Facing My Faith, Part 1

      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….

In January 1015, I retired after teaching English for 34 years at Newton South High School. I continue as girls' tennis coach there, this being my 26th year in that role. My wife, Dahlia Rudavsky, to whom I have been married for forty-four years, is an employment lawyer on the side of the oppressed. My wife graduated from Newton South, and we have lived in Waban since 1980. My favorite pastimes are writing (see my periodic column in the Newton Tab) and playing tennis. I also help raise funds for Yad Chessed, a wonderful local charity. You might also find me supporting various causes around Newton.

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Sallee LipshutzLynne LeBlancJohn Koot Recent comment authors
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John Koot

Thanks, Bob, for sharing these very personal reflections, which I found resonated strongly with me despite the fact that i emerged from a different religious background. In the milieu in which I grew up, God was called upon to aid in nearly every undertaking, but at the same time, there were frequent reminders that “God helps those who help themselves.” Your mention of the Badlands evoked some pleasant memories, since my soon-to-be-wife and I spent some time there as well—albeit not on Yom Kippur—probably only a year or two after your visit. I’m looking forward to Part 2!

Lynne LeBlanc

I’m looking forward to part II. One thing that struck me is what I think might be the commonality of a “thick of the Cultural Revolution” experience in the US: challenging authority. Whether religious, civic, or social, there was a lot of joy and tumult in the changes that were happening.

Sallee Lipshutz

As Passover approaches, I find myself wondering what brought you back…I held on tighter for many years…to the ritual mostly (still have a kosher house, but close to ditching it).with the same agnostic, “leave me alone rule-makers” feeling. 613 rules were definitely too many…especially when a whole bunch could not be followed since the “Temple” was destroyed. Husband and I drove to and walked around the Quabbin Reservoir a couple of times on a few Yom Kippurs…agree that was more religiously significant than Schul. (Will reconsider that walk if snakes are reintroduced on an island…with a causeway…there). I needed the ritual a long time ago…just to get through a horror in my young life…the loss of my only sibling when he was 23 and I was 18. Don’t know the answer now…mostly comfortable with celebrating a few holidays with the kids and grandkids and giving them choices as to what they want to believe…not forcing much more ritual on them, but telling them how it maintained me when I needed it. Opportunistic? Yes. But it kept me alive and maybe it will be a resource for them if they need it!