I still believe in religion

In the aftermath of the horrible attacks that shook my birth country (France) and Lebanon, I face a particular challenge from my concerned agnostic or atheist friends : How can you still believe there is a G-d? They ask me, and how can you still defend religion when so many atrocities are committed in its name?

My answer to them is that they are absolutely right. That anyone who believes in a G-d who intervenes in the world to reward and punish is forced by history and the world itself to reexamine this position. How can I not only believe, but love and worship a G-d who lets thousands upon thousands of innocent, brave and bright souls be abused, assaulted, killed? Doesn’t that make me an accomplice of the fanatics who keep sinking to new lows of morality in the name of, paradoxically, some divine moral order?

“Where is your G-d?”

The thing is, I always believed in G-d, and I have wrestled with these same questions since I was a fairly young child. But I have never believed in a G-d that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. I do not believe in divine punishment, but I do believe that our actions, and thoughts, bear in themselves the seeds of their consequences. It is not quite a karmic view of divinity, but it can help to think of Karma to better understand my understanding of G-d’s relationship to his-her Creation, including humanity. When one commits an offense against Man, he contributes darkness to the world, and creates conditions in which fewer and fewer people can thrive. Sooner or later, the darkness affects the perpetrator himself. The criminal is not smitten down by the hand of G-d, but the consequences of his actions shape the world he lives in.

From a very young age, children are acutely aware of injustice in the world around them; a five year-old’s motto is often a passionately uttered “it’s not fair!”. I was not exception. To this day, seeing people who want to live die, people who hope and work hard be hit by illness, violence, humiliation, people who trust be betrayed, brings tears to my eyes. And so as the years – and tears- went by, my spiritual and religious encounters progressively shaped, or revealed, my “emunah”, my notion of G-d and the divine.

“Emunah”, often translated as “faith” in English, is probably better translated as a kind of deep seated intuition, something felt deeply in one’s soul and is beyond reason, a deep conviction of sorts, that is neither intellectual nor emotional, but very much spiritual.

Emunah is an innate conviction, a perception of truth that transcends, rather than evades, reason.

Tzvi Freeman on chabad.org

That acute sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, precludes for me any possibility of believing in a G-d that rules justly over our world. I simply cannot believe in a G-d that would require me to abdicate my intellect and to close my eyes and heart to the desperate cries of the world.

But that same instinct is also what makes me certain there IS a G-d, an intentional force, at work in the universe and in the world. I do not believe that G-d, thus understood as a moral intention for all of Creation and humanity in particular, intervenes directly in the form of impressive miracles and dramatic apparitions. G-d created a world in which joy and tragedy are both possible, because, on the one hand, the laws of nature account for both life and death, and because, on the other hand, Man is a moral being, free to choose the path of good, or the path of evil.

Human beings live in a world of good and bad, and that makes our lives painful and complicated.

Harold S. Kushner When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Life is both amazingly resilient and extremely fragile. The same natural order that makes birth possible makes death inevitable. Man is free to choose evil, and often does, whether by lack of direction, ignorance, moral confusion, or weakness, or simply because it appeals to the animal side of his being. But man, unlike animals, also has the ability to elevate everything he does: he does not simply mate but falls in love, does not simply eat but cooks, does not simply speak but sings.

Perfecting a world in which the main protagonists are free to write their own part is no small task.

G-d can inspire and give strength to those who chose to seek them, but he-she cannot undo what has been done, he-she cannot make man’s decisions for him. G-d wants us to make the right decision and has given us a formidable code of ethics – Torah – to guide us. But the complexity of human experience makes even such divine contribution vulnerable to interpretation and misinterpretation.

“I can accept G-d, but why religions?”

Again, friends and loved ones who ask me this question are on to something. It’s all fine and good if there is a divine force at work in the world, but why do we need popes and rabbis and temples? Who needed the Crusades or the Inquisition? Who needs child molesting priests? Why can’t all religions get along instead of constantly trying to eliminate each other?

I am in complete, unequivocal agreement with them. But none of those evils has much to do with religion, other than the fact they were committed in the name of religion or by people who represent a religion. But isn’t religion responsible for what is being done in its name? I don’t think so, no. I believe religious leaders and all people of faith should do their best to counter the deleterious discourse and revolting acts perpetrated in their name by reaffirming the real values behind their faith, but I do not believe they are responsible in any way.

It’s a tragic case of ID theft, with monumental consequences. If someone steals your identity to commit serious offenses, should you be held responsible?

