Religion & Beliefs

Why Be Jewish: Religion is What Religion Does

During the session on how the communal versus the individual functions when it comes to the sacred, Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder of Mechon Hadar in New York, gave a vigorous presentation of sociologist Emile Durkheim’s take on religion, which is … Read More

By / May 18, 2010

During the session on how the communal versus the individual functions when it comes to the sacred, Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder of Mechon Hadar in New York, gave a vigorous presentation of sociologist Emile Durkheim’s take on religion, which is basically that religion is our social glue.  It brings us together into a group – a collective.  Sacred moments can be summarized as moments of connection.  What we do is much less important than that we do it together.

This challenged me particularly because just two days earlier, my son, Benjamin, had become a bar mitzvah.  I thought about whether Ben’s service, and its indescribable force, met Durkheim’s framing of ritual as "emotional group ceremonies" (Held’s paraphrase).   There’s no question that Ben’s ceremony was "emotional;" The question was, what made me feel so much?  Was I moved by the majestic, historic synagogue, being surrounded by other Jews – particularly Jews I could greet by name?  Or was it about the individual – Benjamin – and the power of watching him cross a threshold I never predicted would feel so pivotal?

The honest answer is both.  What affected me was both the comfort and significance of being buoyed by a symbolic team to which I belong, and also by Ben simply taking his place in line. I was acutely aware of others – living and not-who had chosen to carry this tradition forward, but I was also aware that Ben in particular was now consciously making that same choice.   So, at the same time that I felt part of something shared, I also felt somewhat selfish — privately moved and inwardly directed, for reasons entirely personal and specific to our family and my child.   I was in the midst of something enormous and small at the same time.  I was stirred by the scores of people singing behind me (this was my first time ever in the front row) and also by the one boy on the bimah in front of me.  I appreciated the unvarying choreography of my temple’s ritual but also the fact that it was Benjamin’s turn to execute it.  I appreciated all those who showed up because of my son, and also those who came simply because it was shabbos morning.  

I think Durkheim is right that religion is what religion does, but I was aware that morning of what religion did for us.  And I have to believe that specificity – or personalizing of ritual – has to be in the mix for every Jew who has ever felt that God was ‘in the room,’ so to speak.  The experience is both beyond us and about us.  We pray in a group in synagogue, yes, but we’re also praying alone – even when wedged against a stranger in a packed pew on Kol Nidre.    

Held’s lecture, for me, went to the heart of the Bronfman conference’s over-arching question, "Why Be Jewish?" Are we Jewish because of how the group ties us, lifts us, reminds us of what we owe and impart, or are we Jewish because of something fundamentally intimate and unsharable – whether we find it in shul, study, or the taste of matzoh?

By chance, a day before Held’s talk, my cantor, Angela Buchdahl, gave me this Heschel quote, which struck me as entirely relevant to Held’s questions and to Ben’s luminous day:

"Each of us has at least once in his life experienced the momentous reality of God.  Each of us has once caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him.  But such experiences are rare events.  To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered.  In others they kindle a light that is never quenched.  The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith.  In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response."

 I will undoubtedly have, as Heschel puts it, "loyalty to an event," and, yes, to my "response" to that event; one weekend changed the spiritual landscape profoundly in my family and I don’t think any of us will soon shake it.  The sight of my son being blessed, in private words, by his rabbi, Peter Rubinstein, while Angela sang "L’chi Lach" was exactly as Heschel describes it: "a shooting star." But it wasn’t "passing," and there’s no chance of it going "unremembered."  

Held asked his audience to share a personal sacred moment and admittedly, I didn’t summon the courage, but he made me realize I’ve had my glimpse of the sacred.  Ben’s bar mitzvah was communal, yes, individual, also, and convinced me that holiness is found in both places, despite Durkheim’s theory.  Judaism erupts in the most private corners and also in the crowd.