Religion Lite: Everything You Ever Wanted In Judaism, But Less

Several years ago, I received a phone call from a total stranger, a distraught woman in tears.  She had never been a member of a synagogue, she told me, and she didn't belong to any Jewish organization.  But her husband was dying, and she wanted a rabbi to come over right away to comfort her and her beloved mate.

I was able to rearrange my schedule, so I scribbled her directions and drove the forty-five minutes it took to get to her house.  By the time I arrived, her husband had already died.  Sitting with her grieved family, she informed me that the cremation was scheduled for later that day, and she would also expect a memorial service for her husband.  I explained to her that I could not accommodate her demand, since cremation is a violation of Jewish law, but that if she would reconsider and agree to have her husband buried instead of incinerated, I would be glad to conduct the funeral service on his behalf.

At that point, her sister, naturally sensitive to the new widow's pain, turned toward me, saying, "It would have been nice if our religion could have been a comfort at a time like this."  I didn't respond, since a house of mourning is not the proper place for a theological argument.

The room became oppressively silent.  Everyone present, myself included, felt offended and hurt and betrayed.  I don't know what they were thinking, but I was thinking that these people were not justified in their sense of entitlement.  While I could understand their frustration, and could concede their right to choose how they wanted to treat the remains of the deceased, I was also taken aback by their sense of ownership and their expectation that I should accommodate whatever they demand.  Their presumption that the community should provide for them on demand was especially unreasonable given that they maintained no affiliation with any synagogue, and had not done so for many years.  Who did they think made it possible for there to be a rabbi on the other end of the telephone line the precise moment they wanted one?  Whose investment of time, energy, and money put me in a place where I was available to drive to their home upon demand?  And why, if having a rabbi and a Jewish service mattered to them, didn't they explore the standards of Judaism before making the plans that satisfied their own private desire, expecting Judaism simply to comply with whatever they decided?

It was clear that I was in their way.  So I offered my condolences, suggested that they call me if I could be of any help to them or it, perhaps, they changed their minds.  Then I left, feeling angry, frustrated, and a little guilty too.  No one likes to play the role of Ayatollah; no one likes to say "no."

Another year, another impasse: I received the following phone call:
"Rabbi, we just gave birth to a son."
"Mazal Tov."
"Thank you.  We are still in the hospital and we'd like to schedule a baby-naming so our son can be named in a synagogue." 

I explained that this isn't necessary, since it is general practice to confer a name during brit milah, the ritual circumcision that takes place on the eighth day following birth.  After a brief silence, the mother informs me, “My husband and I prefer to do a medical circumcision in the hospital.  It's scheduled for tomorrow, on the baby's third day."

Now it's my turn for silence.  After taking a deep breath, I explain that circumcision is a mitzvah that goes back some 4,000 years to our father Abraham.  Every Jewish male since antiquity has entered the covenant of our people with God through brit milah.  I inform the mother that our mohel is also a pediatrician, so there would be no medical advantage to a hospital circumcision.  Besides which, the intended context of brit milah is primarily religious – sanctifying a moment in time.  That focus would be lost in the sterile procedure of the hospital.  I tell her that the rate of accident or injury is actually lower in cases of brit milah performed by a mohel than it is for a medical circumcision performed by a doctor.

My pleading notwithstanding, the mother stands her ground – no brit milah.  Yet she still wants a baby naming in the synagogue.

Again, I am struck by the combination of rejecting a core aspect of Judaism while simultaneously expecting Judaism to accommodate that amputation. While I can appreciate her desire to maintain a connection, however tenuous, to Jewish community, her rejection of Jewish standards leaves me little room, either for my own integrity, or my understanding of the integrity of Judaism.

I tell her that I will not do what she wants me to.  She expects me to tailor Judaism to meet her demands while remaining, herself, unwilling to accept the requirements of Judaism, practices which have enabled the Jewish people to survive throughout millennia and to nurture an intimate sense of the sacred and the holy.

