Last weekend I was invited to a Bat Mitzvah at a conservative synagogue, a three hour service with enough chants and prayers and rituals to qualify as a solid introduction to Judaism. I am, of course, German, the mere mention of which should add a few extra layers of archetypal association in most people’s minds, including my own. As you can imagine, there’s room for a whole dissertation on the experience from that perspective alone, but in the interest of not overloading the circuits on a simple little blog entry I ask your forgiveness in using this teaser as a mere backdrop to the infinitely larger question, “Is God religious?”
Nothing is as satisfying to the human mind as that aha-moment when something appearing fuzzy and vague suddenly comes into focus and makes sense. Like an unfinished puzzle, this moment usually occurs when we’re able to patch a missing piece into an already existing worldview. To conceptualize God is like trying to find a place for a particularly pesky piece that just won’t fit anywhere else, and religions are in the business of producing those pieces.
I’ve been to Catholic churches, Hindu temples, Zen Buddhist centers, and now a Jewish synagogue, and while the content and stories vary from tradition to tradition, the framework of providing a collective infrastructure to guide the individual to an understanding of a higher place is the same. You might use the analogy of the search for meaning as our common mainframe with religions functioning as different software options.
Sitting on the comfy bench with a copy of the old testament on my lap, surrounded by call and response chants in Hebrew, I felt the same dichotomy that has always churned my gut in places of worship: On one hand I was deeply touched by the collective surrender to the moment, the poetry and melody of the prayers, the community of young and old making time for matters of the heart. On the other, I was aghast at the casualness with which we were flying through verse after verse, reciting rather obscure and at times questionable statements as if they were lunch menus.
Then shalt thou kill the ram, and take of its blood, and put it upon the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot, and dash the blood against the altar round about.
We were reading from the book of Exodus, and while I understand that the gist of the story is about faith and resilience in the face of hardship and injustice I have a difficult time wrapping my mind (and heart) around the idea of a god who shouts down commands to get us to do very violent things in exchange for “his” blessing. It sounds more like something coming from an imaginative human mind than the all-knowing timeless and fantastically mysterious universal energy we call God.
All our imaginative minds are of course part of God, as is everything else, so I wouldn’t exclude the idea of slaughtering a ram and rubbing its blood on Aaron’s right ear from divine inspiration. However, it’s just as conceivable that this wonderfully loving and compassionate master of the universe would tell us to make sweet love and dance naked in the rain. The reason we don’t get those kinds of transcriptions (at least not from any dominant world religion) is that without the fear of sin and blasphemy there’s no need for atonement, thus cutting out the middle man between God and us.
Speaking of masters, I couldn’t help but stray off into Genesis 1:25 which I’ve known to be quite a far-reaching precept in the annals of western environmental thought:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Well, it seems like we’ve followed this piece of advice allegedly uttered by the omniscient, all-encompassing, unspeakably kind and vastly sophisticated universal guardian to a tee. We have dominated the earth, extracted the fish from the seas and taken the birds from heaven by destroying their habitats on earth, following through on this supposedly brilliant master plan, to the point where our very own blessed existence is in danger.
While the beautiful cadence of the songs and prayers around me were lifting me up and filling my heart with grace, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were worshiping a mistaken image of God: Wouldn’t the creator of an awesome universe want us to celebrate its awesomeness by honoring each and every creature as part of a sacred system of balance and interdependence rather than dominion and submission? And why would said creator instruct us to live according to a philosophy that is unsustainable for life on earth and is anathema to creation itself?
So there, you see my dilemma. I’m not in the Bill Maher school of thought that dismisses any and all religion as nonsensical snake oil. The opposite, I am completely comfortable with a higher power shrouded in mystery, and I applaud theologists throughout history and across diverse cultures and traditions who have attempted to put into words that which is too beautiful and transcendent to describe. At the same time I am suspicious of too much certainty, of literal interpretations of ancient stories, of the dangers of connecting two dots and calling it truth. I am worried that spiritual quest and the beauty of not-knowing are too often sacrificed on the altar of absolute dogma, be it religious or political, and often both.
I enjoyed my first Bat Mitzvah in many ways: the singing, the community, the loving-kindness, the rite of passage, and yes, the food! Being German, it’s hard not to feel a bit awkward, if not guilty, for using this particular service as my food for thought—I have nothing but love and gratefulness for the many dear Jewish friends who I’ve shared so much joy and laughter with that’s it’s hard to imagine there ever was a different time. I consider it a special blessing to have been invited into this sacred space, giving me the gift of reflection and allowing me to shed another ray of light on my own spiritual path. Ultimately though, my impression is that I could have sat in any church, mosque, or temple and come away with a similar feeling: God is loving, kind, and part of all of us, right here and now, and all the time. Most likely non-denominational.