The first question one might ask of an ex-Mormon who has spent the last ten years or so living as a debauched agnostic might be: Why Judaism?
It’s a fair question. It also begs the further question: Why religion at all? I don’t know if there are statistics, but I’d guess that most people who leave their childhood religion stay away from other religions as well. Even five years ago, after I had realized that many atheists were as dogmatic and self-righteous as the worst of the religious types I’d left behind, I wasn’t interested in approaching religion outside of general curiosity about the Judaism of the family I worked for.
But leaving religion, whether ex-religious people will admit it or not, also leaves us with difficult questions to answer. Many argue that it’s possible to be good without God. That’s true. I know many atheists and agnostics who are wonderful people. But the scope of religion’s wisdom covers so much more than whether you should or shouldn’t cheat on your spouse just because “God said so.” Lacking any kind of authoritative moral or ethical source, how do we create a life of meaning? How do we build communities and support each others’ families? How do we understand our existence in the broader spectrum of history and relate to those who came before us?
You could turn to Instagram for inspiration. One modern secular mantra – Just be kind – is a specious attempt at replacing morality with niceness. But naive niceness, when confronted with legitimate maliciousness, often crumbles and is bulldozed over. It’s not always moral to be nice, both for yourself and for those around you. Another popular code for behavior: Treat yourself. Forsake the future for what you want right now. Or another: You’re perfect just the way you are. Don’t spend one moment around people who make you feel less-than or who make you suspect that perhaps some self-reflection is in order. You don’t need to change! Your selfish, gossiping, social-climbing self is perfect, right now.
Any sensible person older than 25 knows these pieces of advices are silly and unsustainable at best, and even potentially relationship- and life-destroying. You aren’t perfect, you can’t treat away every bad day, and you shouldn’t always be nice.
So then what? You could always just sit back and see what comes your way, merely reacting using whatever behavior you deem most ethical at the time. But this is problematic – the hardest moral choices to make are the ones there is no clear answer for, the ones which are unpredictable in nature. If we don’t know ahead of time who we are and what kind of values we build our lives around, we are often forced to make decisions we are entirely unprepared for.
The fact of the matter is this: We all have to choose how to live our lives, and if we don’t choose, life will make choices for us. This is unavoidable. The choices we are forced to make when we refuse to proactively engage with our future are unplanned and often unpleasant, and most of what we learn for ourselves is through trial-and-error, which takes a very long time. We need to be proactive when it comes to figuring out how to live a moral life of meaning.
How to live a good life, then, turns out to be an immensely complex question to answer. Given our entire lives to do nothing but think about it, we could barely scratch the surface if we were left to our own perspective. You have less than a lifetime of accumulated wisdom – not much at all. This is all assuming that you have the time or inclination to ask these questions in the first place.
I understand that many people are rightfully disaffected with religion. So many truly malicious people have acted under the cover of religion as they commit terrible crimes against children and other innocents. Some of the greatest frustrations for me within Mormonism were the rampant child abuse, the incessant guilt-mongering, the top-down non-negotiable “revelations” that resulted in the shaming and displacement of LGBT members. I experienced first-hand the ostracizing that happens to erstwhile members who dare to ask questions. It was immensely painful.
It’s understandable, then, that after I left Mormonism I had a scorched-earth approach toward religion in the Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins vein. But over the last few years, my bitterness toward corruption within religion has matured, ironically, by becoming more familiar with political structures and government bureaucracies. Now, I have a what I think is a more realistic perspective.
In order to get anything of meaning done, you have to have some kind of a hierarchy. Even democracies consist of hierarchies. There is no such thing as an effective organization without a hierarchy, because we need people with more experience and sophisticated decision-making capabilities at the “top.” But because of the power dynamics inherently at work in all hierarchies, and because humans are all susceptible to corruption, hierarchies all offer opportunities for corruption (I was actually the editor of the Richard Dawkins e-newsletter for a few months, and let me tell you – my coworkers were just as arrogant and snotty as any religious zealot).
Anybody who works as a teacher for a public school or a pilot in the Air Force will tell you how frustrating and fucked up bureaucratic hierarchies can be. Power corrupts. We say that for good reason. But I don’t think the appropriate response to this is to dismantle every form of hierarchy. Rather, we need to anticipate the capability to corrupt (and to be corrupted ourselves), and then work within systems to keep them as upright as possible.
Consider that Catholic priests couldn’t get away with the rampant sexual abuse of children without the people around them who are fully aware of their behavior and choose to ignore it. The same is true for Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein – nonreligious figures, but both powerful and terribly abusive, and both surrounded by equally powerful and successful friends who were aware of their behavior and chose to stay silent. These silent observers carry a heavy burden of responsibility for the abuse of those they enable. No hierarchy, religious or otherwise, can become corrupted without the consent of its members.
