Friday, September 19, 2008

Religion "lite"

When I arrived in London in the mid-sixties as a grad student on a Fulbright Grant, I encountered another student who was pursuing art history, as I was. The charming and knowledgeable Eugene S., who had already been there for a year as a fellow Fulbrighter, generously took me under his wing. It was Eugene who encouraged me to attend the classes of Karl Popper who, through his books and the work of his disciples, became a lifetime guide--my favorite modern philosopher. To this day I seek--in vain, I fear--to come up to Popper’s standards.

Looking back, it was Eugene himself, my best friend and guru (a term we scarcely knew then), who had the deepest influence on me during those formative years. While in London, Eugene and his wife Barbara decided to have a baby. Without any complications, Joseph S. was safely delivered in a London hospital. Sometimes I baby-sat for the couple. As they were both Jewish, Eugene and Barbara decided to have the boy circumcised. At their invitation I attended the briss. The rabbi performing the operation was distinctly unhappy at the presence of a non-Jew, so I never attended another such occasion. In any event these amputations of helpless infants. who cannot give legal consent, are acts that I have come to deplore.

In addition, Eugene and Barbara decided to follow another Jewish custom. They invited a friend of ours, also a Jewish-American grad student in London, to visit their home for a little ceremony. The custom required them to buy back the baby Joseph from a Cohen. And so Eugene dropped a few shillings into the hands of the requisite Cohen. As I recall, this young man was a little embarrassed by the affair, inasmuch as he had been raised as a Christian in France. But he had a Jewish mother, so that was all that mattered.

I don’t remember Eugene and Barbara observing Hanukkah. Maybe that was not so common in those days, at least among the English. Nor did they attend synagogue, not even for High Holy days.

And yet, as Eugene explained to me, he was proud to be a cultural Jew. As far as I could determine, this amounted to a very few rituals, such as the circumcision of his son, and a lot of folklore, some of it supported by semi-Yiddish sayings. One item I remember is the following: “You can’t have a wedding without a Bissel.” In those days, a Bissel was a popular carpet sweeper, often given to the newly wedded as a housewarming gift. In Yiddish, however, a bissel is a “bundle,” that is, a baby, often conceived before wedlock. The religious content of such sayings is obviously nil.

Such was the Judaism of Eugene and Barbara, a wonderful couple. I do not begrudge it them; after all it was their choice. Yet this abbreviated roster of customs and observances can scarcely rank as an authentic and complete record of the complex, millennial tradition of Jewish writings, rituals, and belief. In all candor, theirs was a form of cafeteria Judaism, or perhaps one should say Heirloom Judaism, for certain pieces of folklore were preserved (as probably they should be), while the main core of the tradition was disregarded. Such a position finds some support in one strand of Reconstructionist Judaism, which rejects the binding character of Halakha, openly acknowledging that such injunctions are simply “folkways.”

Considering the sensitive nature of their subject matter, my recent pieces on Judaism--ancient, medieval, and modern--have passed virtually without comment. As with my similar strictures about Islam in the early stages of this blog, I have notably failed to camp up the proverbial storm.

Golly. This indifference is what bad boys like me really hate,

It is true, of course, that I can boast only a small core of regular readers. Thanks to the miracle of Google, though, quite a few people choose to read Dyneslines pieces on particular subjects. For a example, a few words I once wrote about Arnold Boecklin, the Swiss artist, have evoked a notable response. So I know that people out there are accessing my critical Abrahamic pieces, many of which (as it happens) deal with various historical stages of Judaism.

In the absence of much published response to my pieces I have resorted to asking what some hypothetical respondent might say. Among these imaginary respondents are Eugene and Barbara. Unfortunately, I lost touch with them years ago, so I must try to imagine what their views would be.

They would probably begin by noting that they had not made a formal study of the fundamentals of Judaism, however defined. Such knowledge is not genetically inherited. Nonetheless, they might have a gut feeling that I had not treated the faith properly. In particular, I had not adequately represented the cultural Judaism to which they subscribed.

As atheists or agnostics (I forget which) they would seem to be barred from wholeheartedly reciting the words that are universally recognized as the cornerstone of the Jewish faith: Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad: Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Still, they might think that such utterance in a group setting would simply signify their solidarity with the Jewish people.

An observant Jew might remark harshly that their Judaism was almost a Cheshire-cat phenomenon, a remnant from which all substance has vanished. All the same, there are many varieties in Judaism today, and theirs would certainly be one.

Shouldn’t someone who is interested in Judaism today turn first to a streamlined version, such as the one espoused by Eugene and Barbara? This approach would disclose many entertaining pieces of folklore, enlivened by colorful snippets of Yiddish and Hebrew, while discarding the supernatural element, which is difficult to subscribe to these days. I would respond, though, that I am not making a synchronic study of Judaism as it is practiced today. Instead, I am approaching the matter diachronically, seeking to discern the various stages of development as they unfolded over time. I need to do this if I am to distinguish the interrelationships that have characterized all three Abrahamic faiths. In this long-term historical perspective, cultural (or Humanistic) Judaism has not been prominent, at least not until recently.

Sometimes we are told that contemporary Judaism comes in many flavors--a veritable Baskin Robbins if you will. If so, why isn’t the flavor that I have opted for just as valid as any of the others? Actually, I am not seeking to choose among a gamut of flavors, but to reconstruct the most significant stages of the evolution of Judaism, with particular reference to its interaction (or not) with Christianity and Islam. In pursuing this inquiry it is inevitable that I will uncover themes that seem dated or even repugnant to Humanistic Jews. But they are part of the historical record. Or to put it differently, they are (some of them) components of the yeast bequeathed to Christianity and Islam. Humanistic Judaism cannot make that claim.

Gladly would I receive any reasonable criticism from a qualified scholar of Judaism. In keeping with Jewish tradition, there are many such persons. So far, though, none has responded to my blog with the chastisement that I may well deserve, perhaps richly so. In this I and my readers are the losers, for surely what I have written can bear improvement

Those who have opted for various “lite” versions of the major religions--including Unitarianism, some very liberal versions of Episcopalianism, and Humanistic Judaism--are not infrequently inclined to “talk up” their allegiance, surmising that a faith that has minimalist theology and imposes very few burdens on the communicant will have more appeal to the outsider than the stricter, more historically grounded antecedents of their beliefs. Actually, the opposite is more likely to be the case, as converts are typically drawn to the full-strength versions, rather than to something that seems to be watered down. (There do not seem to be any “lite” versions of Islam or Mormonism. I suppose that at one point Baha’i could pose as a “reformed” version of Islam. Muslims, however, decidedly do not think so.)

What many outsiders think, though, is that the lite faiths are just one step from unbelief. Why not take that final step and simply cease to trouble oneself with religion altogether? Unfortunately, we cannot quite do this because the evidence of religious revival is around us all the time. Every day now, as I walk around Manhattan, I see Muslims kneeling on a little prayer rugs at the specified times. Because this phenomenon is a reality, we need to understand these religions--in their full- strength versions. But that understanding does not require subscribing to belief and and adopting practice--even in the most minimal terms. Study is one thing, belief another.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I suppose that at one point Baha’i could pose as a “reformed” version of Islam. Muslims, however, decidedly do not think so."

Nor do Baha'is think so.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OTH, Episcopalians are like Unitarians, not merely "lite," but so lite it cannot be troubled by substance. I've asked a few why they are members of the Anglican Communion, and the best answer I've received: Nice churches, respectable sermons, and no values.

At least they don't cut babies.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what Baha'is think about the "verities" of their Faith, as say, compared to Islam, can be searched for at

9:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home