Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is Religion A Good Thing?

Is religion a good thing? For the last few years, it has been a question that seems to loom over many of us. There definitely are sides. There are atheists and religious fundamentalist positions vying for their one Truth, and there are many of us stuck in the middle. In the last few years, fundamentalism has risen its ugly head, not just to dictate to their congregation but force their view as the law of the land.

 This is not the first time. Such corruption is as old as the Bible. One story is of course the story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel and the Prophet Elijah. In their quest for an institutional religion, the king and queen massacre prophets, and Elijah has a price on his head. On the run, he heads south and ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai. Like Moses before him, Elijah gets to be in the presence of HaShem on the mountain:
And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before HaShem.' And, behold, HaShem passed by, a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before HaShem; but HaShem was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but HaShem was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but HaShem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' [I Kings 19]
Many many years ago a guy named Isaiah, inspired by God was angry about a corrupt priesthood. Isaiah cries out in the name of God:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith HaShem; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith HaShem; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
The sacred ritual had become mere rules, devoid of their meaning, static and unmovable. While there were times they listened under Jeremiah, the priesthood and the kings remained corrupt. The priesthood died at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's army, but in the exile that followed, God was with the people. Jesus and his disciples was angry about a corrupt priesthood (actually political appointments from Rome). While they counted Cohanim among their numbers, The Rabbis of the Talmud also bristled at the travesty that the Temple had become. The Talmud [Gittin 56a-b] makes some rather remarkable statements in the story of bar Kamza and the destruction of the Temple. First, ignoring hospitality even to one’s enemies, leaving them embarrassed, destroyed the temple: The second was fundamentalism destroyed the temple.
Rabbi Yohanan said, “The discretion of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burned ourTemple, and exiled us from our Land.”
The fundamentalist rejects diversity by believing only the static perception of someone else is the whole and entire truth. By this view one can not believe or even tolerate anything outside their truth, nor does their truth change and evolve. They do not acknowledge that there may be other truths for other people. The truth is not just the truth for them but must be the law of the land. It must be enforced by Earthquakes, fire and wind. To the fundamentalist, the Infinite One which each of us humans can only understand in limited terms can only be described in one way, not as many as the number of people on the Earth or stars in the sky.
The story in Gittin continues with Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai faking his own death to be carried out of Jerusalem, meeting with the Roman general Vespasian and essentially trading the old religion of Jerusalem for an academy at Yavneh and rabbinic Judaism, changing everything to hear the still small voice away from the corrupt institution. In the loss of everything, The Still Small Voice accompanied Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism wherever they ended up after the destruction of the Temple and Priesthood.
HaMakom is the omnipresent. The Divine is in all things, and it takes those who honor and respect that fact to keep and grow the holiness in the world. I am and know of many people who I will refer to as Benei Shechinah, literally children of the Divine Presence, people who believe in a greater power that can manifest itself in the world around us. We believe in God, but may not believe what God is exactly the same way, nor do we completely agree on how to serve God, or even if service is what we are supposed to be doing. What we can agree on is that the Divine calls to each of us in different ways. Those of us who agree enough alike to the questions “What is God” or “What does God want of us?” may form a community, both small and big, to grow together in their answers to those questions, or in finding new questions about those answers.
The Benei Shechinah are increasingly uncomfortable and questioning of what their greater communities, their religions, are doing in the name of God. Religions more often seem to take fundamentalist positions, or just acting corruptly and going against some the most important agreed on answers to the questions of service to God: caring for other human beings. Religion has become as Isaiah rails, and Jesus famously quotes:
Thus says HaShem of hosts, the G-d of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Don’t trust in lying words, saying: 'The temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, are these.' But if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Here, you trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known, Then come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: 'We are delivered', that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Hey, I, even I, have seen it, says HaShem.[Isaiah 7]
Organizations, interested mostly in their own survival, both in socially and financially have never been good at this. They get bogged down in rules, cannot hear the still small voice in the Thunder and Fire and Earthquakes of their rules and enforcement. They consistently give false witness, worshipping the false Idols, the Baal of Money, and marketing false prophets for profit.
