There are thousands of religions, faiths and types of communal spirituality that have been described in the history of mankind. When I was younger, I used to struggle with the notion that people were born into a particular religion and were accordingly expected to accept a rigid set of beliefs.
As a Jew, I grew up believing in the stories of the Old Testament. I was taught in school that there is one God, a God of the Jewish people, who is all powerful and omnipotent. The laws of the bible were the ones I was supposed to abide by (of course nobody actually abides by the majority of these laws). I believed that the stories I was learning regarding ancient history were the “real” ones. The Jewish prophets were the prophets who truly heard the word of God. The Jewish version of history held the accurate chronology of historical events.
When I was fifteen, I recall having a sort of epiphany regarding religion. What were the odds that if I hadn’t been raised in a Jewish community and gone to Hebrew day school, that I would actually believe all this stuff I had been conditioned to accept?
How is it that the majority of Christians truly believe in their hearts that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, whereas Jews do not revere the Holy Trinity and only ascribe value to The Old Testament? And why do the majority of Muslims happen to believe in Mohammed, whereas he barely factors at all into the other major Western religions?
It hit me that none of it really made any sense! For the most part, our religious views seemed purely dictated on where we grew up, our upbringing and our cultural conditioning. I found this disappointing. How could simply being born Jewish have had such a massive impact on my views of spirituality? I grew up believing that there was “obviously” one god, but I almost lost the chance to decide that for myself – how did I even know what I truly believed?
These questions are not unique to me. Many people, especially in our increasingly openminded society, grapple with the concepts of faith and religion. Atheism, agnosticism and non-denominational views of spirituality are far less stigmatized than in the past.
For years, I went in circles as I tried to sort out my views of religion. As I sought to explore my own views of spirituality, I obviously came to no concrete answers. For to presume to have found any “definitive” answers to the questions surrounding God, religion and thousands of years of history would be delusional. This is not to diminish the faith that many people have in their gods, messiahs and religions ; my point is simply that to have any certainty about such matters ignores the reality of a world far too complex for any of us to truly comprehend.
The more confused I became, the more inclined I was to abandon religion. How could I be Jewish if I didn’t even believe in all of the teachings, philosophies and historical truths?
Yet despite this, I still did want to be Jewish. I did like the Jewish traditions, the holidays with my family were still special to me, and I still valued the sense of community and feeling of shared ancestry.
But did this make me a hypocrite?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Karen Silberman on the podcast. She is an extremely warm, open-minded and wise woman who did not become a Rabbi until she was in her forties. I sought her help in addressing my feelings of hypocrisy in wanting to be Jewish yet acknowledging that this desire was purely based on to whom I was born.
I asked her, “if you had not been born Jewish, do you acknowledge you probably would not have ended up as a rabbi?” I wanted her to explain away the randomness of how we make our beliefs correspond to the religion in which we are born. She acknowledged that she almost certainly would not have been a rabbi.
But here’s the thing – she explained that she was born Jewish. She did grow up with the Jewish stories, fables and version of events. So those are the stories that have come to guide her in her spiritual life. Her morals, beliefs and perspectives on life have been influenced by those stories. It doesn’t mean she blindly views those stories as facts, as historical truths. And she does not discredit the authenticity and importance of the stories of other faiths.
Religion serves a purpose. It binds communities together, celebrates heritage and promotes many important lessons to guide us through life. What matters is not the specifics of each religion’s stories. Yes - the characters, the plotlines and the rituals are different. But the ethics, values and teachings they espouse are similar and of equal value.
So perhaps my religious views do not fall in line with many of the philosophies of Judaism. Perhaps my understanding of God is different to that which is reflected in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean I am a hypocrite if I still value my religion. I can accept the Jewish stories I grew up with and derive from them many values that guide me through my life. I can accept that perhaps the stories I was told may not have actually happened, and that it is impossible for any of us to know the truth. But at the same time, I can cherish those stories. I can appreciate the lessons these stories have taught me, and I can be grateful that they have formed the basis of a Jewish community that has made me feel welcomed, loved and supported in this oftentimes far too lonely world.
Rabbi Silberman relieved me of that pressure to say “yes” or “no” to religion. Belief and culture do not always have to match. Religion is not black and white, and we are all free to choose our own paths.