual and the feeling that somehow this divine power expects us to do certain things. But how do we know the true desires of this power when its messages are subject to human misinterpretation? No, this definition is lacking in some thing, some element elevating God beyond a Marvel comic book character.

How about a philosophical definition? “A system of beliefs, ethics and rituals which seek to reconcile the difference between the way the world is and the way we would like it to be, and which results in improved living and a sense of worth and purpose for the individuals and group who adopt that religion.” This also has elements that feel true. My problem with this definition is more emotional. It feels rather detached, kind of like the way Mr. Spock would describe religion. Religion does try to explain the difficulties we have in the world. It tries to supply a set of ethics by which we can hopefully improve the world. It tries. But its explanations of the world’s difficulties usually fall short; often feeling shallow. So in the end, it just becomes a way to make people feel better or worthwhile, whether or not the beliefs have any validity.

Let’s try a psychological definition: “The product of humanity’s search for meaning in life.” No question religion helps people to find meaning in life, but do we invent religion because of our search for meaning? Is religion our creation to fill a psychological need or does it arise out of the mysteries sown into the fabric of creation? The term “religion” is a human invention, but the matters it tries to understand are not. Further, this definition seems self-centered. Can there be meaning in life without a morality that guides human behavior? Doesn’t religion play a role in creating that morality?

Finally, let’s look at a spiritual definition: “An evolving world view and a way of life which seeks to bring human beings as individuals and as a group into a closer, more meaningful relationship with God.” What I do not like in this definition is ignoring religion as a means of human connection, with obligations to each other. But, there is an element that rings true in this definition. Religion, like all human endeavors, evolves. Maybe God is unchanging, but our understanding of God constantly shifts. Our understanding of how to fill the world with the divine changes. If we do not recognize that evolution, or if we try to fight it by establishing rigidity in our religion, it becomes authoritarian, justifying abhorrent actions against others.

Here is where I really begin tonight’s sermon. Is religion true to its nature when it becomes totalitarianism by another name? How tolerant can true religion be of dissenting perspectives? Is the truth in religion based on accepting a particular set of beliefs and actions? Most of all; does religious authoritarianism fill a vital human need? Or is it a relic whose use humanity has outgrown?

One can make a case for either perspective. Our country tends to embrace authoritarian figures. Politically, we interpret authoritarian declarations as “decisiveness.” Religiously, a significant segment of our country takes its directions from the statements of their religious leaders. It is common for some religious denominations to state proper belief about God, about consequences for unbelief, and to outline proper morality. Many denominations also tell their adherents that they are not true believers, unless they vote for a certain politician, or support a particular political stance. All 3 of the great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – contain elements of authoritarianism.

The “authority” to dictate beliefs is drawn from the sacred text of that particular religion. Religious leaders who do this maintain there is only one way to read or interpret the sacred text. We often call this approach fundamentalism. We make a big mistake, however, if we judge all religious approaches that have elements of authoritarianism and fundamentalism as bad. A number of evangelical organizations we would label as fundamentalist; do amazing work in fighting poverty worldwide. They see this obligation from a fundamental reading of the Christian Bible. And, there is no more authoritarian religious figure than the Pope. Yet how many of us admire the leadership of Pope Francis? I do. The Catholic Church in general uses its religious authority to advocate for many moral stands that I admire. So is our judgment of authoritarianism based on a figure we like as opposed to one we despise? Is Francis less authoritarian than Benedict? For that matter, what are the essential differences regarding authoritarianism between a Pope and an Ayatollah?

We also have problems defining fundamentalism. Typically we see fundamentalism as a literal reading of a group’s sacred text, with no attempt at deeper interpretation or tolerance for seeing a text as metaphor. The problem is that all religious groups pick and choose what texts are “literal” and which ones contain another meaning. A well known example is the passage from Isaiah 7:14, in which God describes a sign that will be given to King Ahaz of Judah, “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold a young woman (in Hebrew almah) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” Christians typically translate the Hebrew word almah as “virgin.” They see this as a foreshadowing of the birth of Jesus. However, literally, almah means “a young woman of marriageable age” who could be a virgin, but the term is not specifically virgin. The Hebrew word for virgin is b’tulah. A Jew would argue that the literal, fundamental reading of the text is God giving Ahaz a sign – this woman giving birth. The point is we often cannot agree on the literal meaning of a sacred text. So the term fundamentalism must mean something else.

