After 40 years in the same congregation and almost 50 since my ordination, I should know what to say in my High Holy Days sermons. It should be easy. But this year it’s not.
Sure, I can readily address the perennial themes of High Holy Days preaching: repentance; Israel; Jewish identity versus American assimilation; life’s jubilations, challenges and tragedies. But I am having such difficulty, because in the past decade or two, American religion, including Judaism, has made a 360-degree revolution right under my pulpit. The conventional themes are tried and tired compared with what is now the core question asked by parishioners of all religions, including mine.
The primary thesis of institutionalized American religion used to be, “How do we serve God?” Today it has increasingly become, “How do God and religion enhance my life?”
Purveyors of religion used to say, “Do such and such because God says so.” They told us that our function is to be here to exalt, praise, adore, bless, obey, worship and believe in God. But American religion in recent years, while certainly not negating the worship of God, has increasingly emphasized what God does for us. Like anything else we select or buy, religion is good for us.
This new emphasis permeates American religion in general, and even seems to be backed up by some evidence. According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Americans who consider themselves “very religious” enjoy higher well-being than either the nonreligious or moderately religious — including less depression and better health choices.
A recent study by Jeff Levin of Baylor University tells us that synagogue attendance among Jews is associated with greater happiness, and that prayer makes for greater life satisfaction and well-being. Religion is a valuable coping mechanism in response to physical and functional impairments.
Tim Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, studies evangelism. He has discovered that church attendance among evangelicals boosts their immune systems and decreases their blood pressure. He attributes this to the social support of church groups. One church in Southern California reports that among its members, conversion to Christianity actually helped to break serious drug addictions.
Even Pope Francis has gotten into the act. In his recently translated book, “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words,” he promotes the Sabbath not solely as a time to worship God in church, but also as an opportunity to relax, to be with families, to enjoy one’s solitude, to read, to listen to music and to play a sport.
Like many clergy today, I say “God says so” less than I say, “This is what God can do for you.” I talk less about religious obligation and more about religion as a means to self-fulfillment. For example:
• The Sabbath meal together is a chance to designate quality family time.
• Building a sukkah is a way to integrate nature into suburban living.
• Fasting on Yom Kippur is a means for us to strip ourselves of the physical in order to concentrate on spiritual self-reflection.
• Enrolling children in our religious schools provides them with an important identity and an emotional shield in an often scary world.
• Mourning a loved one with traditional Jewish rituals is a means of acclimating oneself to the real world after the disorientation, grief and shock of death.
Christian clergy express this dichotomy, too. For example, in “The Purpose Driven Life” Rick Warren shows us how to serve God — in worship, fellowship, discipleship. On the other hand, Joel Osteen says, “Our God is a good God who desires to bless those who are obedient and faithful to him through Jesus Christ.” God will reward materially those who believe in Jesus Christ.
So why not both? Why can’t the message be to serve God while at the same time allowing religion to improve our lives? It is really a question of valence. How much of one and how much of the other?
Sure, a little of each is certainly well rounded. But deep down I know that what is well rounded on the outside is hollow on the inside. The compromise between both does not allow for a more concentrated and impactful message that may change lives. So I remain frustrated and stymied, as will my congregation as it gets my well-intended but inadequate mixture and continue asking: “ Why religion at all? Why institutional religion? That’s what I really need to know.” Maybe I can help answer that next year.
Gerald L. Zelizer is the rabbi of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metcuhen, N.J.