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Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

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Religion Can't Be an End Unto Itself

Posted: 10/20/2011 8:39 pm

My wife Heather is a fiber artist. She creates quilts, wall-hangings and even three-dimensional structures based on Jewish texts and social justice themes. And for the last two years, she has been going to homeless shelters through New York City to talk to men, women and children, in order to turn their stories into a piece she is calling "Temporary Shelter." It's based on a sukkah, the temporary hut we build each fall on Sukkot, and evokes the Israelites' wandering in the desert, the time when our ancestors were homeless.

"Temporary Shelter" will be traveling to different churches and synagogues throughout the City in November and December, but there was one church that had a rather unique idea. The Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea wanted to host it, but they weren't sure they'd be able to because of logistical reasons.

"At first there was some concern that your piece would be too big with all the Christmas decorations and such," said Cassandra Agredo, who directs Xavier Mission. "Then someone suggested that instead of a stable, we could use your piece as the crèche for Jesus. After all, Jesus was born a homeless baby."

Heather didn't quite know how to respond to that offer.

So we talked about it. And the more we talked about it, the more we realized that this idea was a pretty cool idea -- this Christian church would be trying to sanctify the stories of predominantly Christian homeless New Yorkers by linking their stories to Christianity's most sacred story, the birth of their Savior. But they would be doing it through a Jewish symbol made by a Jewish woman, who was making this piece because of her commitment to her Jewish values. And we realized that this was a story about religion at its most nuanced and at its most complex in 21st century America.

Because for far too long, and even today, far too frequently, religion is far too simplistic. Often, religion is about trying to convince people that "my way is the only way." But here, the church wasn't looking to convert Heather to Christianity, and Heather wasn't looking to have the church become Jewish. And yet at the same time, no one was moving in the other direction and simply proclaiming that "we all believe the same thing." No, Heather was using very specifically Jewish language with her sukkah, and the church was using very specifically Christian language with its crèche. So it's equally important to recognize that the church wasn't watering down its Christianity, and Heather wasn't watering down her Judaism. Miraculously, both the church and Heather were able to demonstrate both openness to the other and deep devotion to themselves.

How did that happen? I think it's because everyone realized that in 21st century America, for religion to work, religion cannot be an end unto itself. Instead, religion has to be a means to an end.

We don't need to look far to see the problems of viewing religion as an end unto itself. At its very worst, religion tells people that if others don't share our belief system, then they don't deserve the most basic human rights, including their own lives. Nearly a thousand years ago, that is the ideology that fueled the Crusades. Ten years ago, it led 19 people to hijack four airplanes. And even earlier this month, it caused a group of people to burn down a mosque in Northern Israel. But even when religion doesn't lead to violence, we still find stories here in the United States about the problems it creates. We hear about how religion leads people to reject the science of evolution and climate change, how it excludes and denigrates gays and lesbians, and how it fosters hubris and arrogance when people say "I know what God wants." So as we hear so much about the worst of religion, we naturally ask, why would anyone want to become religious?

And the answer is, we wouldn't. We deeply prize openness and acceptance, so we understandably and legitimately recoil against someone trying to convince us to change our belief system. We fight against the sense of superiority of "my way is the best way," let alone "my way is the only way." And we decry the violence that religion so easily fuels. So when we see all the evil that is done in the name of religion, we naturally want no part of it. But the truth is, the problem isn't with religion per se. The problem is with seeing religion as an end unto itself.

In fact, that's what creates such tension for those of us who identify as "religiously liberal," and I have certainly experienced this tension in the liberal Jewish community. On the one hand, we believe that the goal of religion is to make our world more just and our selves more whole. But at the same time, we want our children to have a strong sense of Jewish identity and strong Jewish values. And so in a world with more choices than ever before and more diversity than ever before, it's hard to hold both of those ideas at the same time. How do we act as both a universalist and a particularist?

Indeed, that's a major reason why so many people in the under-40 demographic are asking the very hard question, "Why should I be Jewish?" They see all the evil that has been done in the name of religion, and so religion -- including Judaism -- is simply not compelling to them. But it's because they are seeing Judaism presented as end unto itself.

So, at least when it comes to Judaism, I would suggest we focus less on the questions of what it means to "be Jewish" or to "be religious." After all, how are we determining what it means to "be Jewish" or to "be religious"? Who is deciding the answers to those questions? What's the metric we are using to gauge if we're being successful or not?

Instead, I would suggest we focus more on the question, "How can Judaism help us to become better people and to create a better world?" In short, we should be aiming to see Judaism not as an end unto itself, but as a means to an end.

And there are two analogies that I like. First, we can think of Judaism as a language to articulate our values, and second, we can view it as a lens through which we perceive the world.

Let's start with language. Language is obviously designed to help us communicate, and there are certain similarities across all languages: nouns and verbs, certain ways that words can and can't be put together into sentences, and even a limited number of sounds that the human larynx can produce. But no one speaks "language" -- people speak English or Hebrew or Chinese or French or Swahili. Each of these languages has its own structure, its own grammar, its own way of talking about the world. And so while there are certain universal rules that undergird every human language, how those rules transform themselves into particular languages can vary quite widely.

