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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Taming of the Wannabe Jew

I read another chapter of Judaism as a Civilization over the weekend and have been attempting to write this post over the past three days. Every time I would read something that struck me I would automatically type the quote into blogger. I ended up with six excerpts that I planned to write about, but thankfully I whittled that down to two.

Of course, I skipped around as I did with the first chapter I read, and this time it was, "The Folk Aspect of the Jewish Religion." I have to say that this chapter ranks high on my list of writings that transformed my way of thinking. The chapter is basically about the role of personal and folk religion in life, both ancient and modern, but it also helped center my focus on one of the central issues in my life at the moment. Before I read this I have found it hard to even begin to answer the question, "Why do you want to be Jewish?" He also talks about how religion helped to tame the self-seeking instincts of man. Instincts that once helped me go against the grain in life, that I am now trying to tame as well.

I think this chapter helps me answer an even larger question that I couldn't answer even in a conversation last week. "Why be religious at all?" Everyone has always known me to be a deeply spiritual person, and to be "spiritual, not religious" is so common that it's often a box you can check off on a questionnaire. That was always enough for me until lately.

My home in Buddhism was inadequate, because I found some forms practiced by "Westerners" to be too focused on retreating through meditative practices. This is not good for a person with social anxiety issues and occasional tendencies towards agoraphobic behavior. All of a sudden the solution to every problem was to sit at home meditating, chanting, and lighting candles. I believe that this is why Buddhism has not been enough for me. Practicing with the Soka Gakkai gave me a set of rituals and a welcoming comunity, but an overly simplified belief system that never was enough.

Mr. Kaplan had something interesting to say about belief sytems...

"Judging from the nature of the beliefs usually stressed in the historical religions, it seems that emphasis always went with incredibility, as though their being in conflict with reason enabled them to test the loyalty of the individual to his group. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of truth in the witticism that a religious dogma is a doctrine which people have ceased to believe."(p.335)

I will never discount the negative effect of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian sect that offered little in the way of folk religion. I just had to believe the world was coming to an end in a short matter of time, deny myself any "questionable" pleasures of this world, and spread the word door to door. Any failings in these areas, I could blame on Satan's persuasion and persecution. I never really believed in Satan, but of course, I was told that was just Satan convincing me that he didn't exist to lure me out of "The Truth".

So much of what has touched me in my quest is how Judaism is more (at least in the things I've read) about doing than believing, and that doing things according to this set of principles is what can lead you to greater awareness and appreciation. Until reading this chapter and the way he differentiates folk religion and personal religion, I never understood the needs I was trying to meet through all of my spiritual exploration over the years. But now I get it. After finding my own personal religion and set of beliefs (or at least deeply held thoughts) I'm looking for folk religion, for something to do that will elevate my thinking and actions above my own interests and predilections.

Being a polyglot, post-op, African American, transgender, aspiring singer with Attention Deficit Disorder I thought my religious journey and issues I'm struggling with were as unique as the path that got me here. Intuitively I know that human nature doesn't change, and I use that knowledge to be a compassionate person, but somehow reading something that completely describes inner workings and urges that I had no words for has been very exciting.

"Primitive man, no doubt, resorted to praising his deity as a means of eliciting favors from him. But in the higher civilizations, when the pious sang praises to God they gave utterance to the ineffable delight they derived from communion with him...To areticulate that experience in the midst of a worshipping throng is a spiritual necessity of the normal man. He needs it as a means of affirming the meaning of life and of renewing his spirit." (p. 347)

It has been so easy for me to think that my needs are unique, that my struggles are as unique as they appear when I compare them to what I currently see in those around me. Now I can no longer continue along that line of thinking, and I would say, mystically, that Mordecai Kaplan read my mind (except that he wrote this book in 1934).

It is so much more comforting to realize that the problems I have and the path I am taking are nothing new. Reading this book feels like an embrace, saying to me that I'm not alone in my struggles and the issues that have isolated me from religion and urges that bring me back. I have found through reading stories of conversion, through reading Torah, and especially through reading Judaism as a Civilization, that this is not the case.

That is so refreshing.

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