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Jeb, Julian, and Religious ‘Truth’

If it isn't it oughta be.

“If it isn’t, it oughta be.” So says the character of Jebediah Nightlinger, played by Roscoe Lee Browne, in the John Wayne film, The Cowboys.  It’s said in answer to a question, “is that true?” after he tells a group of naïve and impressionable boys a fantastic tale about his origins.   It is my favorite answer to give when asked if religion is true.

Is a painting true? A poem? A song? As with religion, it is the wrong question. Or at least, it is not the primary question. Yet for so many, it is the stumbling block over which they simply cannot get to discover all religious life has to offer.

Contemporary people suffer a malady, and that is an increasing distance from the poetic.  Not in the sense of iambic pentameter.  In contrast to the prosaic.  We want a monetarily valuable or worthless world, a yes and no world, a true and false world.  The current tension in America over “alternate facts” and having different narratives of truth is actually proof of this idea.  As we don’t have the ability to separate the poetic, what “it means” from the prosaic, “what it is,” we end up fighting over the “what it is” tooth and nail, not realizing it’s really the interpretation, which can’t be measured in the only ways we think all things must be.

The same is “true” with religion.  Religion doesn’t speak to the world so much as it is, it addresses what the world should be.  It responds to the overarching questions in the souls of all people – why am I here?  What should I value?  How do I behave?  How can I express joy, meet sorrow, understand the wonder and absurdity of simply being?

The great work of art, the work of music, and most of all, religious belief, address these.  Before I go further, I would say, like works of art, some might even be judged “better” than others; not because there is a photograph of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, but because countless humans have found purpose and holiness in those teachings.  For now, I will appeal to the words of the Prophet who speaks of God’s concern for everyone from the Ethiopians to the Arameans (Amos 9:7) as proof enough there is meaning and beauty to the beliefs of those who do not think like me.

I am saddened at the way religion is portrayed.  Not just by the unfamiliar but many who should know better.  To spend one’s religious life trying to disprove the dinosaurs is as wrong as labeling religion as the source of all wars or of being full of hypocrites.  All humans live with those burning questions which are the depicted in the stained glass, bronze, marble, lyrics, and rhythms of religion.  And while parts of religion may be like the portraiture of a Gainsborough, almost reflections of “what’s real;” the best parts of religion are those most like Dali paintings or Schoenberg’s music – challenging and weird and not what the world “is” but something beyond it.  The fantastic tales that stay with us and shape us as we come back to them throughout our lives.

In Diaspora synagogues we will read Parshat Pinchas this Shabbat.  It is chock full describing the “art” of our holidays.  Priests dressed in fancy clothes in the ornately decorated precinct of the Tabernacle serving up barbecue might seem like an odd way to express a relationship to God – but tell me just what would be better?  Last I checked, sitting in a large room reading from a book doesn’t seem to grab the majority of people.  The ancient rituals would be memorable things to behold, with layers of meaning to pull back and consider.  And just the sounds and sights and smells would viscerally connect one to life and death.  And a whole bunch more I might not even be able to imagine.

The joke (well, a rabbi joke anyway) is to never bring a first timer to synagogue on Hoshana Rabbah. Marching around, holding a lemon and branch, whacking leaves on the ground, people wearing capes and leather straps – talk about a lasting impression!

Are such rituals “true?” Does that even matter?  They’re certainly poetic.  They are definitely good art!  It addresses and challenges us.  It mirrors life as it shows us what life might really supposed to be.  Why wouldn’t God speak to us through such means?

Gilbert Murray in his Five Stages of Greek Religion imagines Rome’s last pagan emperor, Julian the Wise, perceiving in Christianity, threats to all the rituals and beliefs, both mysterious and grand, in Greco-Roman religion, and the great loss the destruction of such things would be.  He says:

“In his [Emperor Julian’s] mind the myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.”

Celebrate the absurd and the beauty that is so beyond the prosaic question, “is it true.” The Truth in God’s message to the world is not lessened if we don’t know whether Revelation occurred on a Tuesday or Wednesday (because it was a Saturday), but rather how it moves, shapes, and one hopes, betters, us.  The more vivid, the more complex, even the more controversial, the better.  We desperately need to be challenged to see what we humans could be – beyond what we are.  If that’s not our mission, it oughta be!

About the Author
Aaron Benson is a Conservative rabbi on Long Island, serving at the North Shore Jewish Center. He is the current president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Suffolk County Police Department.
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