Tag Archives: ritual

If Your Religion is Boring, It’s Because of You

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I originally found the meme on Facebook but it led to James F. McGrath’s blog (which is at Pathoes and thus cluttered with too many ads that slow the blog page from loading in the browser) where he doesn’t say that much more about it. All McGrath commented on was this:

The quote was circulating on social media recently, and so I thought it should be turned into a meme. I made the one above and scheduled the post. Then yesterday I saw that Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented had made their own meme with (a truncated version of) the quote. And so I am including that one too, below. I am glad Heschel’s words are getting this much attention just in time for Evolution Weekend, for which they seem especially appropriate.

See also Jim Kidder’s post on the attempt of the Discovery Institute to do precisely what Heschel criticizes.

For some reason, this reminded me of articles such as Millennials leaving church in droves, study finds and 5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.

The former article begins:

At its core, Christian life is set of sacred traditions linking generations of sacraments and Sunday school lessons, youth ministry morals and family gatherings sanctified by prayer. An unbroken circle, in the words of an old hymn.

netflixMaybe that’s the problem, assuming it’s true. If the rituals, sacraments, and Sunday school lessons don’t connect to anything but the life you lead on Sunday morning and evaporate immediately afterward, then religion is no more relevant to your day-to-day existence than watching an hour-long television show once a week. In fact, given how much attention entertainment is given in our culture, that TV series may actually be more relevant, since it has a much wider audience, thus giving you more people to relate to through the show.

In the latter story, the first question it says millenials are asking is “Is our church real or relevant?”

I guess the question I’d respond with is “Are you real or relevant?”

OK, that was a tad snarky, but hear me out.

In any human endeavour, it can be said that you will get out of it what you put into it. I think that extends to the world of religion and faith as well. If you want a “relevant” relationship with God, you have to seek it out. It’s not just going to happen.

Sure, God can do anything including override your free will, but experience and the Bible teach me that He’s not going to do that. He requires much, and we only find relevancy and a sense of our faith being real when we respond, not just for a few hours on Sunday (or on Saturday if you’re Jewish or otherwise attend a synagogue), but for seven days a week during each waking moment.

I know, I know. Easier said than done, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t attend to the desires and requirements of God every time I take a breath. It’s too easy to get distracted by our jobs, home life, taking kids to soccer practice, dozens and dozens of mundane tasks where, in order to be mindful of the living God, we must make the extra effort to turn to Him, even as He’s waiting for us to do that.

I think the problem with the perceived lack of relevance of religion in modern life is the misunderstanding on what religion is. Yes, part of it has to do with ritual, and particularly for observant Jews, set times for prayer, gathering with a minyan, blessings upon donning a tallit and laying tefillin, blessings before eating, different blessings depending on what you’re eating, blessings after eating, blessings over lighting the Shabbos candles, blessings over…

DaveningI’m making Judaism sound rather cumbersome, but only to make a point.

If that’s your total vision and understanding of your religion, it’s going to eventually get either really boring or a less-than-mindful habit that you practice by rote. Perhaps comforting, but ultimately meaningless.

Christians do this too, it just isn’t called “ritual”. Go to church, get greeted at the door, chit-chat with a Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other until the service starts, go through the ritual of the service, listening to announcements, standing and sitting, singing, greeting the people around you when you’re told, putting money in a plate, more music, listening to the sermon (maybe even taking notes but more often than not just zoning out), going to Sunday school (or not because it’s boring and you have better things to do), agreeing with the standard party line during class and not asking questions that you don’t already know the answers to…

That’s really tedious as well. No wonder there’s a mad rush to leave for Sunday brunch afterwards and then maybe get in a quick game of golf.

I know you’ve heard this before and I know I’ve said this before in a number of different ways, but it’s one of those messages I believe needs to be repeated often.

Because if decades ago, Rabbi Heschel could recognize this problem, and in this day and age, the problem seems worse than ever, just dropping the message into a single blog post and walking away isn’t going to have much (or any) impact.

Is your church or synagogue boring, not real, irrelevant? Maybe that’s because you are. If you want something more out of your religion, start putting more into it. Stop acting like religion is something you’ve just added to your pre-existing life, and start acting like you can’t live without an active, pulsating, moment-by-moment encounter with God.

Easier said than done, I know.

I can’t tell you exactly how to do all that. I’m still figuring it out for myself. This is as far as I can take you, assuming this is territory you want to explore.

I know what I’m about to say is full of trap doors, but your relationship with God isn’t wholly dependent on ritual and religious celebrations. It’s more about stopping whatever you’re doing right now and turning toward God. Then it’s about doing that again as often as you can.

Helping the HomelessIt’s about seeing human needs all around us as opportunities to serve God in a real, meaningful, and relevant way. Donate food to a food bank and your old clothing to a homeless shelter. Visit a sick friend at their home or in the hospital. Comfort the widow who has just lost her husband. Donate clothing, toys, and any other necessary items to foster children.