Karen Armstrong, in her book “The Battle for God,” gives some history of the term. It is first used by American Protestants in the early 20th century, who wanted to distinguish themselves from more liberal Christian groups. They believed liberal Christians were distorting Christianity. They emphasized a “literal” reading of the biblical text supporting what they identified as core religious doctrines. By this historical use, Armstrong explains, one cannot call movements in Judaism or Islam “fundamentalist,” as they are not as focused on doctrine as Christianity. However, the term has evolved to describe religious groups who maintain a “militant piety” in reaction to the influence of modernity on religion. Fundamentalists see the conflict not in political terms, but as a cosmic war between good and evil. Armstrong sees this fundamentalism as primarily a 20th century movement, but with roots extending back about 200 years.

Another key aspect of fundamentalism for Armstrong, is a change in the understanding of two types of knowledge, mythos and logos. To quote Armstrong, “Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture and to the deepest levels of the human mind.” (1) In the pre-modern world, myth was considered a type of knowledge just as important as fact. Myth was not focused on what actually happened, but the meaning of what happened. Logos is focused on the actual events sans any attempt at interpretation. For example, we do not know what really happened when Moses and Israel were at the Sea of Reeds. We do know that the theme of ancient Israelites crossing split waters is a recurring theme – as it occurs in Joshua, when they cross the Jordan to begin the conquest of Canaan – and again in the Book of Kings. Clearly passing through split waters is an indication of something more than just crossing water – yet we do not have any documented proof, independent of the Bible, any of these crossings actually occurred.

Modern fundamentalism sees these stories as historic facts, even though they cannot be independently confirmed. It does not focus on finding a deeper meaning in this recurring meme. It does not see this as metaphor. The reason is that a fundamentalist accepts the belief of God being the author of the Bible as a fact.

As instructive as Armstrong’s work is on understanding fundamentalism, there is an additional element that completes our understanding. Jonathan Rauch, in his book, “Kindly Inquisitors” offers a very telling definition of fundamentalism. His book addresses problems of excessive political correctness, which result in the hindrance of free thought. An example happened this past summer. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker was invited to speak at Elon University; creating an outcry among a group of students, because of a book she published in 2008. 300 students signed a petition demanding she not be allowed to speak. This affront to freedom of speech and thought is exactly what Rauch addresses. He defines fundamentalism as those who believe there is only one clear truth in the world. The other side is not just wrong, but deserves at least censure if not punishment. The result is that fundamentalists are so obsessed with fixed beliefs they try to suppress diversity of opinion. This mode of thinking is not confined to any part of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals are all guilty of fundamentalism.

Now we have a better summary of religious fundamentalism. It confuses the roles of myth and fact; declaring, because of the belief the Bible is the direct product of God, its words are completely authoritative. There can be no questioning their interpretation of Scripture, or how it instructs us to conduct all aspects of our lives – including how we vote. Anyone who does not agree is the “enemy.” This perspective informs the fundamentalist’s use of the authority implied in their religion – thus the rise of authoritarianism wedded to specific religious interpretations. Fundamentalists fear a world in which their view does not prevail, and they try to convince others to share that fear.

Which brings us to the third element to consider when discussing the attributes of true (or untrue) religion – fear. It is easy to understand the dominance of fear. In the Hebrew Bible the word generally translated as “fear,” yireh, appears 293 times in one form or another. We are told to “fear” God. The result is that almost all religion has some element of fearing punishment by God. So it is easy to see how certain religious authorities would use fear – by a transference of fear of God to fear of the humans claiming to represent God’s true message – or using fear of God to legitimize the views they are promoting.

