jStandard: My Dear Rabbi Column of July 5, 2013

My July "Dear Rabbi" column.

Dear Rabbi,

I grew up in a religious home and attend synagogue all my life and kept a kosher home, observed all the holidays and mitzvot. I'm 55 years old now and I realize that I do not believe in God. I've have told just a few people about my loss of faith. One friend with whom I have discussed this insists that it is hypocritical for me to attend synagogue and recite the prayers. At this age I do not want to disrupt my life style. What should I do?

Paramus, NJ

Dear Perplexed,

Your mid-life crisis of belief is not uncommon, and yet, it has no easy solution. You know how thick with activities a religious life can be. It is hard to walk away from your accustomed life, one which is filled with tasks and obligations and appointments in your home and your community and on your calendar.

Admittedly, there is an element of hypocrisy if you practice without belief, if you go through the motions of the prayers when you don't believe in God. However there are many dimensions to collective worship. The synagogue provides for a means of social expression and of interactions which are important to a vibrant life. Participation with family and friends within a community promotes general health and well-being.

Though hypocrisy is no virtue, it also is not a sin. It is a fact of life. And for you, it may be best to keep your doubts a private matter. You seem to have already decided on that course of action, and I agree. It is better not to broadcast your non-belief to the world.

You may know that some seem to disagree with the approach of remaining discreet about the lack of belief. Writing recently in the Times, T. M. Luhrmann, a professor at Stanford, argued aloud that belief is overrated as a main feature of religion in America ("Belief Is the Least Part of Faith," May 29, 2013). She says that, "you can argue that religious belief as we now conceptualize it is an entirely modern phenomenon."

Luhrmann describes what she learned in her studies of evangelical Christians, "I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold."

Now, based on my years of shul-going, I am tempted to say (jokingly) that I saw that people go to synagogue to experience "oy" (rather than "joy"). But I do agree with Luhrmann that we should not get hung up on questions of "belief." With or without active credence, great positive value derives from participating together with your peers in your worship community.

Dear Rabbi:

I don't see the point of reciting blessings before eating at every meal. I understand that it is a mitzvah and a form of thanksgiving. But, this kind of constant practice feels rote and repetitive to me. Can you provide me with any insight or new motivation?

Bless me,
Englewood, NJ

Dear Bless Me,

Your question has a pragmatic flavor to it. Curiously, there's an anecdote about one of America's founding fathers asking a related question.

Benjamin Franklin described a boyhood memory of the barrel of salted meat that sat in a corner beside their family dinner table. When the family took their meat for their daily meals from the barrel, Franklin recalled, his father prayed at every occasion: "Thank Thee, Father, for the meat Thou has laid before us."

One day young Benjamin openly suggested that the family could save some time, "Father, why not say one prayer over the whole barrel, and then we don't have to thank the Lord at every meal for every piece of meat we eat." His father was displeased with that suggestion and he scolded Franklin for his ingratitude.

I won't scold you. I will offer you a somewhat novel motivation for the myriads of food blessings that we Jews are accustomed to recite.

Simply put, reciting blessings can help us foster a more thoughtful awareness of our eating. Blessings can serve as triggers for us and can tell us to put aside our distractions, to be mindful of our actions, to be meditative of what type of food we hold in our hands, how that food ought to be regarded and classified, and to recall what its prescribed berakhah is.

All forms of mindfulness heighten a person's experiences and elevate ordinary events from a background of passive awareness to a foreground of active thinking. A blessing can act as a cue to us to more mindfully savor the taste and texture of our foods.

Meir, a rabbi in the Talmud in the second century, spoke of his expectation for every Jew a life punctuated daily by one-hundred blessings. He expected a Jew to experience each day one-hundred triggers of mindfulness, via blessings, not just over foods that we eat, but in our prayers and in the performance of all our ritual acts.

To be a bit more theological, because a blessing invokes three names of a divine entity ("Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe…"), classical Judaism says that it can accomplish something we conventionally describe as the sanctification of the acts that the reciter performs after each blessing. By our actions of reciting a blessing and then eating, for instance, a blessing-reciter fulfills a commandment and performs a sacred act.

A mindful-berakhah-eater knows to associate the correct blessing that applies to each food category and to each specific food. The eater has to decide what species of food this is—where it came from, what category it falls into—and thereby to determine the proper berakhah to recite before putting it into his or her mouth and eating it. A mindful eater must be culturally analytical, a bit botanical or culinary or scientific, and religiously cognizant—all before he or she recites the blessing.

As I see it, blessings trigger a frequent flow of meditative mindfulness. And I have found that for me a more thoughtful and mindful life throughout the day is a more sacred life.

1 comment:

orthoprax said...

I'm very much in the same situation as "perplexed". (And I think there are a LOT of us out there.) I think your advice is sound. I'm not even sure it's all that hypocritical. Much of our "requirement" for belief is based on the Rambam's 13 principles. They were created in specific response to a threat from Christianity, and like you implied, I'm not sure they are all that relevant or necessary today. In Menachem Kellner's book "Must a Jew Believe Anything?" he makes that case and why it might even be harmful to us today.

Beyond the "comfort" of remaining in a system where one has been all there life, another aspect that keeps me "in" is commitment. When we got married, as part of my implied commitment to my wife, I agreed to live and support an orthodox lifestyle. This includes raising our children that way and setting an example for them. I take that very seriously.

Another point is that I'm not anti-religion. I'm not looking to undermine anyone's faith, especially that of my family. I think faith is important for the masses. If I, as the patriarch of a growing family, would "broadcast" my lack of belief, it very well could seriously impact that of my family. However, while we shouldn't broadcast it, we do need at least a friend or two who we can confide in, preferably someone who's in a similar place, to share this with.