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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Judaism for atheists

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Although polls differ, between 25 and 30 per cent of all Canadians say they’re atheists, and Jews within that demographic are part and parcel of our synagogues and community organizations. They’re lucky, because in Judaism, there’s no catechism and no creed to profess when you walk in the door.

This summer, I read a very thoughtful book called Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton, who argues that religion has very important lessons to teach the secular world, and non-believers in particular.

Religion’s deep appeal is that it addresses legitimate and longstanding human needs that science and strict rationality do not address. He suggests the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how to live and arrange our societies, as well as how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world. They promote morality, train minds, and encourage gratitude. They offer role models who are not film stars or rock singers, but courageous, loyal, generous and unselfish human beings. They have texts that offer well-structured guidance into how to live, texts whose main thrust is to teach wisdom.

This is specifically true for me as a Jew. Judaism inspires us toward tikkun olam, making the world a better place. Judaism requires, values and instils intellectual discourse and critical thinking. Judaism offers time-tested rituals that don’t rely on technology, wealth or talent, but console, spark discussion, lend meaning and bring comfort. Judaism teaches us to be both gentle and demanding on ourselves. It offers hope. And because Judaism teaches that humans did not bring the planet into being, we learn that it’s not ours to control or own.

Many of the books that trash religion make a point of how much evil has been perpetrated in the name of religion and in the name of God. And yet I know that so much good – charity, art, literature, works of great beauty, majestic architecture, and entire social safety networks with old age homes, schools and hospitals – has also been created in the name of religion and God.

We can point out how horrible, abusive and power-hungry some religious leaders can be. I know that ministers, priests and even rabbis have done horrific things that I’d rather not mention. But I also know of so many religious leaders who have inspired the world, who have moved mountains and melted guns and turned swords into plowshares because of their belief that God has commanded them to do so.

I’m aware of all the wrongs of organized religion – which is why I prefer Judaism, because it’s a very disorganized religion.

For me, a belief in a higher power is tested often but rings true. For me, that belief is not inimical to modernity, but filled with metaphors and images I find deeply comforting, artistically nourishing and intellectually challenging. Ever since I was little, I’ve felt a presence in my life that I can’t explain rationally. But that’s not to say that those who don’t believe in God can’t find Judaism – and specifically a theistic and traditional synagogue – richly rewarding.

We can take religion’s most redeeming qualities – the gifts that science can’t give us: community, stability, family, tikkun olam and rituals; connection to something greater than ourselves; responsibility for our families, our neighbours, our planet, our bodies and our souls, and sanctified time, beautiful spaces, self-reflection, self-improvement, hope, meaning and purpose – and in those find spirituality that enriches our lives as Jews.

I believe we all have a soul – whether you call it spirit, mind, psyche, imagination, heart, selfhood, transcendence, essence or whatever. It’s a part of us that deeply needs to be fed and sustained by religious ideals. I pray as a rabbi that Judaism will be the tool that each of us can turn to, in one way or another, to feed and sustain that inner piece, no matter what we believe its source is. And I hope that this is a prayer that even the non-believers among us can “Amen” to.

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