Does Judaism have no claim to its own integrity?  Brit milah is, for me, a bottom line: an unbroken connection shared by every Jewish male for the past four thousand years, so cherished that mothers and fathers would choose martyrdom – both in antiquity and as recently as the Nazi death camps – rather than deny this mitzvah to their sons.  Unwilling to give up on this mother or on this new Jewish baby, I urged her to call the Mohel to assuage her safety concerns and I gave her the Mohel's phone number.  She promised to do so, but I haven't heart from her since.

Third in a series: Every summer, as parents register their children for religious school, I get several parents who complain that six hours a week for religious training is just too much.  One father asks rhetorically: "I didn't have to learn all that Hebrew, so why should my child have to?"  Another parent insists that they want to give their child a Jewish identity, but not all that "religious stuff."  A third told me that they wanted our curriculum to exclude Israel and Zionism – they are, after all, Americans. 

I can't help but conclude that we have entered the age of Judaism lite, the Judaism of the Cheshire cat:  all that's left is the smile, and even the teeth are beginning to fade from view.

The issue here is unchanged whether you concur with the positions of these people or not.  Rabbis of every Movement have confronted similar chasms between their notion of what Judaism asks of us and the dictate of some Jews that Judaism conform exclusively to their terms.  Can Judaism, in such a straightjacket, ever require ethical, ritual, or communal standards?  Does a Reform rabbi have the right to expect his or her congregants to not schedule weddings on Shabbat, or to get involved in feeding the hungry as a Jewish obligation?  Is an Orthodox rabbi justified in insisting that his congregants not drive on Shabbat, or that they get involved in feeding the hungry as a Jewish obligation?  Do my Conservative colleagues and I have those same rights?  Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis alike have had to cope with total strangers who treat them like glorified gas-station attendants, demanding the religious equivalent of "what do you mean I can't have unleaded?!?  And, rabbi, do the windows while you're at it!"
Let me reiterate: I am not claiming that all rabbis would insist on the specific standards that I affirm.  Different contemporary movements understand Jewish tradition in different ways, leading to a dazzling rainbow of different practices.  Regardless of their position on specific issues, however, every Jewish group insists on the coherence and integrity of Judaism as they understand it.  And that insistence makes us all problematic to those buffet Jews who treat religion like a spiritual smorgasbord: "I'll have a little of that and some of this, but none of that one.  And I'll be back for desert – so save me a piece."

Look, for a moment, at what these Jews have in common: an expectation that Judaism should provide precisely the service they demand, exactly when they want it, completely as they want it, with no reciprocal sense of responsibility to Judaism or the Jewish People, nor any notion that Judaism might have some of its own standards which why ought to embrace.

Ours is the age of the pop tart: instant gratification in the flavor of your choice.  Yet, no one expects to appreciate a play by Shakespeare without some prior exposure and training in English literature.  Someone who knows nothing about baseball (and I am a member of that troupe) can't begin to appreciate a ball game, and I guarantee that no one likes broccoli the first time around.  Any significant area of human endeavor requires commitment, training, exposure, and diligence before its power and profundity become apparent.

Judaism, in this regard, is no different than any other achievement of consequence.  A complex civilization that stretches over four thousand years of human history and development, a wise way of life that can enrich every moment, every day, and every significant encounter, a sacred cycle of depth, profundity, and wholeness second to none: surely all that is worth some investigation and commitment prior to making demands or to passing judgment.
At issue is the kind of Jew we can strive to become, not the kind of Judaism we are willing to accept.  No Judaism – from the secular to the hasidic – can elevate souls, root and nourish families, sanctify and mold communities without the prior willingness of its adherents to make a commitment of mind, energy, and belonging.  Yet that is precisely what so many American Jews deny their own religion.  Perhaps because we feel like family; we expect Judaism to meet our needs on our own terms.

Like a rebellious teenager, who expects his parents to suffer abuse because they are so close, too many Jews presume upon an intimacy that is real only in the realm of nostalgia or in the faint memory of early childhood.  Mishpakhah alone won't suffice:  the rate of spiritual divorce between Judaism and so many Jews is far too high.  The split came about because of the allure of another lover: in this case, the American ideal of what religion ideally ought to be.
Judaism is threatened precisely by the idiosyncratic American insistence that religion is purely a matter of spirit: a disembodied, spontaneous passion on the part of a solitary and enthused (literally, "filled with God") soul.  With that expectation, people are misled into expecting religion to provide a rich and overwhelming comfort with no prior exposure, with no commitment to communal standards, in fact, with no effort at all.  Small wonder, then, that so many find religion boring or disappointing.