So rather than burning religion to the ground, maybe we can take a different tack and ask ourselves how we can work to improve it in order to maximize the tremendous benefits that religion offers. Improving our religious communities aligns with the similar goal of personal improvement that religion continuously challenges us to seek. Rather than telling ourselves that we are perfect and that we deserve all good things, every religion encourages us to ask ourselves: What could I do better? In what ways am I contributing to the problems in my own life?
Here’s where choosing a life guided by religion comes in. Religion, especially one as old and sophisticated as Judaism, can do so much of the heavy lifting for us, if we judiciously follow its guidance. Judaism (and Christianity, and Islam, among others) contains thousands of years of philosophical and theological wrestling with moral and ethical dilemmas, as well as codified principles for organizing personal and social behavior. Standing on the shoulders of religious giants doesn’t relieve one of the responsibility to wrestle with moral and ethical questions, but it does provide an abundance of insight, variety, and structure to someone who is otherwise swimming in the void.
Of course, Judaism isn’t the only religion. So – back to the original question. Why Judaism?
Postmodernism suggests that there are infinite ways in which to view the world. I think that’s probably true. But the next step that postmodernism postulates – that nothing is therefore knowable and that everything is relative – is totally untrue. There is a fairly easy way to test whether one way of seeing the world, or one religious interpretation of the world, is better than another: By the fruits of its labors.
For one easy example, we can look at divorce through the secular and Jewish lens and see if one paradigm yields better results than other. It is currently very easy to get divorced, and people do it all the time because they’ve fallen out of love or are experiencing a years-long slump in their marriage. And it is true that staying married is often boring and oppressive – no question about that. But current divorce rates are devastating children, especially boys who grow up in homes without fathers. The research on this is very clear.
I saw this play out dramatically in my student body as a public school teacher. So many of my students had divorced parents who were regularly moving in and out with new partners. Many students also had parents who abused drugs and alcohol. The misery this caused my students was unbearable to witness. With very few exceptions, the students who struggled the most behaviorally and academically were the students whose parents were unwilling to discipline and structure their lives so their children could benefit from the stability of married parents. Staying married is hard. The effects of rampant divorce are much, much harder. Not abusing drugs and alcohol is hard. The effects of abusing alcohol and drugs is much, much harder.
Nearly every religion suggests that marriage is a binding contract, and Judaism is no exception. Secularism suggests that marriage exists for as long as it is convenient or easy or until something better comes along. Divorce among Jews is lower than the general population, and the rate of juvenile delinquency among Jewish youth is also lower (alcoholism among American Jews is also very low). That’s no coincidence. I’m not saying divorce is never justified, but when 50% of the population are getting divorced at least once, we have a moral and ethical dilemma that modern secularism is not equipped to address.
This isn’t to say that religion isn’t oppressive. It definitely is – but it has to be. Religion calls on people and societies to structure themselves in ways that require them to oppress themselves in the short-term for the long-term benefit of themselves and everyone else. And while there’s no question that religion needs to continually modernize, many of the behaviors codified in religion transcend modern behavioral trends.
Do religious people live better, healthier, longer lives? Are religious communities more cohesive? Are Jewish communities stronger than secular individuals? Do Jews try to be more ethical? Are they more moral? Do they live lives of greater meaning?
Is my life going to be better when it’s guided by Jewish principles than when it’s not? Will I be a more moral person? Will I be called upon to sacrifice short-term desires for long-term results, to my overall benefit? I think the answers to these questions is unequivocally yes.
These ideas, among others, are some of what I genuinely love about Judaism. I love its rich history of intellectual wrestling – the very name Israel means “those who struggle with God”. I am the kind of person who thinks endlessly about big-picture questions and I’m not satisfied with “Just have faith” as an answer. In Judaism, asking hard questions is encouraged. Various interpretations are tolerated. Judaism has no ultimate authority receiving revelation from God and dictating Jews accordingly. Because of this, individual Jews are encouraged to seek answers from multiple sources, to familiarize themselves with many Jewish scholars and philosophers and theologians.
I also love the long-standing Jewish emphasis on individual education. Education and understanding are prized by Jewish families and Jewish children are taught to study, to think, to question, to discipline themselves in pursuit of knowledge. You’d be hard put to argue that this is isn’t a great cultural value.
When you combine this Judaism’s focus on Tikkun Olam, which is the principle of an individual’s responsibility to heal the world and take care of the disadvantaged, it is no coincidence that a disproportionate number of Jews are Nobel Prize winners. Curious, well-educated people who seek to better the world can do incredible things.
I also don’t think it’s coincidental that, despite the terrible persecution Jews have endured over the millennia, Judaism has such remarkable staying power. The principles by which Jews abide – education, compassion, discipline – transcend time and circumstance. Judaism is thousands of years old and still united by powerful ethics and binding stories.
I want to be a part of this. I want more from my life than I can give myself on my own. And I know myself well enough, and I know Judaism well enough, to say that this is something I can gladly and proudly attach myself to and commit to bettering myself – and my Jewish community – through being the best Jewish woman I can be.