I look to the biblical prophets, and the history of religion in the times after the prophets. Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah all look to the institutions of the land, the kings and priesthood and condemn them for corruption and for not doing what is the most important things: care for other people, especially those people who are strangers widows and orphans, those who cannot care for themselves without help. Yet time after time, the greater institution fails in this. Survival of the fittest is not holy, Atlas shrugging is the act of a pagan god, though institutions fall into the trap repeatedly. The prophetic books end with the destruction of the Temple, and exile to another land. Yet God goes with the people. Many of the thinkers of the first Century Israel were just as fed up with the corruption of the Second Temple practices, for very much the same reasons. The Temple became a profit center for the rich and powerful, not a prophet center. In Christianity, Jesus and his disciples had lots of problems with this system. So too in Jewish thought did the Rabbinic Mןnd. While the Tannaim of Talmud did preserve a lot of tradition of Temple Practices, they had no problem letting it crumble and be replaced by Rabbinic Judaism -- which has survived longer than Temple Judaism ever did.
Rabbinic Judaism, where prayer and study replaces sacrifice, has its origins in Biblical times. The centralization of all sacrifices in the Temple and destroying the high places, the Bamot, had an unintended effect. People couldn't afford the the time or money to come to Jerusalem frequently -- so they started studying and praying instead. The institution was replaced by the community. By the time of the destruction of the Temple, this was a common practice, coming together in small prayer communities instead of the mass institution and spectacle of the Temple sacrifice. Our smaller prayer communities, the synagogue, church or prayer circle, emerged from these original communities.
Some grew into larger organizations. There are advantages to larger organizations. There can be a consistency of message over many smaller communities. There can also be a bigger force of message and action when many people band together. Yet there is an even bigger chance of depersonalizing the Benei Shechinah’s diverse, personal witnessing of the Holy One. There is an even bigger, and fallacious idea that the survival of the organization, of the religion, is paramount to the the survival of the small communities and the individuals within them. Biblical precedent is clear here: the first and second Temples were destroyed, and with them the priesthood and sacrifice system. Judaism survived both, and in the ashes of the Second Temple, Christianity arose as well. The Shechinah will abandon the religion and it capricious rules made by humans, but The Shechinah does not abandon any of her children.
We are once again in a time where we see so many counter examples of “love thy neighbor.” People often treating the widow, orphan and stranger with cruelty instead of kindness in the name of religion and the Baal of economic necessity. There are many who are obsessed with what they would call Sodomy, that brutal force is necessary to suppress it, instead of believing what both Isaiah 7 and Genesis Rabbah make clear: the sin of Sodom was to treat the stranger, and indeed everyone, with evil intentions, not homosexuality. Sodomites were rapists, and would rape anyone, any way on sight, not care to the needs of the stranger or the weak. It is not the sin of those referred to in one small verse in Leviticus 18:22. The sin of Sodom, found dozens of times in the Bible, is the core sin of many fundamentalists today. Their religion stands on oppressing the weak. Their religions stands on oppressing women and denying the status of human being to GLBT people within and outside their community.
Yet, this is the voice of some institutions and religions -- there are others who have different views. Even more so the still small voice in the small communities of God, the Kehillat HaShem, who may even associate with a institution, work towards the goals of seeing the Divine in all things and all people, then act on that with a respect and goodness. It is not the big organization that will bring about the will of God and Tikkun Olam. It is the small community, as it was in days of old.
The Talmud [Sanhedrin 38 a] Gives the greatness of God being compared to to a king who mints his own coins:
Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mold of the first man, and not one resembles the other
On each coin is an image of the king and all are the same. But God mints coins in his own image, and yet no two are the same. We are God’s currency each witnessing and completing Creation differently. We are all unique and holy, but when we get together as a group holiness increases. As the Perkei Avot [3:3]tells us that for three to eat and talk of Torah, The Holy One Joins them at their table. Community is important and does makes us stronger, and creates a synthesis -- a presence of God -- that one person alone cannot manage.
Religion is a dressing of organization over our servitude to God. There is no word for religion in ancient Hebrew, -- it is an alien term to scripture, never mentioned. Religion is neither bad or good -- but its institutions, in their desire for self-preservation may lose their way, and often end up corrupt and evil. As thought they are prophets, It is up to individuals and the smaller communities who might be under the umbrella of a religion to stand up and make there voice and action known, for like the Temples before it, the institution will fall, but the Divine Presence will accompany her children wherever they journey.
As Elijah found out on Mount Sinai, the thunder and fire of religious institutions is not where God resides, but in the still small voice within the practitioner. To listen to the still small voice is not enough, we need to get together with others. Let us share our still small voices in community and heed them in doing gemilut hasidim, good works, in our selves, in our community, for the poor, the oppressed, and for our world.
It takes the individual to truly believe, not the organization. It is good to have a community who share experiences and ways of experiencing and bringing Ribbono Shel Olam more into the world in their own ways, like helping the widow orphan and stranger in their midst. Like Elijah, we may have the whole world, government, and priesthood after our head. But we do not listen to their thunder, fire and wind, because God is not there. We together listen instead to The Still Small Voice, for there is where הקדוש ברוך הוא The Holy One Blessed be sHe, really is.

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