Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Both/And over Either/Or

Both/And over Either/Or
(undated older column, scanned and reposted here)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach

In the midst of a discussion about relations between Reform and Orthodox Jews, I recently came across the following self-description from one of the participants:  "As an atheist member of a Conservative synagogue who grew up in an Orthodox environment and belonged for a while to a Reform temple but wanted more ritual in my life..."

What a statement! No wonder Judaism is confusing to others.  No wonder we are often at cross purposes (pun unintended) with our gentile neighbors when speaking about our identity.  It is because we often use the same words, such as "religion," and mean very different things by them,

To some, it seems very difficult to reconcile being an agnostic, not to mention an atheist, and nevertheless remaining an active, indeed, ritually involved member of a religious community, But Judaism allows for what to others appear anomalies and incongruities. Not only because Judaism (to use a common oversimplification) is a religion of deed, not of creed, but also because of the nature of Jewish identity,

I am reminded of the old joke about two Jews, Steinberg and Bergstein, Steinberg he goes to shul to talk to God.  But Bergstein…  Bergstein goes to shul… to talk to Steinberg.  And in Judaism, both of these are valid religious reasons to be part of a synagogue.

To put the matter another way: those of you who have studied with me know that I am fond of the axis/spectrum description of Jewish identity, Judaism is the intersection of an individual 's relationship with God, commonly called "spirituality " or "faith,'' and of the individual 's relationship with the community, called "culture " or "folk."  [More recently my own children have reminded me that a spectrum is an inadequate tool of description here, for it implies that if you are high in one area, you are low in another.  I should, they told me, obviously, use a Cartesian diagram instead, where one could be high-high, low-low, or any other combination.  Granting their point, for simplicity and for now, I will keep what I had originally written, below.]

To many people, the word ''religion" invokes only the vertical axis of faith. But in Judaism religious values include the horizontal connection with the folk, And the actual identity of every individual Jew falls somewhere on a spectrum, where, at the folk end, you have people who are passionate Zionists and love bagels and are actors in the Yiddish theater but who eat out on Yorn Kippur and would never set foot in a synagogue, while at the extreme other end you have people who attend every service a synagogue offers, who speak with God - in English - on a daily basis, who are deeply spiritual but who can 't stand gefilta fish, And Judaism includes, indeed, embraces, both,

To add to the confusion: different aspects of Jewish identity are stressed at different times, and in different places. In this country, we are used to thinking of a "religion " model, and so we speak more commonly of faith, Our New Americans will tell you, on the other hand, that in the Former Soviet Union their internal passports where stamped "Ivri" under the line marked not "religion " but "nationality. " And Israelis refer to themselves more commonly as an "am," a "people," than as a religion.

But it is all part of the mix.  “We” include each other. 

Problems arise mainly when one end of the spectrum starts getting exclusive, when one group says that, well, faith is really the only important thing (thus losing our connection with Jews all over the world), or, on the other hand, belief matters not at all, and that only the folk count (thus cutting ourselves off from the source of the spirit that bound us together in the first place - and the demanding voice that moves us still to a commitment to something beyond ourselves).  Although it may be for some individual Jews, for Judaism as a whole, and for the fullest expression of Jewish life it is not a matter of either/or, It is both/and. Spirit and community. Religion and culture. Faith and folk.

Which is why, in the end, it could make any sense to have an active atheist member of a synagogue.  We can, and we do. For which I say both "Oy "...and "thank God."