Leaving the House of God

broken-crossSo what is it like to leave? Some quietly slip out of their religious beliefs without much fuss. There are many though, who were previously strongly convinced that their religion is utter reality. It is highly revealing to listen to those who have had experience into and out of Christianity and are in a position to know and authoritatively evaluate and relate their actual experiences. Deconversion for such people, although sometimes initially very emotional or traumatic, comes as a revelation far more spiritually enriching than conversions into religion. In the stories scattered over the Internet and in books ex-Christians have repeatedly said this enrichment of life is the case.

Leaving Christianity

One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, Yoram Kaniuk, has resigned from the Jewish religion. He won his case in court to have the word “Jewish” removed from his identity at the Population Registry, and from now on he will be listed as “without religion”.

He is not alone. Apparently, hundreds of Israelis are lining up to follow his example.

-Rabbi Gideon Sylvester
“Resigning from Judaism”

I’ve said before that one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity is that although you can stop being Christian, you can never stop being a Jew. I guess I was wrong. Israeli Yoram Kaniuk has legally stopped being a Jew and apparently, he has good reasons for doing so.

As an Orthodox Rabbi, I am troubled by their actions, however, I understand the frustration that drives them.

Many Jewish traditions such as the Passover seder, the lighting of Chanukah candles and our lifecycle events are popular, beautiful, and inspiring to religious and secular Jews alike.

Unfortunately, this beauty has been overshadowed by the religious leadership’s coercive tactics. Our religion demands precision, but when the legalistic minutiae of ritual become the raison d’etre of Judaism drowning out the beautiful ethical messages of our tradition, people feel cheated out of the outstanding beauty of their heritage.

Of course, everything Rabbi Sylvester says to describe why Kaniuk and many others have decided to abandon their peoplehood and their faith can be distilled down to a single sentence:

Religious coercion is the enemy of true religion.

What does this bode for Christianity? No one is born a Christian. Even if you are born to Christian parents and are raised in the church, you still must make an independent decision to the cause of Christ and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior over your life and over the world. Plenty of kids have been raised in warm, loving, Christian homes only to leave the church when they were old enough to make their decision stick (i.e. refuse to go to church with the family and/or leave home).

A new survey by LifeWay Christian Resources indicates that most Millenials are not religious and are leaving churches, although many consider themselves to be spiritual.

Youth are walking away from Christianity and the Christian church, opting instead for spirituality.

Millenials are defined as those born from 1980 to 1991. They are aged between 18-29 years old.

Of the total surveyed, 65 percent said they are Christian; 14 percent atheist or agnostic; 14 percent do not favor any religion; and 8 percent mentioned affiliations with other religions. Seventy-two percent said they are more spiritual than religious, the Christian Post reported.

“Survey shows trend of young people leaving Christianity, church”
Posted 30 April 2010
The Underground

Why do Christians leave the church? One answer is that they were never really “Christians” to begin with, that is, they never fully gave their hearts and lives to Jesus and were never completely dedicated to the faith. On the other hand, perhaps many have left for the same reason that Yoram Kaniuk left Judaism.

Unfortunately, if ones closest friends and relatives are very religious then not being a Christian can cause problems in the family and amongst peers. We often hear how Christians claim high standards for “family values” and yet, especially amongst more fundamentalist Christians, ex-Christian family members who “come out” are not only shunned but are even told that they will go to hell. Belief in the justice of unrelenting torture for your family is not a way to bring family unity. Also Christians seldom do justice to the possibility of what we have read, thought and discovered, merely claiming we can’t have been “true Christians” or asking “where did you go wrong?”

It is a common misapprehension to claim that those who leave Christianity never understood what Christianity was “really about.” The full range of Christian types leave Christianity, from all denominations, doctrines, and persuasions. From the most liberal to the most fundamentalist. The philosophical liberal, the conservative orthodox, the born-again and the hyper-charismatic fundie.

