Shemini: Imagining No Religion

I know a man who professes to be both passionately Jewish and anti-religion.  He recently commented on a social media site that “the world would be a much better place without religion.” 

He is certainly not the only one to think so; many people are hostile to religion for a variety of reasons (for example, it’s fantasy, it’s contrived, it’s hypocritical, etc.).  Many more are simply indifferent to religion.  Nor are these new ideas.  In his Age of Reason, the influential American revolutionary figure and political philosopher Thomas Paine wrote:  

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I remember this quote because, as a UCLA undergrad in the early ‘70s, I carried it in my wallet – in a pocket of my jeans over which I had sewn a large patch with the Hebrew word כשׁר  (Kosher)!   Perhaps as I walked to my “Philosophy of Religion” class with that quote under that patch, I hummed John Lennon’s “Imagine No Religion” lyrics.   In effect, I was expressing the same thing back then that the man I know said recently: “I’m a proud (cultural) Jew! Down with religion!”

Only now, forty years later, re-reading this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, do I appreciate the great and unfortunate irony in what I did so long ago, and in what many people (including many Jews) still think.  Shemini contains both detailed dietary laws (“kashrut,” a form of the word “kosher” on my patch) and, as an emphatic conclusion to the enumeration of these laws, the exclamation “For I the Lord am your G-d; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.”  (Leviticus 11:44). 

What’s the irony?  The excerpt from Paine that I carried around stated what he did not believe.  But immediately preceding that passage, he had written what he did believe:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

I didn’t carry around this affirm-ative part of his statement, nor did I remember it.  I only found it when I went back to check his negative quote about religion to write this D’var Torah.  When I did, I was stunned to recognize his affirmation: “I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”  It was a virtual restatement of the verse I now know as central to Judaism (also adopted by Christians), Micah 6:8.  It states:  

He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your G-d.  

Paine’s affirmation is so strikingly similar to the Prophet Micah’s in sentiment (especially allowing for translation variances from the Hebrew Scripture) that it would be indeed remarkable if Paine did not base his supposed “anti-religion” philosophy on it (albeit perhaps unconsciously, having learned these precepts from clergy earlier in life). 

Indeed, so fundamental is what we might call “Paine’s ‘anti-religion’ philosophy of religious duties” to Judaism that the rabbis who designed my Rabbinic Ordination Certificate chose it (that is, the verse from Micah saying virtually the same thing) of all possible verses from Jewish Scripture and tradition for the border calligraphy!   Micah, the “anti-religion” Paine, and my rabbinical school faculty all agreed on what “religious duties” should be.  They are, in substance and detail, how we fulfill the commandment (or, if you prefer Paine’s “duties”) that we “Be Holy.”

As the Torah itself, the Prophets, and generations of rabbis and other Jewish teachers have taught ever since, being “holy” is first and foremost a matter of acting ethically and with compassion.  At least one thousand years after Micah, the first classical Jewish ethicist, Bachya (Rabbenu Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda of Spain), author of Duties of the Heart, published in 1040, wrote:

Sanctify yourself through the practice of the commandments and thus you will become holy.  Such observance will help you to gain self-control so that your intelligence can govern your appetites. For our intelligence is doubly handicapped in this struggle: We have the appetites from birth, while intelligence develops slowly; and, our environment encourages us to yield to our urges, whereas intelligence is a lonely stranger in the world.   

Another thousand years later, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who is one of the, if not the, most prominent and popular contemporary American rabbinic authors, subtitled his A Code of Jewish Ethics as “You Shall be Holy.” 

The purpose of Jewish religion (and, I suspect, all religion) is to inspire and guide us to do precisely what both the prophet Micah and the supposedly anti-religion American political philosopher Paine said are our “religious” duties.  Belief is important, but ethical behavior is far more important.  

So, would the world be better off “without religion?”  This would mean a world in which billions of people in every generation are no longer taught to do justice, love kindness, or walk modestly with G-d, as their religion understands G-d.  It would be a world motivated by power, cynicism, hedonism, and self-interest (“enlightened” or otherwise), except for those able to discover some inspiration for ethical conduct.   

For much of our history, we Jews have experienced the horrors of what this kind of world would be like.  Even (and, maybe, especially) religious leaders have too often spoken and acted in ways that, to use Paine’s phrase, “appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Untold legions of people criticize and/or dismiss religion when they see these actions.  

But these actions have perverted the true nature and purpose of religion. They have been what Jews call “chillul haShem” – desecrations of G-d.  They have been instances of terrible human failures, cruelty, arrogance, injustice, and hypocrisy; the very vices that religion exists to curb.  True religion and the fulfillment of religious duties are the antidote to these behaviors, not their cause.  (For example, according to the Talmud, “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the evil inclination, and He created the Torah as its antidote.”  Kiddushin 10b)  To say: “the world would be better without religion” is an extreme and tragic example of both misunderstanding and “shooting the messenger.”

So, “Imagine no religion?”  Yes – but only to contemplate the resulting reign of what Rabbi Bachya described as “appetites” and “urges.” Then, perish the thought of such a world without religion!   Rather than condemning religion, we should reaffirm and embrace its sacred and uplifting purposes – promoting justice and goodness; and providing laws, rituals, and teachings by which we can strive to fulfill our potential and our duty to be holy.          

Shabbat shalom.

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