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When Religion Becomes Superstition

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Last week, CBS's Sixty Minutes did a profile on American mega pastor Joel Osteen and his prosperity theology. His sermons focus on how worship of G-d brings material blessing. That is a positive message, and I salute him. But it can easily spill over into unG-dy superstition, and it explains the great conundrum of modern religion which is that our faith is not necessarily making us into better people. How could it, seeing that religion is no longer about righteousness but success, no longer about G-d but about us, no longer about selflessness but our own material needs. To inversely paraphrase John F. Kennedy, what so many religious leaders today are essentially saying is, "Ask not what you can do for G-d; ask what G-d can do for you."

I contrast this with the message of Oprah, the foremost mainstreamer of spirituality in the world, which is the very reverse. We need to materially downsize, find happiness with less. Spirituality can fill us up much more than materialism ever could.

It seems odd that religious leaders are now teaching us to use G-d to achieve our material wants, while a TV host is teaching us that happiness is not found through the power of the dollar.

I, too, want to be successful. I, too, wish to prosper. But in turning G-d into a furry rabbit's foot to ward off evil spirits and help us win the lottery, what chance is there that we will ever find transcendence in life or anything uniquely spiritual? More so, what chance is there that we will ever be liberated from the incarceration of the ego? If the one thing that can free us from the cage of the self -- a spiritual life -- is changed into yet another shackle, then we are damned to self-absorption forever.

Last week's assassination of Benazir Bhutto had many Westerners pointing to the failure of modern Islam to curb hate-filled terrorists. Fair enough. Islam must begin to battle its extremists lest they become the face of an otherwise great world religion. But we Jews and Christians would do well to look at ourselves as well, even if our own shortcomings do not involve murder and mayhem.

Two disturbing trends are emerging in Western religion. The first is religion as superstition. The second is the inability of faith to ennoble the character of its practitioners as religion becomes more divisive and judgmental. The two are intimately intertwined. Superstition is not about G-d but self-preservation and can scarcely be called upon to inspire altruism.

A few weeks ago I attended a wedding where a famous Kabalistic Rabbi attended from Israel. Although only in his mid-30s, he was swarmed by guests who kissed his hands and begged for his blessing. He did not discourage them. Some guests told me they had brought the holy man to their businesses to bless their goods -- dresses in a warehouse, cars in a dealership.

Now, Judaism has always believed in holy men who can pray on the communal behalf. But this is due not to any personal power they might possess but to a proximity with G-d achieved through having led a righteous life. But any Rabbi who encourages people to believe in his personal powers based on knowledge of mystical texts is guilty of a gross manipulation of both G-d and man.

Some in my own community of Chabad have likewise gone overboard in their veneration of the Rebbe. The Rebbe was the great Jewish colossus of the 20th century and the inspiration of my life. But he was a man. A great man, a once-in-a-millennium scholar. But a man nonetheless. And that's what made him great. There is no need to sprinkle upon him sparkles of divinity after his death. If it was a god-man that I craved, I would have become a Christian. But divine humans have never inspired me, unencumbered as they are with the struggles I face every day. When I hear some Lubavitchers speak of the Rebbe as Messiah, I tell them they are diminishing rather than aggrandizing him. They are declaring that if he was not the Messiah, he was nothing. Abraham was not the Messiah, nor Moses. But their impact on the world was definitive. So was the Rebbe's.

The rise of the venerated tzadik is troubling. There is an increasing tendency of businessmen to flock to Kabalistic masters who visit mostly from Israel. Upon entering the room, you are subject to magical displays of their considerable powers. They tell your back is hurting or that you had an uncle named Merv who died in a car crash. But that, in essence, is exactly what TV psychics like John Edward do, and they do it through a process called 'cold reading.' It is you who, without even knowing it, provide most of the information. And besides, even if they did possess this power, who cares? A righteous man is great by virtue of his outstanding virtue, not his clairvoyant powers. I could care less for a man who can predict the future. Indeed, the Torah explicitly warns me against seeking out those who can.

Ours ought never be a religion of superstition catering to human frailty and weakness. Religion dare never take advantage of people's vulnerabilities and fears. Rather, our purpose is to inspire people to righteous action.

There is much that we Jews can learn from our Christian brethren, just as there is much which they can learn from us. Yishayahu Leibovitz one said that the quintessential symbol of Christianity is G-d dying on a cross for the sake of man, thereby making humans the center of the faith. But the essential symbol of Judaism is Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son for G-d, thereby establishing G-d at the epicenter of human endeavor to which all action must be directed. Man must be prepared to give up his life for G-d, not the reverse.

Religion will only regain its capacity to refine the character of its practitioners when it is no longer about our own prosperity and but about responsiveness to G-d's righteous calling.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's newest book, 'The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him,' will be published in January by St. Martin's Press. He has just launched 'This World: The Jewish Values Network.' www.shmuley.com.

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