Similarly, there are certain universal values that undergird human society. Our most basic values -- respect, empathy, fairness -- aren't really "religious" values at all. They are human values. That's why some formulation of the Golden Rule has been expressed in almost every time and every place in human history. So what Judaism gives is us a particular language to talk about those values.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner talks about the difference between "neighborly morality," which every society is based on, and "the ethics of roles," which talks about the specific responsibilities we have as family members, as friends and as citizens ("Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed," p. 82-87). "Love your neighbor as yourself" is great, but it's far too broad to apply to the all the complex ethical dilemmas we face. When we need to ask how we respond when someone wrongs us, or are wondering what the financial and legal responsibilities employers have to their employees, we need more than just "be fair" or "think about others." We need to go in depth on those questions, to explore a variety of sources and responses, and then to create an answer that works for us. Judaism gives us particular ways to try to address those questions. Because in the same way no one speaks "language," no one can live "morality." We need specific approaches to talk about these ethical questions in order to try to answer them.

The second analogy for Judaism as a means is to give us is a way to look at the world through a particular lens. After all, what we see, and how we interpret what we see, are what we respond to in this world.

There's a story about a 4-year-old boy who was obsessed with cement mixers, fire engines and all kinds of construction equipment. And one day, his uncle took him to a homecoming parade. There were football players, cheerleaders, the school band, even fireworks. But all the boy saw were the floats, led by big 4x4s. Afterwards, his uncle asked him what he thought about the parade. "I loved it!" the boy exclaimed. "That was the best truck parade I've been to!" (based on Stone, et al., "Difficult Conversations," p. 31).

So yes, there are facts in this world that we cannot change. But we determine what facts we pay attention to, and we determine how we interpret them.

And Judaism leads us to see the world in particular ways. We are commanded to seek out blessings to celebrate. We are taught that our world is in need of repair and that we can do something about fixing it. We are told that every human being is to be viewed as having been created in the Divine Image, and is therefore worthy of infinite dignity. And we live our Jewish communal experiences the twin lenses of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, which as Rabbi Elliot Dorff notes, "permeate Jewish liturgy and holidays." (Dorff, "To Do the Right and the Good," p. 4) And as inheritors of not only biblical but rabbinic tradition, we are to challenge, to question, to ask, "How do we know this?" So there is a particularly Jewish lens through which we see the world.

But what's so powerful about viewing Judaism in this way -- as a language and as a worldview -- is that it doesn't preclude someone else from having a different language and a different worldview. When religion is a end unto itself, it's a zero-sum game: "I'm right, you're wrong." But when religion is a means and not an end, we can honor the fact that many different methods can lead us to the same end: to a world of justice, compassion and peace. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, none of the above -- they can all help us find meaning in our lives and help us build a better world.

And yet as we keep that vision in our mind's eye, we also need to remember that we need a specific language and a particular worldview in order to help us get there. Writer Cynthia Ozick once taught that "a shofar has a broad end and a narrow end. If you blow in the broad end, you get nothing. If you blow in the narrow end, you get a sound everyone can hear." (Wolpe, "Floating Takes Faith," p. 17)

I've told the story about Heather's sukkah potentially becoming a crèche to many people, and one of them was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the co-president of Clal, a national Jewish think tank that aims to foster religious pluralism. He shared with me that the message he got was that both Heather and the church were focused on the same goal: telling the story's of New York's homeless population. But the other piece we need to remember, he told me, was that the church was no less Christian for using a sukkah, and Heather was no less Jewish for making a crèche. And perhaps because he, too, doesn't believe that religion is an end unto itself, he wrote a book entitled "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." And in it, he reminds us that:

[r]eligion captures the very best and very worst of who we are, and to see only the best or the worst of religion is a dangerous error. If you see only the good, you become an apologist and take no responsibility for the incredible violence that religion is so capable of unleashing. If you see only the bad in religion, then you miss all the biggest questions, the most profound longings, the deepest fears and the greatest aspirations that define us. When faith is working right it can be profound, inspiring and a great force for positive change in the world, and it can help us lead more giving, productive, and fulfilling lives. (Hirschfield, 9)

The question isn't "how religious" we are. The question is how we use religion to make ourselves and our world just a little bit better. So if we can see religion as a means, but not an end, then we can realize that someone else doesn't have to be wrong for us to be right.

Indeed, we are all on a journey, all of us hoping to become a little better tomorrow than we were today, and making a world a little more whole tomorrow than it was today. Or, in the language of Judaism, we are all striving for tikkun hanefesh, the repair of our souls, and tikkun ha'olam, the repair of our world. But we have to remember that there are many paths to that same destination, and that others' journeys are not our own. And yet at the same time, we also need our own path that we can embrace.

So let us find our specific language to articulate our values. Let us see the world through our particular lens. And most of all, let us create religion is at its best, when the values of openness and devotion don't contradict each, but instead, bring out the best in each other.

 

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