Despite the fact that there are plenty of “liberal” churches to go around, Christianity can seem very heavy-handed, judgmental, and cruel at times. I know the church doesn’t see itself that way, but the worst examples seem not to try to reach out and help Jesus save the world, but to condemn it and want to watch everyone, including every single Jew on the planet, burn. This seems “OK” to the church as long as the “true believers” are “raptured” safely to Heaven and the elect get to sit at the right hand of God. Judah Gabriel Himango has recently posted yet another example of how Christianity seems to want to delete Judaism from the face of the earth by letting Jesus replace Israel. There’s a spirited debate going on in the comments section of the blog over the intent of Pastors John Piper and Jonathan Parnell, and wondering if perhaps their recent messages were not ones of supersessionism. However, replacement theology, as I commented on Judah’s blog, is a:

…deeply woven thread in the tapestry of the church. Most Christians don’t consider themselves doing wrong by adopting a supersessionist viewpoint, they just think that’s what the Bible says. Unfortunately a subtle kind of arrogance has crept into the church.

Many years ago, admittedly after only a few years as a Christian, I left the traditional church (in my case, a large Nazerine church in Southwest Idaho) to join what I thought of as the “Messianic movement”, a religious tradition that attempts to preserve the Jewish foundation of the Christian faith (the actual definition of “Messianic” is much more involved than I’m stating here). While I have met and maintain friendships with many Messianics, I realize that a “grafted in” non-Jew is not meant to imitate Judaism for the sake of the Jewish Jesus and that Jews have always been and remain God’s chosen “treasured splendorous people”. We, who have been granted a covenant closeness with God by Jesus cling to the robes of the Master and worship alongside the Jew…but we don’t become Jewish nor do we replace them.

magen-davidIt’s the “religious coercion” of Christianity, the “arrogance” of believing that only the Gentile church has a direct pipeline to God and the undercurrent of disdain for Jews, and even antisemitism that keeps me from entering the sanctuary on any Sunday. If Yoram Kaniuk can remove himself from the Jewish life stream because of rigidly frozen Rabbinic religious dictates, then by comparison, leaving the church should be a walk in the park.

Of course, by choice, I still self-identify as Christian and I do not abandon my faith. I simply await what I pray will be God’s instructions for how best to express my worship while remaining unified with my Jewish wife. For Kaniuk’s part, though he voluntarily walks away from Judaism, it is still impossible for Judaism to walk away from him.

Rabbis have not taken him seriously either, because Jewish law makes it clear that however much a Jew tries to escape their origins, they remain Jewish (Sanhedrin 44a).

But even if the act has no halachic significance, it should still concern all who care about Judaism in Israel.

If the Nazis were to return tomorrow, they would still come for Kaniuk and herd him with the rest of the Jews into cattle cars across the long, slow miles to the camps and the march of death into the ovens. Still, the fact that he can take such a bold step is a little terrifying. It takes another Jew out of the world, though Kaniuk still lives. It is also a Jew’s personal indictment of the present state of religious Judaism in the land of Israel. Have the extremely Orthodox elements of the Israeli Rabbinic system, the stated guardians of all that it means to be a Jew, committed a “Chillul Hashem” – a desecration of God’s name?

The villains represent only a tiny minority of observant Jews, most of whom are good, law abiding citizens, but their actions tarnish all of us. Seeing their behavior, we can understand why many of the most idealistic people feel alienated from their religion.

Even a minority, whether they be ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel or extreme fundamentalist churches in the United States, can take a tremendous toll on the larger people of faith, by driving them completely out of that faith.

If any Rabbis and Pastors are reading this (probably not, but I can never tell), please consider the following story Rabbi Sylvester relates.

Many years ago, when zealots in Petah Tikva tried to prevent Sabbath desecration by calling for the closure of cinemas on Shabbat, my teacher Rabbi Riskin rejected their coercive techniques. “Let every cinema remain open”, he told us, “but let them be empty, because every Jew has been invited to a traditional Shabbat meal with their friends, neighbors and family”.

When I challenged him on the need to protest religious transgression, his answer was straightforward and wise; “No one appointed you God’s policeman!” he said.

Even when we commit heinous acts “for the sake of Heaven”, they are still heinous acts. I’m sure, at this point, some critic of religion could chime in and say the Bible is full of heinous acts of genocide that were commanded by God, but I’m speaking of those commanded by well-meaning but misguided men. There will be another time to discuss and debate those acts of God with which we struggle with as Jacob wrestled the angel. The blog Failed Messiah reports that:

Nehorai is Mea Shearim’s mob lawyer, defending haredi gangsters and thugs. His favorite tactic is to claim that his clients should get preferential treatment from the court because his clients’ intent in beating, attacking, robbing, destroying and vandalizing the bodies and property of other Jews, often haredim, is for the sake of heaven.