Religion is not what we do with our solitude.  Religion is what we do in covenant: relating to community, relating to history, relating to the sacred writings of Jewish traditions, and relating to the Kadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessing One.  Religion is what we do in fostering a relationship in the light of our ultimate concerns.

Religion is the relationship that integrates all other relationships.  Without that commitment, so clearly enunciated in Jewish tradition, Jews express shock and rage that their religion isn't there for them.  But, truth to tell, we often aren't there for our religion either.  The Torah, for instance, recounts God's instruction to wear tzitzit (the ritual fringes on the corners of the prayer shawl) lest you be  “seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes.”  Precisely what the Torah warns against, Americans have elevated to their single ideal: if it feels good, do it.  If it comes from the heart, it must be okay.

Religion, so understood, becomes a mere shell – the proper form to follow at the proper time.  And any religion that won't accommodate the urges of the heart is heartless, by definition.  Judged in that light, Judaism pleads guilty. 
But are the urgings of our hearts reliable guides to meaningful living and to human happiness?  Do the desires of our eyes really lead to a society of righteous behavior, of justice, and of compassion?

To the contrary, recent bloody centuries provide powerful testimony to the failure of human nature as the final arbiter of acceptability.  Hitler appealed accurately to the inarticulate yearnings of the crowd, and the result was mass murder.  The drug-induced stupor of a generation of Americans was justified because it allowed new feelings of pleasure and visions.  Shattered hopes and deadened minds continue to clutter our population as a result, and innumerable lives have been forever ruined.  The white collar criminals from Wall Street and the ranks of forcibly-retired congressmen all attest to the failure of "seize the opportunity" as a worldview capable of inculcating goodness of wellbeing.

"If it feels good, do it" is a prescription for pain and hopelessness and despair.  Our desire always outpaces our capacity; our neediness is always greater than our ability to satisfy.  And human lust has no moral commitment: just ask the reverends Bakker and Swaggart; just ask the thousands of women who are raped every year.  The same century that witnessed the Holocaust, the Gulags, and the decay of urban America has laid unprecedented value on the urges of the heart.  I think the two are connected, as is cause to effect.

During that same violent century, the birth of a revolutionary new way of seeing the world – psychoanalysis – and the renewal of Judaism in the New World both offered rays of light and insight during a dark and bigoted time.  And their light is far from spent; even today it remains worthwhile to gather those hidden sparks of light.  One of the places where Judaism and Sigmund Freud agree is on the indispensability of the sublimation of human urges: channeling and, occasionally, denying what we want in the interests of what we truly need.  Dr. Freud felt that sublimation was necessary for establishing civilization; Judaism insists it is essential for the attainment of holiness.  There are, both Judaism and psychoanalysis agree, standards higher than our own, and we reject them at our own peril.

Rabban Gamliel, a leader of Mishnaic Jewry, used to teach "Do God's will as though it were your own, so that God will do your will as though it were His (Avot 2:4)."  Judaism expresses and embodies the will of God through the mitzvot, the commandments, as expounded in the sacred writings of Jewish tradition.

It takes effort, diligence, and commitment to place God at the center, to restrain our contemporary idolatry of the self.  No doubt the task is difficult: the glorification of our desires is so pervasive that it is almost invisible.  No doubt our ability to fight human nature is impaired: we have given in for so long and our stupor is so seductive. No doubt the time is short: a finger is, after all, still on the button, and many fingers still fondle the loot, the syringe, the bottle, or the glitz.

Yes, the task is difficult and the time is short.  The Talmud cautions le-fum tzara, agra, the ancient Aramaic equivalent of "no pain, no gain."  Deciding to take Judaism seriously, risking those first faulting steps on the ancient path of our tradition may be scary.  But know also that the reward is bountiful – a world in which people can say "no" to their own lusts and urges, and "yes" to community, to caring, and to each other – and that the Master is waiting.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University and is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, & Dreams (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Life’s Questions (Alef Design).