In Plain Language: A religion of our own

If there is one mission statement of our religion, it is the mandate to each of us to become righteous rather than self-righteous.

By
February 3, 2012 17:54
Rabbi [illustrative]

Rabbi Jewish religious reading holy book 311. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

 
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My wife, who is hardly ever wrong – I believe she made a mistake in 1982, but she disputes that – got it right again.

After watching me pace the halls, gnash my teeth, and periodically scream out in frustration at the turmoil that is taking place in the Jewish world today, she finally said to me, in that lilting voice of hers, “Instead of complaining, why don’t you go and do something about it?” I decided to take her advice, and so I am announcing to you today, dear readers: I am starting my own religion.

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I know this is a radical departure, and no easy task, but I don’t see any other way out. Sometimes, when you are lost in the forest and have tried every conceivable way out, you have no choice other than to go back to the very place you started and begin again. At least then you know which paths not to follow.

In my religion, there is a God, of course.

He – or It, or She; my God really isn’t all that hung up on pronouns since He has at least a thousand names – is the God of all people. And all creatures. And all things, animate or not. A part of Him is in everything, and one of the missions He has entrusted to us is to find that God-like piece that perpetually surrounds us. God has very high expectations of us; He also has cosmic levels of tolerance, patience and confidence in our ability to excel. He does have a temper – that’s where we got ours from, you know – but He rarely exhibits it. He has unlimited capabilities and is not averse to intervening in our affairs but He prefers to wait in the wings and stand on the sidelines, like a savvy producer or coach, watching our every move but generally letting us make our own choices, prodding or penalizing us only when absolutely necessary.

This God certainly has the ability to rule by proclamation – and He does that when He deems it appropriate – but He prefers to rule by acclimation. He is infinitely (pun intended) more pleased when we come to the right conclusion on our own rather than when we are am compelled by force or fear. (Speaking of which, He really would much rather we use the term “awe,” than “fear” in reference to Him.) And by the way, He also dislikes the word “punishment.”

This God does not really dole out punishments when we make mistakes.



Instead, He creates consequences that invariably come about as a result of our actions, consequences that are designed to hone our instincts so that we travel the path that leads to Him.

And so He gives us mitzvot; these are the “bread crumbs” spread along the way so we can never lose direction as we search for Him on our way back to our pristine source. The mitzvot are the active ingredients in a Torah that encapsulates His wisdom and will. This Torah and these mitzvot are His principal gifts to us, and we would be well advised to spend as much quality time with them as possible.

They have the ability to enlighten, inspire, educate, motivate, soothe and strengthen us. They amaze and amuse us at the very same time; they provide a light that can lead us out of the darkest times and that illuminates the specter of a more perfect world.

This God of ours, theoretically, is invisible.

And yet, when we train our eyes to see in the dark, we can make out His presence virtually everywhere. He can be seen in the intricate workings of nature, in the spirit of great people, in the progression of history, even in the masterful structure and science of our own bodies. He chooses not to make it too easy to perceive Him, since He believes that life is much more meaningful when presented as a challenge to overcome, as a problem to be solved. He knows that we will only be truly satisfied with ourselves when we live up to our highest potential. Our God accepts that we are human, but – since, after all, He created us – He also knows exactly what we are capable of achieving.

Our God created a beautiful world for our edification and enjoyment. He so wishes we would not waste it, but that we would cherish and appreciate it. He is the God of music, of color and of creativity.

He is the God of diversity, which blends the many ingredients of humanity into a banquet of blessing. He resists the temptation to see things as black and white, preferring to recognize all the shades of the spectrum. And so while He is an all-seeing God, He has chosen to make Himself “color-blind” and is not at all concerned with the color of anyone’s skin, or the color of one’s clothing. He is absolutely not clothes-minded; our style of dress, continually changing throughout the generations, has little – if any – impact on the spirit within. What covers our heads pales in comparison to what reveals our hearts.

This God of our religion is mostly about love and He preaches that more than any other subject. He wants us to take Him literally as well as figuratively. And so when He says “Love your neighbor,” He means we should get to know all the neighbors in our apartment building and on our block and establish good relations with them.

When He says we should love our brother, He means we should be close with every member of our family; and when He advises us to “love the convert and stranger among us,” He wants us to be on good terms with all people, including those not born Jewish, for they may produce a Ruth or a Rabbi Akiva.

We recite prayers to our God. One of our rules is that we must think about the prayer or the blessing we recite for at least as much time as it takes us to say it. There is meaning in every word we say and every mitzva we perform, and God is no less concerned that we get the message right as he is about the mechanics. He prefers that the brain and the body work in tandem to decipher the code He presents to us in His Torah.

When we recite our prayers, we are not only talking to our God. We are also talking to ourselves, as in our most famous prayer, “Shema Yisrael – Hear, O Israel” – Israel! That’s us! Psychologists, take note: sometimes it’s beneficial, even crucial that we talk to ourselves. That we remind ourselves who we are, why we were created, what is expected from us. That we recognize not only our sublimation to God and our dependence upon Him, but also our capacity for self-elevation and sublime behavior. Prayer, for us, is the most obvious example of the perpetual partnership we have with God, as we join forces to effect His master plan to perfect the universe.

In our religion, we live in three timeframes.

We appreciate the glorious past and revere the great heroes and heroines who came before us, from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam; from Esther and Mordechai to the scholars and sages of every generation. We also have an eye to the future and the kind of world we would like to see; this gives us a “working model” toward which we can strive and aspire. At the same time, perhaps most importantly, we live in the here and now and must take responsibility for who and what we are.

We are not meant to be clones of the past; we have a unique purpose and personality that no one created before us has ever had.

Our God wants us to think for ourselves and carve out our special place in history, developing, rather than duplicating, our link in an ongoing chain.

As such, we can create holiness in everything we do. We are scholars, soldiers, statesmen, farmers, businesspeople, artists, clerks and carpenters; parents, poets and painters; realtors, restaurateurs and yes, even rabbis. Our religion’s symbol is the menorah: many branches, one source, all designed to spread light as we interface with the world at large.

If there is one mission statement of our religion, it is the mandate to each of us to become righteous rather than self-righteous.

And now there is only one thing missing; we need a name for this religion. After careful thought, I think I will call it...Judaism.

The writer, who has been Jewish for as long as he can remember, is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. www.rabbistewartweiss.com

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