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Are You Religious?

Update (9/23/12): This entry was invited to appear on, the Union for Reform Judaism blog. You may find it here.

So I’ve been kicking this one around for awhile: am I religious? I mean, by whose standard? After all, Jewishly or otherwise, there are so many benchmarks by which to measure. Especially now, during the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), I’ve been trying to take the pulse of my religious life.

All Jews are familiar with the traditional–but totally false–continuum that allegedly goes from secular, through Renewal and Reconstructionist Judaism, Reform, and Conservative, on its increasingly observant journey towards Orthodoxy. Except, every Jew who davens in an Orthodox community knows someone (or likely some people) whose observance is less than the letter of the law–just as most liberal Jews know fellow congregants who go above and beyond the ritual norms in their communities.

As with all things Jewish, really, it’s a moving target. Well-known liberal Jewish blogger David A.M. Wilensky closed in on the issue in his response to people who criticized him for choosing to undergo Conservative conversion rituals in order to fully participate in a Conservative synagogue community. He said everything depends on the community in which you wish to daven (pray.) Wilensky’s father was Jewish, which qualified him as Jewish and for participation in the religious activities of his Reform shul. When he wanted to be able to fully participate in a new Conservative shul, though, such patrilineal descent didn’t matter. So he made the decision to undergo conversion rituals to make himself halachically (legally) Jewish in the eyes of the Jewish movement in whose religious life he wanted to participate actively.

Not a direct comparison to pegging whether a given Jew is religious–or not, and how much–but the answer still depends on your frame of reference. We’ve been discussing this for awhile in a thread on the forum (“What Does It Mean to Be Religious?”.) One Jewish commenter complained that her husband, a Christian, didn’t consider her religious because she concentrated on performing mitzot (commandments) and ethical action rather than on obvious (to him) expressions of faith.

As I wrote there, it’s really an apples/oranges debate. Christianity emphasizes faith over action; Judaism emphasizes action over faith. For Jews, such action includes ritual activity that both demonstrates faith and affiliation and brings both into daily life–hence keeping kosher, lighting candles, saying brachot (blessings), acting ethically, etc.

But does doing all those things make you religious in a Jewish sense? As my rabbi would say, I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. I think there are, however, two responses: your own; and the one your community might give about you. It’s both absolute and relative.

Take me, for example. I say brachot throughout my day before eating, lay tefillin regularly and try to daven three times a day, wear a full-time kippah (yarmulke) and occasionally a tallit katan with my strings out, attend Erev Shabbat and Shabbat Shacharit services regularly, and try to refrain from writing lists, shopping, or watching TV on Shabbos. Yet I don’t keep a kosher kitchen, will use electricity on Shabbos, and only sometimes refrain from eating treyf (non-kosher food.)

On the whole, I consider myself a religious, fairly observant Jew. But how religious would other Jews consider me to be?

In an Orthodox community, I wouldn’t be considered very religious or observant at all. In a Conservative community, my religious life would be about par. In my own community–I daven at a Reform shul–I’m actually considered extraordinarily religious and observant.

Ultimately, though, empty actions have little merit with God or our fellow human beings. No matter how outwardly religious anyone portrays themselves, if what’s in their hearts doesn’t match up to their actions, there’s little point in their actions in the first place. (Witness, for example, the small, violent minority of allegedly pious Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem engaging in an ongoing campaign to undermine and eliminate women’s secular rights on fallacious religious grounds–Jews who give other Ultra-Orthodox Jews an undeserved bad name, I would add. Not to mention, HaShem.)

So, back to the original question. How religious are you? Maybe there’s a third response. A response that combines both the absolute and the relative in one. Figure out what’s really in your heart. Compare that to your actions. And be honest about how often the twain meet. Then ask yourself how that affects your fellow residents of the planet.

Forget about how it affects God for now. From a Jewish perspective, God is more concerned with how we treat each other than how we treat God. And you’ll eventually have your response from Deity, anyway (hopefully a long, long time from today.)

I try hard to inform my actions with my Jewish faith, ethics, and values. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. (For better or worse, there will never be a year where the t’shuvah of the High Holy Days will not have pungent and useful meaning for me.) Still, I’m loved and I love back and that counts to a degree no human benchmark can truly measure. How can that not be the best response of all?

So, faithful or agnostic. Zealot or atheist. How religious are you? Are you sure about your answer? Sometimes we’re not as religious as we think. And sometimes we’re closer to God than we ever realized. Want the quickest response? Leave God out of it and look for the answer in the eyes of those around you.

May you be blessed by what you find there.

Categories: Conservative Judaism JEWISH OBSERVANCE JEWISH RITUAL Orthodox Judaism Reform Judaism

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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5 replies

  1. I like to think of it like the “political compass spectrum”. There’s an x-axis going from Renewal to Ultra-Orthodox (self-identification), but then I imagine a y-axis consisting of observance levels. You could have a Reform Jew be right up there in observance with a haredi Jew and a Modern Orthodox Jew be hanging below the x-axis with a non-practicing secular Jew.

    At the end of the day, I’d consider myself religious despite not keeping kosher. I feel informed of the mitzvot and empowered by free will to find meaning in certain ones free of others’ expectations and it’s, well, exceptionally freeing. 🙂

    I’m also a moderate in most aspects, so it’s nice to represent being religious while breaking the negative stereotypes people typically have of “the religious” of any faith.

    Excuse the scatterbrained response, hehe!

  2. My childhood (Reform) rabbi used to urge us not to think of the Orthodox congregation in town as “more religious” than we. They might be more traditional, he said, but our form of religiosity was valid too. I think of that sometimes when I encounter these conversations.

    Your description of your own set of practices — tzitzit and kippah, regular davenen, but no kosher kitchen — sounds very familiar to me. 🙂 Kol hakavod to you for taking your Jewish life seriously enough to take on these meaningful practices and to wrestle with the questions of which practices will bring you closest to God / closest to the person you want to be becoming.

    I don’t always comment, but I always enjoy your blog. G’mar tov!

    1. Thanks, Rabbi Barenblat. Funny, today on the ‘L’ (which I rarely take to work, in favor of the Lake Shore Drive express bus), I found a window seat next to a little old woman who I was pretty sure was just finishing davenning out of a little prayer book. I had my siddur with me to–I ran out of the house without praying this morning–and I thought, what the heck. I sat down next to her, pulled out my “Mishkan T’filah for Travelers” and started silently going through my morning blessings and prayers as we rumbled towards the Loop.

      After she was done, I got the feeling she kept trying to peer over at my siddur to, for want of a better term, figure out “what kind” of Jew I was. After I was done and she was already well ensconced in a novel, I still got the feeling.

      She got off the train a couple of stops before I did, and after she exited she walked slowly by my window and peered in at me. I looked up, our eyes met, and I smiled and mouthed, “Shanah Tova.” At that, her eyes lit up, she smiled back, and then the train continued on.

      The moral being, sometimes when we think there’s a rift between us as Jews, it’s really a yearning for affirmation of our common Yiddishkeit. And it certainly made my morning.

      G’mar chatima tova!

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