Who Stole My Religion?
Note: This is chapter one of my book, “Who Stole My Religion?
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel [Judaism] demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes. I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.
I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet fully created; men are creating him. I am a Jew because Israel places man and his unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine unity, Israel places the unity that is divine. – Edmond Fleg, “Why I Am a Jew”3
I fervently believe in the above sentiments and many other positive aspects about Judaism, and I am proud to be a Jew. Judaism has wonderful, powerful, and universal messages, and applying them is essential to move our precious, yet increasingly threatened, planet onto a sustainable path.
I wrote this book to urge Jews to apply basic Jewish teachings at a time when they are needed more than ever before to the many tumultuous crises facing humanity and all of God’s creatures. By encouraging Jews to apply Judaism’s eternal values to current issues, I hope this book will help revitalize Judaism and will make Judaism more attractive to many disaffected Jews.
About My Modern Orthodox4 Synagogue
I have been a member of Young Israel of Staten Island, a modern Orthodox synagogue, since 1968, and I have served as Vice President for Youth, Cultural Director, and co-editor of the synagogue’s newsletter. Over the years I have seen the dedication of members of my congregation to Judaism and Jewish issues. The amount they donate to charity is truly outstanding. The acts of kindness and concern for the well-being of fellow congregants are also remarkable, and there is always great communal sharing at occasions of joy and sorrow. There are gemachs that provide free wedding and other gowns, furniture, centerpieces for celebrations, and clothing for people who need them, and there is a food pantry. There is a unique group called Nachas (joy) Unlimited that collects money to help cover medical expenses for ill children.
Especially commendable are the actions of the voluntary group Hatzolah, whose members will drop whatever they are doing at a moment’s notice – whether they are at work, taking part in a Passover seder, or just relaxing with their families or friends – to respond to medical emergencies. Many synagogue members make weekly visits to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Many of the synagogue’s young attendants work with great compassion and dedication at special summer camps, taking care of children with cancer and other health problems.
The commitment of my synagogue’s community to learning and to prayer is also outstanding. There are well-attended classes and minyanim (prayer services) throughout the week, and often there are scholars in residence on Shabbat and guest speakers during the week who enlighten the members on a variety of issues. This is typical of other Orthodox synagogues throughout the United States and in other countries.
There are also many positive things happening in the wider Jewish community, including the Orthodox community. Appendix C provides information about many Jewish groups that are helping Jews with special needs.
Is Enough Being Done to Apply Jewish Values To Current Threats?
Many Jews today are appropriately concerned about Jewish survival and the flourishing of Jewish culture and learning. And, as delineated in Appendix C, some Jewish groups are indeed attempting to apply Jewish values to today’s critical issues. However, much more needs to be done in the face of the many threats to the world today.
Unfortunately, too many Jews today, especially among the Orthodox, seem to be paying insufficient attention to the words of Jewish prophets and sages, whose teachings resound with a passionate concern for justice, peace, and righteousness. There is too little active involvement or protest against injustice in the world at large. Instead, there is much complacency and conformity.
While there are many acts of kindness, charity, and learning within Jewish communities, many Jews have forgotten the Jewish mandate to strive to perfect the world. Today’s synagogues and rabbinic pronouncements are often unrelated to the critical issues that face the world’s people. God requires that we pursue justice and peace, and that we exhibit compassion and loving kindness. God demands that we protest against evil, but our synagogues have too often focused on ritual, self-interest, and parochial concerns.
A person who takes Jewish values seriously would be alienated by much of what goes on and is sanctioned in Jewish life today. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stated, “One is embarrassed to be called religious in the face of religion’s failure to keep alive the image of God in the face of man… We have imprisoned God in out temples and slogans, and now the word of God is dying on our lips.”5 Many idealistic Jews have turned away from Judaism, because Judaism’s teachings about active involvement in the crucial challenges of today are not adequately disseminated or practiced.
