When Judaism Is All About You

Religion Should Be Tool To Serve — Not Just Feel Good

thinkstock

By Gerald L. Zelizer

Published August 18, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.