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A Church For People Like Us

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This was originally posted on the Washington Post's On Faith page.

I consider myself deeply religious. I was born a Jew and I love my people and our culture. I could not be prouder of what, in our long history, we have brought to the world. But that is not what makes me religious.

What makes me religious is the way I experience life and the way I try to live it. In his book Edith the Good, Spencer Marsh's implicit thesis was that Edith Bunker's every reflexive reaction to any situation was what the writers thought Jesus' reaction would be. Marsh had it right; that is the way Edith was conceived. I'm not in that league by any means -- Lyn and our children will certify that -- but everything tells me that the world would be an exquisite place to live if we were all able to respond to life as Jesus did.

That is "mamaloshen," a Yiddish word describing the understanding that comes when one's common sense derives as much from the soul as the mind. The Sermon on the Mount is simple mama-loshen. And anything that ain't mama-loshen doesn't square with my religious sensibilities.

Of course, to most religionists these observations are dismissible. To them my words lack scripture, theology, and ecclesiastical weight. Still, ever since my early twenties when I smoked my first good cigar, I have felt that if there were no other reason to believe in God, Havana leaf would suffice. I've had similar epiphanies while biting into a ripe peach, a just-ready piece of Crenshaw melon or a great ear of corn.

I've sensed God's presence while sitting in the back of a dark theater where a comedy was playing, watching an audience of a thousand strangers coming forward as one, rising in their seats and then falling back, as people do when they are laughing from the belly. I've fallen in love with a total stranger, several aisles and many rows away, just at the sound of his or her distinct laugh. And I've experienced God's presence -- Him, Her, It, nobody's been there and come back to describe God to me -- in the faces of my wife, my children, and my grandchildren, and every time throughout my working life when I've gone to bed with a second act problem and awakened in the morning with the solution.

I love writing this because I think that this subject -- the "What's it all about, Alfie" question -- is the best conversation going. Just plain folks, unfortunately, can't get into it, because the rabbis, the priests, the ministers, mullahs and the reverends -- the professionals -- have a corner on the subject. The authority of their stained-glass rhetoric can be, and is often intended to be, intimidating to those of us who either lack a depth of knowledge in scripture or know scripture but choose to come to God in their own way and in their own language. And so, the sectarian rivalry and sanctimonious bickering about moral superiority and spiritual infallibility that occurs among the professionals often assumes a greater importance than the religious experience itself.

In this arena I am a groper (an Unaffiliated Groper, since I have not joined a congregation) incrementally feeling my way toward greater understanding. And I am on Nature's timeline where a century may be less than a blink. On that scale, as a mere 87-year- old, my search is in the early fetal stage so forgive me my lack of certainty as I seek meaning in life.

As my compact with our Maker develops, I believe it unique to me. I believe all our compacts with that entity are totally unique. No two alike. Take three hundred or three thousand people, sitting knee to knee in the same pews, praying together week after week, year after year, from the same sacred text, and I submit that no two congregants are having the same inner experience. But we are all nurtured by the same things in nature and our capacities for awe and wonder.

I like the metaphor of the thousand-mile river. It passes through time zones and climate changes occur along its path. Responding to the changing climate, the trees, shrubbery and vegetation along the riverbank changes also. But it is the same water responsible for nourishing every bit of growth. There are spiritual waters, call it the River of Reverence, that nourishes all of us who grope for understanding on a journey that will last all our lives and beyond.

There should be a Church for people like us.

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Mamaloshen : The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ)