“I’m sorry, Rabbi, but I’m just not interested in the whole religious thing.” Zac hadn’t meant to insult me; he was just being honest. “I want to grow spiritually and live a meaningful life, but wrapping Tefillin or eating kosher just doesn’t do it for me”.
I get this a lot. So do most rabbis. Maybe next time, I should just admit that I’m not interested in the “whole religious thing” either.
Oh, I’m very into Judaism, just not into “religion”.
When people say “religious”, they usually mean “conforms to a strict set of rules set down by some ancient rabbis”. They imagine that religious people stack everyone else in a pecking order ranging from “heathen” to “saint.” Those who make it to the Frum 500 list may even scorn those who do not observe.
I suspect this is what Zac had in mind during our conversation last week. He assumes that I think less of him because he eats Big Macs on Saturday afternoons. Zac and an untold number of people like him who “confess” that they are “bad Jews” feel that they will never live up to Judaism’s expectations.
Judaism isn’t a conventional religion. We don’t rate people based on their most recent mitzvah count.
After the famed South African politician and activist Helen Suzman lost her husband, her family asked Rabbi Dovid Hazdan to officiate. When he went to meet the family ahead of the funeral, he was greeted with a sharp, “Rabbi, you need to know that I don’t believe in G-d.” Without flinching, Rabbi Hazdan shot back, “Helen, you need to know that I don’t believe in atheists.” It was a brilliant rejoinder and the start of a warm friendship.
Judaism doesn’t believe in religion for the same reason it doesn’t believe in atheists. Atheists scoff at the notion of an “intangible being who dictates our lives from Far Far Away.” An ideology that portrays G-d as distant is anathema to Judaism. The notion of religion does just that. It implies that we earthlings are far from G-d. To get closer, we must conform to a rigid set of laws. It’s a good thing Judaism isn’t evangelical because “Join us and your life will become more challenging in 613 new ways” isn’t the greatest sales pitch.
Atheism claims that G-d is far-fetched; “religion” insinuates that G-d is far off. Judaism rejects both positions. Judaism began at Sinai when G-d Himself presented His guidebook in person. His opening statement, “I am the L-rd, your G-d” uses the word “Anochi”, which is code for “In giving you the Torah, I share My essence with you.”
This echoes G-d instructing Moses to tell Pharaoh: “The Jews are My firstborn child”. That sounds more like “I have implanted My DNA inside those people” than “Hello, from 5 million light-years away, here are your marching orders.”
G-d fawns over us like a first-time mom with her scrunchy newborn. He wishes to share a meaningful connection with us. He is like a parent who has endless hopes and expectations of us, yet celebrates our wobbly first steps. “Religion” creates the impression that we are accountable to an impossible Supernal Scoreboard. Judaism teaches that we are Supernal beings with infinite Divine potential. Torah is not a religion of demands, but a how-to guide for unfolding our inherent capacity for growth. As we plod along the journey, He gets immeasurable nachas.
We don’t believe in atheists. We don’t believe in classical religion. We believe that each of us is a soul that is inherently one with the Divine. And we believe that every little step, one mitzvah at a time, means the world to our Supernal Father.
Zac, don’t stress about being religious. Try one mitzvah. It’s good enough for G-d; chances are it will be meaningful for you too.