If someone goes around spreading lies about you, with just enough truth in them to make them believable, and turns people you know and people you do not know against you, are you at fault? Of course, those who know you well will not fall for the lies and will support you, but there are those who will believe what they have heard and not bother checking. Because of those lies, you may not get the same opportunities as before, because your future employer or potential partner recognizes your name and puts your application at the very bottom of the pile. Strangers may cross the street when they see you or give you reproving looks. The teller may refuse to serve you, your own children may question you. But what can you be expected to do, really, other than continue to be yourself and wait for the truth to prevail?

And so it is with religion, particularly Islam these days, but attacking Islam on the grounds that it is a religion is basically an attack on all religions.

How many among us who claim the Kuran is nothing but incitation to violence have bothered reading it? And of those who have read part or all of it, how many actually understand it? I cannot say that I do. I rely on the examples set by Muslim friends, on my conversations with them and on my own study, to know that Islam is a religion of tremendous wisdom, and that Islamic civilizations have made contributions to the world that we today take for granted.

Their Kuran does not threaten my Torah, and vice-versa. I find wisdom in all of the great sacred texts, and that only informs and reinforces my admiration for Judaism. In the same way, the more I learn Torah, the more I understand and admire other religions.

“But religion is just glorified brainwashing! It preys on vulnerable people!” my concerned friends protest. Here again, I think they are absolutely right. Too often, religion is willful delusion, brainwashing, manipulation, corruption. Too often, religion is wielded as an instrument of power, because it is so influential. Too often, it is adopted as a means to evade the world rather than confront it, to wash one’s hands of what needs to be done while keeping a clear conscience, or trying to. “I won’t give change to this homeless man, because I need the change for a coffee, but I will pray for him.” How wonderfully convenient!

Religion is indeed powerful, because it appeals to the divine part of us. It is almost irresistibly appealing, because we crave that connection with the eternal, with our higher selves. We crave also the discipline it offers, the structure it brings to something essentially fluid and chaotic.

The problem with religion is not a problem with religion. It is a problem with the human condition.

The same weakness that leads one to embrace religious fanaticism pushes another to embrace political extremism. Stalin was not a particularly religious man.

People who torture, invade and slaughter in the name of religion are not concerned with religion at all. They are concerned with feeling good about themselves, finding a purpose to their life, or with gaining riches or power. The brave people who started the #NotInMyName movement on social networks know it, I know it, and, deep down, my concerned friends know it.

The world is chaotic, human beings are complex. I don’t believe in G-d for any particular reason. I simply do, and always have, as long as I can remember. I am not embracing Judaism because it saves me the trouble of thinking for myself or because it distracts me from the real concerns of the world. It does in fact the opposite. My budding religious practice allows me to deepen the connection with the divine, within and around us all, and to become a better contributor – hopefully – to humanity and to the world. Religious practice, like all practice, may not make perfect, but it makes better. I find new growth in the answers I find in it, and perhaps even more in the questions and thoughts it provokes.

I wrestle with Torah. I wrestle with the world. I wrestle with the same dilemmas, outrage and indignation my concerned friends feel. I share the same burden and the same responsibility to improve the world through constructive actions. I turn to Torah as a source of courage, inspiration, and discipline, all of which are essential to the work ahead, because G-d cannot do it for us.

Shalom. Shalom.









The God of Toddlers – Explaining God to my three year old

“Maman, what does “Adonaï” mean?”

I knew the question would come up at some point, when Samuel would start wondering what the Hebrew words we say every morning, most nights and on Shabbat mean. I had tried as best I could to prepare an answer that would suit his understanding of the world, but at that point, I did not feel I had found a good one.

I had looked at a few children’s books and websites on the topic (see below), but found that even the better ones of the lot tended to circumvent the answer rather than give one.  I had asked a few friends and family members how they did it with their kids, but knew that what had worked for them would not work for me:

I cannot explain God to my children as a sort of all powerful, omniscient, omnipresent human-like figure who watches, rewards and punishes everything they do, because that is not my understanding of God.

I find it creepy. It reminds of the disturbing Christmas song (“he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…) that, for all the jolliness of its tune, is bound to elicit a few nightmares in young minds.  It makes God into a somewhat scary, authoritarian grandfather figure who must be obeyed, instead of a source of awe, moral fortitude and inspiration. Young children have enough anxieties as it is, I don’t need to give Samuel another reason to summon me in the middle of the night. Plus, it would take all of three days before his clever toddler mind found a way to use it to his advantage. (“Sam, what do you think you’re doing, going through my drawer?” “Don’t worry maman, God said it’s OK.”) Finally, even his young mind is able to see that bad things happen to good people, and that reality simply doesn’t jive with that representation of God.

