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!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • 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.