If you want your religion to be real and relevant, live a real and relevant life. I said I didn’t know how to take you any further, but all of the suggestions I made in the previous paragraph are based on what the Bible says God wants us to do.

If your religion is boring, it’s because of you. If you’re religion is relevant, same answer. All you have to do is listen to God and your faith will never be boring again.

Our problem is we don’t always listen. For some of us, we listen so infrequently that we’ve forgotten (or never learned) what God’s voice sounds like.


Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything… How to sleep, how to eat… how to work… how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you! I don’t know.

But it’s a tradition… and because of our traditions… Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach answered, “Although there is no source in the poskim, this is the custom and it has been the custom for quite a while.”

Mishna Berufa Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“A Sign of Mourning”
Rema Siman 131 Seif 2

Powerful and moving as study can be, Judaism has to do more than challenge us intellectually. If it is to help us search for spirituality and quest for a sense of God’s closeness, Jewish life has to give us opportunities to express hope and fear, joy and grief. It has to connect us not only to tradition and to our history, but to family and community. It has to create moments in which we touch the innermost parts of who we are, when we can appreciate the miracles of everyday living and when we can reconnect to the dreams we have for ourselves, our families, and the world. Judaism, if it is to provide Jews with something that will truly shape their lives, has to make room for the soul no less than for the mind. That is why in addition to the world of words and text, Jewish life also revolves around ritual.

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Ritual – Creating Space for Spirituality” (pp 102-3)
God Was Not In The Fire

As I make my way through Rabbi Gordis’ book, I find myself falling in love with Judaism all over again. I know people can stab and poke at Jews and Judaism and find fault, but I suppose that’s because Jews are human and not perfect and the rest of us are human and not perfect. But there’s something so beautiful and calming about the traditions in Judaism. There’s an order and a “centeredness” about a devout life, from saying the Modei Ani upon awaking to reciting the Bedtime Shema before retiring. People, whether secular or religious, who do not have a tradition from which to draw and add meaning to their lives, must experience existence in such a colorless dimension. It seems rather sad when religious people disdain tradition, because it’s part of what gives context and meaning to a life lived for God. Tradition and ritual also provides direction and form to trust and faith because without them, the Bible does not say in precise detail how we are to even worship.

Shabbat is not the only ritual in Jewish life that fosters relationship and connection. While each life-cycle ritual (the bris, naming ceremonies for girls, weddings, funerals, and the like) has its own symbolism and its own message, and each holiday on the annual calendar cycle (Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and the others) celebrates a different value or event, what ultimately makes them powerful is the sense of community that they provide. Sharing many of these holidays and life-altering moments together somehow creates the connectedness that many modern Jews desperately want but have not found elsewhere. When they finally find that connection, they find spiritual richness, a sense of intimacy. They find meaning (Gordis, pg 108).

I think this is part of what makes Judaism so attractive for some non-Jews. I know it’s what attracts me but I recognize the inherent limits as well. Ritual does not a community make, at least not right away. It’s not as if I could simply enter a synagogue on Erev Shabbat and gain an immediate sense of belonging. I would have to stay, perhaps for many years, and allow my life to be molded by the rituals and ceremonies of the community. I would have to allow myself to become connected and the community would have to be willing to allow that connection. Rabbi Gordis wrote this book primarily for a Jewish audience longing to return to or to discover the spiritual meaning in their Judaism. I think Goyim like me just get hooked and taken along for the ride without the author’s full intention.

After all, it’s not like other religions don’t have traditions and rituals, even if they don’t recognize their behaviors by those names. Consider the rituals and traditions of the church. We’ve just finished the Christmas season and many believers in the church find deep meaning, both personal and as families, in celebrating the birth of Christ. It’s not important to them that Jesus was probably born no where near December 25th or that the origins of the modern celebration are attached to ancient, pagan festival practices. The meaning is found in tradition, not the history books. This is true for the other important Christian calendar events and rituals such as Easter, but also includes marriages, funerals, the ritual of communion, baptisms, and a myriad of other activities that define Christian living and life. People outside those traditions may not agree with how the church constructs its rituals and some folks are even vehemently opposed to Christian traditions, but traditions are the structure and the building blocks from which we construct our faith and relationship with God and our fellows.

But there are so many traditions, both within the church and the synagogue. I remember, many years ago, sitting in the local Reform shul when a woman asked the Rabbi (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember what she said word-for-word), “Why do we have so many traditions? It’s like every country we were kicked out of, we took their traditions with us. We have so many. I can’t remember them all.”

It was kind of humorous, and kind of frustrating, and kind of sad the way she asked (you had to have been there…her vocal inflections and pacing gave a wealth of meaning). All of those traditions and rituals are what makes Jewish living uniquely “Jewish”. Not that there’s just one way of being “traditionally” Jewish, as Rabbi Gordis relates (pg 104):

As we examine the world of Jewish ritual, we should not anticipate one authoritative reason for each ceremony or custom. Just as each Jew who studies classical Jewish text reaches different conclusions about its meaning and is touched in profoundly personal ways, so, too, each person drawn to Jewish ritual is drawn by something slightly different. The wisdom of Jewish ritual is that it works on many different levels. Often, it functions in different ways for even the same person.

