Posts Tagged ‘What is religious’


It is easy to get tripped up on the meanings of words. I have always loved this story as an illustration. Once an elementary school teacher asked the class to write a sentence about a public servant. The kids did a great job, but one response gave her pause. One little boy wrote, “The fireman came down the ladder pregnant.” The teacher questioned the young student if he knew the meaning of the word “pregnant.” “Sure,” he replied, “it means ‘carrying a child.’”

From the student’s perspective the meaning is absolutely clear. The teacher might know he misapplied the word, yet was the child wrong or just really clever in his usage? Is there anything wrong with expanding the definition of the word to include the student’s interpretation? I think we can ask all of the same questions when discussing a word that is “pregnant” with multiple interpretations – the word “religious.”

What does it mean to be religious? That is at the core of this week’s parashah, in which Korach and his followers question Moses’ somewhat exclusive relationship with God. They want to converse with God in the same manner as Moses. This leads to a showdown in which Korach and his followers, are swallowed by the earth, in a demonstration that seems to prove that God is backing the religious system administered by Moses (and Aaron). Yes, commentary criticizes Korach’s methods for questioning, his confrontational manner. Yes it criticizes his true motives – did he really want to engage in holiness or was this a rebellion born of ego needs? Whatever the answer, the solution, within our contemporary context, seems out of line with the problem.

Yet the question still stands today. Who is it that truly hears God’s voice? Which is just another way to ask what does it mean to be “religious?” It seems everyone has a different answer – and everyone’s answer is tinged with the bias of their religious background. Christians, Jews and Muslims all seem to have different answers. Indeed, within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam there are a variety of answers. Each group has a range from rigid fundamentalism to expansively liberal interpretations of sacred text and approaches to God.

For some, being religious is following a very strict set of regulations, meant to demonstrate holiness. These can include the mitzvoth of the Torah (for Jews), celibacy, seclusion, and frequent fasting, and/or strict rules regarding the relationships between men and women as well as sexual matters. These rules are meant to limit the amount of focus on extraneous matters so the individual can focus on God. The problem with this approach (at least for those of us not in these groups) is that these regulations seem to apply unequally, creating oppressive circumstances for those not accepted into the group. They create a hierarchy, which often creates inequality for women, gays, or those who do not share that approach to being religious. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “holy,” kadosh, means “separate” or “set apart.” There is a built in elitism to this theology. Does God really want women to be subservient? Does using a special dish towel to dry dishes holding meat or dairy bring one closer to God?

Others define religious by a strict form of faith. One must believe a certain doctrine, that is, think correct ideas, about God. The result is that those with the correct belief will gain entrance into a very exclusive country club when they die – called heaven. For people of this perspective, often what you do matters little. You must believe – and that belief can go against the observations of science, history, and plain old common sense. Defining “religious” by mandated faith or deeds creates a hierarchy that is exclusionary. Is being religious inherently a form of elitism? Does religiosity have to create theological “haves” and “have nots?”

All of this leads to a question. Is there really a set of actions or a set of beliefs that sets one apart as truly religious? My only answer is born of personal experience.

When I was a teenager and part of our synagogue’s youth group we undertook a special project – to read to a blind man. We knew him as Mr. Albright. 3 or 4 afternoons a week, one or two of us would go to his house and read to him. In the beginning it was books or articles that he selected. But over the years, as he got to know us, he catered his reading to our interests. Mr. Albright was a really interesting fellow and we all speculated about his background. He seemed to have a lot of inside information about World War II and some of us were convinced he had been a spy or in some intelligence agency. He was an expansive thinker who pushed us to question and to think. I am not sure who gained more out of this relationship – Mr. Albright through our reading to him, or us through the subtle way he taught us.

In any case, the day I got true insight into the word “religious” was the day I was at his place alone and without a car. I asked him if I could use the phone to call my mom to pick me up (this was long before cell phones). He responded that he would be glad to drive me home! “But Mr. Albright,” I said, “how can you drive? Aren’t you blind?” “I am only legally blind,” he responded. “I can still drive.” So being driven home in a car by a legally blind man, I suddenly understood what “religious” meant.

I am still not truly sure what it means to be religious. But I am sure of this – one does not define the self as religious. It is others who determine, in the end, if you are religious. There is some combination of faith, actions, and attitude that orient you towards God. I do not think one has to be a tzaddik (perfectly righteous person) to be religious, but it is a label given by those who know you, not self -proclaimed. I do not believe everyone is religious in the same way. I do not believe that any one group has cornered the market on what “religious” is. I only know that when my time in this world has ended, I hope I will merit the label of religious. If not, then just call me “pregnant.”

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