However, typical to the Hebrew language, there is more than one way to interpret the word yireh. It can also mean “awe” or “reverence.” Try reading Biblical passages in which the verb is used and translated as “fear.” Then substitute the word “awe” or “revere.” You can feel the difference. The word is used to describe both fear of another human, such as when Jacob fears retribution from Esau in Genesis 32, as well as relation to God. Psalm 5:8 reads, “But as for me, in the abundance of Your loving kindness will I come into Your house; I will bow down toward Your holy temple in yireh of You. Here, the word “awe” is a better fit to the tone of the verse than fear.

We cannot deny that there are millions of people who believe true religion combines authoritarianism with the assumption of having a monopoly on truth. That truth is inspired by a very particularistic reading of their sacred text and plays upon the emotion of fear to gain adherence to its views. The most obvious example is the interpretation of Islam that powers ISIS. In America, those Christians who embrace this model of true religion do not express it in violence, but in adamant rejection of fact in place of myth.

This is causing a real moral dilemma for many Christians, who are supporting a presidential candidate whose lifestyle has absolutely no roots, no connection to the basic religious and moral tenets they claim to believe. Rather, there is a deep emotional connection to his authoritarian manner, based in his use of fear as a motivating factor. Yes, his opponent uses fear as well, but my point is that certain groups of American Christians are motivated to support this candidate because they are acclimated to his brand of fear through religious belief – fear of eternal consequences, such as damnation, fear of the “other” as the enemy of truth. Their emotional reaction to his mythos – if you will, overcomes his logos – the facts of his history.

Jews who embrace this model of true religion are typified by orthodox groups, who have such a low level of tolerance, their men spit on little girls because they judge them to be dressed immodestly, even though the sleeves on their blouses extend to their wrists. It is exemplified by groups who do NOT recognize the State of Israel; all while taking advantage of the social protections and economic help Israel provides its citizens.

My purpose tonight, however, is NOT to condemn any particular group. Instead, I will share my beliefs on what constitutes true religion. These attributes can be seen in Christianity and Islam. But as a Jew and a rabbi, I see them exemplified in Judaism. No, Judaism is not THE true religion. However, in its core are the elements of true religion.

While Judaism absolutely contains aspects of authority, fundamentalism and fear, rabbinic tradition mediates and moderates them. Let’s begin with authoritarianism. God is the ultimate authority. Beyond that statement, however, is a lot of room for discussion. Judaism does not define God other than having no physical aspects and being a unity. Even those statements create discussion. Can a god with no physicality have attributes (anger, love, justice, mercy)? What does the oneness of God mean? Is God indivisible? Is there only one God? Or is all of existence God? You will find Jews believing all of these perspectives. Further, even God’s authority can be challenged. Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah. In the famous Talmudic tale of Achnai’s oven, God is told to stay out of a debate on law taking place between the rabbis. Our tradition permits us, actually teaches us, to question God’s justice: to push back when we feel God is wrong.

Clearly, if we can challenge God’s authority then there is no human authority above challenge. Judaism has no central ecclesiastic authority. Every rabbi makes religious judgments for his or her own community – AND rabbinic protocol demands that visiting rabbis, although disagreeing with the rule of the local rabbi, are required to respect it. The orthodox chief rabbinate in Israel breaks with this tradition by claiming authority over all Jewish religious matters, even outside of Israel. For example, conversions by most Orthodox rabbis in America are not recognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate. That is NOT how Judaism has functioned for the past 2,000 years. Great scholars may be consulted for their opinions, but decisions reside locally.

Further, literate lay leaders often play a key role in decisions. Moses Mendelsohn, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in Germany, was not a rabbi, but a successful businessman, philosopher, and theologian. Judaism is democratic in the sense that literacy, especially in Torah, is considered a great value: for we are expected to challenge accepted beliefs and to question everything. Jewish law, halachah, is never meant to be carved in stone. It is supposed to be an organic, evolving way of life. While there are certainly boundaries beyond which is no longer considered Judaism, within those boundaries is great flexibility. To claim the law has always, is always and will always be a certain thing is the rigidity of certain Jewish groups response to modernity. It is NOT our tradition.