Particularly for a Jew, ritual and tradition connects them to the study of the sacred texts (Talmud torah), to other individual Jews, to the larger Jewish community, and to the wonder of God. It also connects the Jew to himself and his own personal identity as a Jew beyond an ethnic definition. When a Jewish man davens in the morning wearing a kippah, talit gadol and laying tefillin, feeling the siddur in his hands, singing prayers that are hundreds and even thousands of years old, how can he not feel inside of his soul that he is a Jew?

I, of course, am looking in from the outside, but even to me, this is abundantly apparent. It is no wonder that those who chose to try and destroy Jewish life over the long march of time have burned thousands of copies of the Talmud and siddurim, and forbidden Jewish families from lighting Shabbos candles or praying in synagogue. Even with the threat of certain death, under the most horrible conditions possible, Jews have refused to give up the rituals that say to the world that they are Jewish.

Consider the testimonies of Jews who survived the Nazi death machine and who told of Shabbat in the camps. They spoke of inmates who violated the Nazis’ law, risking immediate death by hoarding their bread from Thursday so that they could have two pieces on Friday (symbolic of the two loaves of challah that tradition requires on Friday evening and Shabbat afternoon). Why would people on the verge of starvation, in which Shabbat could scarcely be celebrated, take this risk? What was to be gained?

What they stood to gain was a chance to reassert their denial of Nazi Europe as an ultimate reality. Honoring Shabbat, even in a murder camp, was their way of saying, “I believe in the possibility of a better world. I deny that you are the real ruler. Despite you, I insist that I am human, that I am created in God’s image, and that one day, a world will arise when good will triumph over evil, when God will triumph over you.” (Gordis pg 120)

I know of no other religion or religious people, not even those Christians who have suffered terribly for their faith, who have something so powerful in their lives that they could be inspired to defy death for the sake of honoring the Shabbat and God.

Some non-Jews are so turned toward the delight of Judaism in their hearts that they convert and make being Jewish their life, adopting the rituals and traditions as their own. There are others who do not convert but who attempt to integrate at least some of what they see as precious in the Jewish life into their own as a form of worshiping Jesus or Yeshua as Savior and Messiah. This gets a little dicey when you start making decisions about which traditions you want to keep and which you want to discard, and the Gentile Christian (who may not even believe he still is a Christian) finds himself in the uncomfortable position of actually re-defining Judaism to suit his personal and religious requirements. It’s sort of like a person who has lived in Los Angeles all his life deciding to move to a small rural town in Colorado because he is attracted to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, clean air, and simple living. Then, upon his arrival, he rebuilds Los Angeles all around him, brick for brick, car for car, freeway for freeway, because it makes him feel more “comfortable” with “country living”.

If you are going to change your lifestyle, you must come to the realization that you are the one who must change, not traditions and rituals. You accept them and change, or you reject them and admit that you do not want to live as a Jew (the latter being the wiser course of action for most non-Jews).

There is one “Jewish” ritual Rabbi Gordis describes that I think belongs to all human beings, though. There’s a blessing a Jew says upon seeing a rainbow in the sky.

Blessed are you O’ Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who remembers the Covenant, is trustworthy in His Covenant, and fulfills His promise.

Praying with TefillinHowever, this covenant was made with Noah who fathered not only Shem (the Semitic people including Jews) but all of humanity after the flood. The covenant spoken here is with mankind and all human beings can bless the heart of God in this gentle tradition.

But the vast majority of Jewish traditions are…well, Jewish. If you are going to adopt any of them for whatever reason (and keep in mind, some Jewish people might take exception if you end up imitating or “characterturing” Jews), please try to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Lighting the Shabbat candles honors God as Creator but it doesn’t make you a “spiritual Jew” nor does it say that you are now co-owner of Judaism because you are grafted in (Romans 11). It also doesn’t mean that you can declare yourself “Messianic” as if you are totally divorced from Christianity, and redefine the Torah, Talmud, halachah, and ritual, throwing into the trash whatever doesn’t suit you, and believe that you are in a “Judaism”. You may be doing something, but it probably isn’t very “Jewish”.

One of the “Thou shalt not covets” should be not to covet thy neighbor’s religious practices or his covenants unless you convert to your neighbor’s religion or have another compelling reason to take some on them on board, such as being intermarried. I previously wrote another meditation called Dayenu with that in mind.

Tradition is what gives our faith experience a structure and meaning but what attracts us to a certain tradition may defy logic. Most people love their traditions because it’s what they grew up with and their traditions provide a reminder of childhood comfort, safety, and simplicity. However there are those of us who are drawn to traditions completely alien to our parents for reasons only God knows. Where ever your heart goes and whatever traditions you find yourself practicing, if they belong to someone else, be polite, try to ask permission to join in, and treat the rituals and blessings gently. They may be new to you, but they’ve been precious to others for a hundred lifetimes.