I’m continuing to read the book I referenced in a previous post, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America by Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen. This book contains the results of a survey, fielded by the authors, of moderately affiliated Jews. The purpose of the survey was to understand the meaning of Judaism and Jewishness for this population of Jews and to use those findings to inform ideas about the future of Judaism and Jewish institutions.
Though the survey did not include the specific question “Are you a religious person?” the survey respondents often described themselves as “non-religious” using that term rather than the term “secular.” Which I thought was curious. What is “religious” in the context of Judaism? Aren’t we “observant” or “non-observant” or somewhere along the continuum rather than “religious” or “non-religious?” Is “religious” different from “observant?”
As I often do when trying to wrap my head around ideas that are difficult to define, I started with Merriam-Webster.
1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural
2. commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
1. relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
2. of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances
So, by the definition, I probably would say that I am a religious person. I mean, I went to all the trouble to convert to Judaism, so you’d think it’d be self-evident that I’m religious, but the word “religious” when applied to me makes me cringe. I’m not entirely sure why it makes me uncomfortable; perhaps it’s because I most often associate the term with Christianity, and thus not applicable to me as Jew. I don’t hear the term bandied about as frequently or the concept discussed as freely in Judaism as I did in the Catholic communities of my childhood.
For this reason, I also associate the term with an emphasis on unquestioning faith, with action an outgrowth of that faith. What attracted me to Judaism is its emphasis on action, with faith playing a less publicly visible role, and describing oneself as “religious” seems to emphasize faith over action.
But, faith is still important in Judaism, right? Some Jews believe that the Torah was revealed in its entirety to Moses at Mount Sinai. That takes faith. Even if you believe, instead, in the Documentary Hypothesis, you might accept that that the authors imparted in it enough timeless wisdom that it is relevant to our modern lives. Also faith. I know many non-observant Jews who still strongly identify as Jews and who are raising their children as Jews. They do so because, whatever the Torah says, they believe strongly that Judaism has been threatened in the past and MUST BE, WILL BE preserved for future generations. If that’s not faith, then I’m really confused.
I have found Jews much more willing to discuss what they do as Jews and what their observance patterns are rather than what those observance patterns reveal about what they actually believe. I am no different than born Jews in this regard. At the heart of it, religion and faith are very personal things and, for me at least, very hard to articulate. It’s much more straightforward to talk about the behaviors of observance – whether you are shomer Shabbos, the extent to which you adhere to the laws of kashrut or taharat ha-mishpacha, or the ways you can dress modestly yet stylishly, or the situations in which you wear a kippah – than it is to define a God concept and declare your faith in it.
It is also possible to be observant but not religious: to go to services for the peace and quiet, to join a synagogue community for Jewish life cycle events, or to light Hanukkah candles as a cultural counterpart to Christmas. There are many different motivations for engaging in observant behaviors outside of exercising religious faith.
I much prefer the term “spiritual” to the term “religious” in how I describe myself. Cohen and Eisen note that the term “spiritual…in contemporary America seems far more positive, and so more potent, than ‘religion’ or ‘faith.’” Being religious, for me, implies adherence to a specific set of beliefs and practices (i.e., a religion) defined by some, now unknown, set of people. Defining myself as a spiritual person rather than a religious one gives me license to choose the interpretations and practices of Judaism that work for me and to reject those that do not.
“Spiritual” implies a sense of awe and wonder that is more universal than any particular belief system and, by extension, more respectful of other religions. Judaism is the religious framework that makes the most sense to me for accessing a universal notion of God but it is by no means the only one.
In the end, then, I am unabashedly proud to be “an observant, spiritual Jew.”
What about you? Are you a religious Jew or an observant Jew?