One Saturday morning several years ago, I was standing at the edge of my religious community listening to the post-service announcements. Someone was describing efforts to send aid to some stricken corner of the world. Others chimed in with suggestions about how we might as a group help out. It all sounded fitting and proper.
A friend of mine listening nearby saw things differently. “How telling,” he lamented, “that in this ‘religious’ community no one suggested turning to HaKadosh Borechu (blessed, holy God) for assistance.” No mention of God? That didn’t surprise me at all since my group characterizes itself as spiritually amorphous and “theologically vague.” Our members, to be sure, are committed to the deeds of the Jewish faith, the traditional observance of timeless yearly and life-cycle rituals. New members, however, have never taken any litmus test of faith. Few of us ever discuss our religious beliefs, even privately. I suspect, without proof, that most of us, professionals and engineers and high-powered entrepreneurs, are agnostic if not atheistic. In the end, this community is all about fulfilling religious obligations in a supportive, communal setting. Not surprisingly, most of my close friends belong to my minyan. At the very least, every Saturday morning I get to see them, and that’s a wonderful thing.
But if many of us don’t believe in the substance of the prayers we are intoning, why chant them at all? My daughter, in her skeptical teenage years, used to mock me: “Dad, you doubt if anyone out there is even listening. You just go to schmooze with Irle (a friend of mine)!” I’d acknowledge a partial truth but then add, “The sound of the Hebrew words has a resonance that transcends their literal meaning. It’s like a mantra- the substance hardly matters.” “Sure, dad,” my daughter would reply.
Her skepticism has taken on new meaning in recent years. Ever since my mother passed away six and a half years ago, my enthusiasm for prayer has waned. The change has nothing to do with blaming God for her passing. Yes, her final year was filled with pain and physical discomfort, and she died unconscious, anesthetized and intubated. I never got to say goodbye. Still, she had lived a good, long life and died at age 89; how could I complain?
Slowly, for reasons barely discerned, the doubts I held in my youth about religious faith have returned to me. I grew up in a mainstream conservative Jewish community and participated actively in its junior congregation. All the way through my bar mitzvah at age 13 I practiced my faith in the conventional ways of the Fifties.
By high school, though, I started pulling back. Few of my friends had anything to do with our Jewish Center after their bar mitzvah year, and the religious leaders stumbled when reaching out to us. For example, the assistant rabbi, the shul’s youth liaison, taught a three-session class about sexuality. It was short on specifics, the young acolyte too embarrassed to tackle the details of intercourse, and long on advice we were unlikely to follow. Abstain from sex until marriage? In 1966, few teenagers would countenance such a view, however religiously based and well-intended.
While in college, in the thick of the Cultural Revolution, I drifted further away from my religion. Though I usually observed the main events, the High Holidays and Passover, I rarely attended services otherwise. Sabbath was just another day in the week to me. One memorable Yom Kippur, shortly after our marriage, my wife and I spent the day fasting in the Badlands of South Dakota, the temperature scalding and the sun blazing. We could have imagined ourselves in the Jordan Valley alongside Elijah the prophet. Now that felt more spiritual than a day in a crowded synagogue, surrounded by adults in suits and dresses.
Faith abhors a vacuum, however, and by the early Seventies I looked into Hinduism and Buddhism. Books like Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass seemed deeply profound to me, I must confess. Ultimately, eastern religion wore out its welcome, in part because I was too restless to sit quietly on the floor and meditate for more than a few minutes. Next I tried socialist politics and community activism to fill the hole in my spiritual universe. Marx and Lenin, it turned out, also had a short shelf life. Community activism, in co-ops and with immigrants, proved more durable, and for a while the dream of improving the world through political engagement was a viable religion of sorts for me.
To be continued. Part 2 will describe how parenthood brought me back into the fold….