So, I knew what I did not want to say, but I was not sure what to say when Samuel asked this all important question. I started with the simplest answer:

“That is one of the names we give to God, because we don’t know its real name.”
“What’s God??”

Oh boy, here we go… “Er… I…”

And then, a flash of inspiration hit. Out of my improvised answer, basically, came the God of B’rechit (Genesis). I didn’t have that far to look after all:

– “Well, we’re not sure exactly, but it is what created the plants and all the animals, the Earth and the sky, the rivers, the stars, the sun and the moon, and people too.”
– “And snow too?”
– “Yes, snow too.”
– “And also castles?”
– “No, actually, people build castles. God made all the things we need to build them, like sand and stones and water and wood, and people build castles.”

It’s not perfect, but it is simple enough to grow as his curiosity and intellect develop. For the time being, it did exactly what it was supposed to do:

When we say our brachot  (blessings) and prayers now, Samuel will have an idea of whom (or what) we are thanking: not an intimidating figure who is always watching him, but the source of all Life and of all the things people needs to build castles.

I figure this will hold until Passover comes around and we have to explain a God who sends things like pestilence and slays an entire people’s first-borns to free another (ours…) from bondage. That gives me a good, what, six weeks, to come up with something decent?  Oh boy, here we go…

Getting my feet (and everything else) wet at the Mikvah (1/2)

Source: Flare.com
Source: Flare.com

My first encounter with the mikvah was on the day of my official conversion, in 2009. After three years of courses and timid first forays into Jewish practice, I took the plunge, literally and figuratively.

When I emerged from the living waters of the mikvah, I was no longer a judeophile, a shiksa learning about Judaism and embracing its philosophy and traditions.

Naked and wet as the day I was born, I was now officially a Jew, not only in my own mind and heart, but in the eyes of the rest of the world, too.

From then on, my fate was tied to that of an unruly, free spirited people whose sense of humour was all at once outlandish and terrific, a people enamored with convoluted parables, a people for whom any conversation worth having was apparently worth having at extremely high volume.

From then on, I was no longer part of the comfortable majority (in Canada) of secular white people. I was now part of a minority with a long history of oppression and persecution. A minority still controversial in many circles, still puzzling to most, even in an open society which, thankfully, protects their rights as human beings.

Having gone through a Conservative Bet Din instead of an Orthodox one, I sometimes hear that I am somehow not Jewish enough, i.e., that I may not be considered Jewish by the Isreali rabbinate (and therefore that my children may not be either). My answer to them is the following:

“if those who hate us decide to round us up again, they won’t care about our respective affiliations. You and I will be on the same train. If I’m Jewish enough for antisemites, I should be Jewish enough for you.

The weight and potential consequences of the decision to convert is almost fully encompassed into Reb Arie’s first question to me, when I called him up and asked if he would be my teacher: “Why would you do such a thing to your children?”

But I saw it then as I see it now, more as a homecoming than a conversion, though transformative it certainly was. Beyond my personal leanings and intuitions,

I see the Jewish faith, its amazing history, its undying love of learning and quest for understanding, its resourcefulness in reconciling observance and the realities of our modern world, as a priceless gift to my children. What they do with it will be up to them.

And so, after answering the Bet Din’s questions about my intentions regarding observance and commitment to the Jewish people, hoping that my honesty would be appreciated rather than held against me, I was invited to enter the preparation room of the mikvah.

I stripped down, took the shower of all showers, scrubbed every inch of my body, filed and brushed my nails, brushed my teeth, patiently pulled every strand of loose hair that might come between me and the water.

I put on a robe, entered the mikvah chamber where the attendant very kindly explained the ritual, which I already knew. I wasn’t going to go into one of the most important days of my life unprepared! I dropped the robe, she quickly inspected my body for any remaining loose hair strand and invited me to step down into the water.

As I recall, it was rather cool, but not as cold as I expected, and slightly chlorinated. I immersed myself completely, making sure to lift my feet so the water could touch my soles. When I came up, standing shoulder deep in the water, I recited the blessings, loud enough for the Bet Din, standing out of sight in the hallway, to hear.

I immersed fully into the water two more times, and as I made my way back up the steps, I was Yael Behira, a Jew. Nervous and bewildered, but happy.