For observant, caring Jews the acts of helping the needy and caring for the world are not voluntary options but responsibilities and divine commandments. These are not only individual responsibilities, but also obligations of every Jewish community and indeed of the entire Jewish people – obligations, in fact, upon the entire world. Our tradition understands this principle as a covenant – a mutual agreement that binds us to God. In this covenant we assume the task of caring for and improving the world and, in return, receive the Divine promise that the world will be redeemed. The Jewish message is not only one of responsibility, but also one of hope.
Unfortunately, some Jewish leaders and institutions have forgotten that the practical expression of justice has been and must continue to be a major emphasis of Jewish living. It is a tragedy that the Jewish community has generally failed to apply our rich theology to the preservation of the environment. Too often the Jewish establishment has been silent while our atmosphere warms, contributing to severe climate events. Our air is bombarded by poisons that threaten life, our rivers and streams are polluted by industrial wastes, our fertile soil is eroded and depleted, and the ecological balance is endangered by the destruction of rain forests and other indispensable habitats.
The Jewish community must become more actively involved. We must proclaim that it is a desecration of God’s Name to pollute the air and water, to slash and burn forests, to mistreat animals, and to wantonly waste the abundant resources with which God entrusted us. We cannot allow any other needs or fears or concerns, however legitimate, to prevent us from applying fundamental Jewish values to the critical problems of today.
It is also unfortunate that many Jews are unaware of the rich legacy of the Jewish tradition and its focus on justice for both the individual and society. Indeed, Judaism provides a pragmatic path for implementing its progressive ideas. The Talmud and other rabbinical writings are filled with in-depth discussions, advice, and legal decisions on how to apply the principles of the Torah and the prophets to everyday situations. Judaism also offers the richness and warmth of an ancient historical community, a meaningful inheritance for each Jew.
Religious practitioners frequently mischaracterize God’s demands. Instead of crying out against immorality, injustice, deceit, cruelty, and violence, they too often condone these evils through silence, while instead emphasizing formulaic ceremonies and ritual. For many Jews today, Judaism involves occasional visits to the synagogue or temple, prayers recited with little feeling, rituals performed with little meaning, and socializing. And all too many Jews who are commendably committed to learning and davening (praying) are not relating their Jewish knowledge to addressing current societal threats. To the prophets, worship accompanied by indifference to evil is an absurdity, an abomination to God (Isaiah 1:13). Judaism is mocked when Jews practice empty rituals side-by-side with apathy to immoral deeds.
Rabbi Heschel blames religion’s losses to its failure to speak out and be involved in critical current issues:
Religion declined not because it was refuted but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by habit, when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past, when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.6
Why I Believe My Religion Has Been Stolen
Despite all the positive activities by members of my Orthodox synagogue and other Jews mentioned above, I think that my religion has been stolen. Why? It is largely because many in the Orthodox community – the group of Jews most involved in Jewish religious life, the group most steeped in Jewish learning and observance, the Jewish group that is growing most rapidly and having a major impact in the Jewish world and on the outside society, the group of Jews with whom I am most involved – has, I believe, gone astray by not adequately applying our traditional Jewish values to the critical issues facing the world today. Instead, there has been a major shift, primarily among Orthodox Jews, towards support of very conservative policies and a Republican Party in the U.S. that puts a priority on helping corporations and wealthy people rather than the majority of people.
A few clarifications: I am mainly focusing on Orthodox Jews for the reasons indicated above, but of course they are not the only ones who are not adequately addressing current threats. Other Jews and people of other religions, as well as secularists, should also do far more to address current challenges.
Recognizing my own limitations, I am reluctant to be critical of others, but I feel some respectful criticism is called for in an effort to try to start meaningful dialogues that will help galvanize Jews and others to actively confront the major crises mentioned in the preface. I strongly believe the fate of humanity is at stake now and everything possible must be done to improve the situation. We need to reawaken the spirit of the prophets of old in the Judaism of today.
As indicated above, Appendix C discusses Jewish groups that are doing many positive things to improve the world, but far more is necessary at this critical time. I wish to clarify that while I might not agree 100% with everything each of these groups stands for (in many cases they don’t even agree with each other), I do believe it is imperative that we examine the issues from many different perspectives and not get locked into one “party line” or another. More information about why I think my religion has been stolen is in later chapters, especially Chapter 2.