It is easy to understand how flexibility is built into Judaism if you look at our tradition of discussing sacred texts. Every sentence of Torah is analyzed by commentators throughout the ages. If you read a page of commentary that includes a range of contributors (Mikra’ot Gedolot), you will see great disagreement, actually an argument, between scholars of different eras and places, taking place on the page. Jewish tradition does NOT accept the surface reading of a text as the one true meaning. Rather, our scholars delve deeper and deeper to ascertain the inner meaning of the text. This process has allowed Jewish law to evolve over time, becoming applicable to the needs of Jews in each time and place.

We do NOT take the violence commanded or described in certain Torah passages as the final word. Here is a classic example. The phrase “eye for an eye” is never taken to mean physical retribution, but just compensation. Here is another. While Torah mandates a death penalty for many crimes, the rabbinic sages do all they can to lessen its application, not trusting a human court to make the final decision on life and death. The Talmud contains many passages in which the sages provide ways to commute a death sentence or state their opposition to it. My point? Just because we consider text sacred, does not mean it is immune to discussion and reinterpretation. In Judaism you gain authority through the quality of your righteous actions combined with your scholarship, your ability to analyze the text in a way that holds to Jewish tradition, yet maintains its relevance to the Jewish community.

Finally, in Judaism we need to remain aware of the full meaning of yireh. Be in awe of the divine, be in awe of the way God is implanted within each of us, be in awe of the way our world is so intricately connected, of how WE are intricately connected. Yes, there is a role for fear: not fear of the other but fear FOR the other. Ultimately, we are judged by our interactions with each other.   We are to live our lives building connections to each other, caring for each other. That is basic Judaism folks! It is why teshuvah, the act of repentance, of turning our path from one of hurt and destruction to healing is considered so very important. Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, “Great is teshuvah, for it brings healing to the world.” Rabbi Levi responded, “Great is teshuvah, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory.” To which Rabbi Yonatan responded, “Great is teshuvah, for it brings redemption (the coming of the messiah) nearer.” As it is taught in an early teaching, “Great is teshuvah, for on account of one individual who did teshuvah, the entire world is forgiven.”

There is a story in the Talmud that illustrates how much Judaism focuses on the ability and need for people to change. In Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood certain boors, ignorant of Torah and disregarding the law, caused considerable distress. Rabbi Meir was praying that God would let them die. His wife, Beruria said to him “What is your reasoning for praying for their death?” “Because,” he replied, “It says in Psalms 104:35, “Let sinners cease from the earth.” “No,” replied Beruria, “It is not sinners written in the verse, but ‘sin’ meaning the urge to sin. Further, if you go to the end of the verse it says, ‘and let the wicked be no more.’ The death of these sinners will not eliminate wicked from the earth. Pray for them. Pray for their repentance. In the absence for the urge to sin, the wicked will be no more.” (2)

Judaism believes in the ability of each individual to turn from a path of evil to a path for good. It teaches us to try and turn people’s hearts away from evil, not to kill those who do evil. We begin with ourselves. Our individual repentance is so important, it has the power to change the world. Hate can turn to love. Prejudice can turn to understanding. Injustice can turn to justice. We believe we can create a relationship where there was none – whether human to human, or human to God. We do this not for a promise of glory in some future existence. We do this because we believe our actions count now. We do this as a community – reciting Ashamnu as a symbol of how our actions, our sins, and our teshuvah are intimately linked to each other.

I believe that true religion begins with acknowledging the mystery of creation. It helps us in our search for meaning by providing a ritual structure for us to strengthen our bonds to all of existence. It provides a means to establish a morality that can be constantly challenged as we seek to better our interpersonal relations. True religion assures us we can change, as can all humans; that we can choose better lives, better paths. True religion gives us ground for hope, not fear. I began with a question, so now I close with a question, “Are you ready to believe?”

1) Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God” Introduction p XV

2) Berachot 10a

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