While this blog consistently presents a critical picture of Haredi Jews (as you can tell by the language used), it also paints a portrait of how religion can go out of control and any act can be justified if it is committed in God’s name; “for the sake of heaven”. Christianity has its extremes as well, the most blatant and outrageous being the Westboro Baptist Church, a group made up mostly of the members of a single family, who are devoted to performing any act that will fail to promote the love of Christ and who tout their hateful self-righteous causes above all others.

The extremists are easy to see and dodge and we do not have to let them drive us out of our churches and out of our synagogues simply because they’ve got a loose wire burning in their brain pans. However, it’s the subtle acts of arrogance and self-servitude that are much harder to avoid. Those are the congregations and the people that compel men like Yoram Kaniuk to have their Jewish identity legally erased and who are emptying the church of almost anyone under the age of 30.

god-will-lift-you-upIt doesn’t have to be this way. This isn’t faith. This isn’t service to God. That we believe only a remnant will remain in the end doesn’t mean we must ensure this by deliberately chasing away the majority from the houses of worship. Small wonder the Master lamented, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Our faith is not based on how others define it. The “ark” that lifts us above the waters was not made by men. Our words and prayers come not from hate, but from the heart and God in His Heavens.

There is a raging storm at sea. There are hellish waves that crash and pound at the shore, carrying all away, leaving desolation behind.

The sea is the world of making a living. The waves are the stress and anxiety of indecision, not knowing which way to turn, on what to rely. Up and down, hot and cold—constantly churning back and forth.

Do as Noah did, and build an ark. “An ark” in Hebrew is teivah—which means also “a word.” Your ark shall be the words of meditation and of prayer. Enter into your ark, and let the waters lift you up, rather than drown you with everything else.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Ark”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

6 thoughts on “Leaving the House of God”

  1. Very good message. I find myself in the same boat with regard to religious Christianity, or “churchianity”. But I do love Jesus, and since I would be one of the ones marched off if the Nazi’s ever came back to power, I find myself more and more identifying with my Jewish heritage, while remembering that my Savior is also Jewish.

    However, I do still have folks I listen to and fellowship with. I do have to laugh whenever I hear a sermon about staying away from people of bad character (because it corrupts good morals). A very good reason to stay out of most churches.

    I think this is exactly what Paul meant when he said, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” IICor 3. Religion when it’s taken to the letter, always kills.

  2. Indeed, it’s impossible to read FailedMessiah, honestly process the contents, and come away still respecting Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. There is something very wrong with that world, and many have left it.

  3. Last year I went to a mainstream (Presbytarian) church for a while, and encouragingly, the majority of the people there were quite young, mostly around my age (I’m a college senior). The downside was that the church had a bland, poppy, watered-down message. There was little to engage or challenge me. The leaders preferred to see their mode of worship as basically tradition-less. It was weird because right after the service, everyone would greedily gather around the refreshments and talk about sports, last week’s party, or anything but religion or righteous living. I just about gagged when the pastor talked about the ancient Israelites going to church on Sunday. Sure as heck he knew better than that. Probably more churches are this way than I think.

    I’m worried that churches that attract the young invariably avoid the weightier matters of religion and are a feel-good social club. Probably not all of the adult congregants at the place I attended would be able to tell you what language the book of Isaiah was written in.

  4. The thing about the young is that most of them are…young. Someday they will face trials and difficulties that come with age. Someday they will have children. I don’t think we should judge them too quickly at this age. Of course, I didn’t see the situation so I don’t know anything about it. However, I have seen that the Lord speaks differently to different people at different times.

    I could see the possibility that there are times when a “social club” is exactly what is needed. And sometimes it isn’t.

    One thing I find difficult to do, is to fill the void that I see around me. Perhaps, Andrew, you saw a void that needed filling. But since I don’t know the situation, perhaps I should have just kept my mouth shut about it. Please forgive me, if I’ve spoken out of turn.

  5. You haven’t spoken out of turn. Thanks for the wise words. An “easy” church that looks a lot like a casual social club is preferable to no church all, which is the norm in my generation.

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