Re-defining Religion

August 15, 2011 12:06 pm 2 comments

Reflections on the Enigma of Religion In Light of Recent Assaults to Its Name

From A Revered Force to a Suspicious Doctrine

“It’s not easy being labeled religious these days,” a friend confessed to me a few days ago.

The so-called ‘religious’ people, who have recently committed some of humanity’s most horrific crimes, have cast a dark shadow on religion. It seems as if these demonic perpetrators of evil – from Levi Aron, the murderer of a nine year old child from Boro Park, to Asher Dahan, the slayer of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzera in Israel, to the Norwegian assassin, a self-declared religious Christian who took 76 innocent lives – have diminished the magnetizing and revered force of religion to a suspicious doctrine whose purpose now seems undefined; worse, unknown and capable of bringing about destruction and mayhem.

My friend may be right, but I beg to ask: what is religion? What is the definition of a“religious person”? What was he referring to? Can religion and evil really co-exist?

The Definition Struggle

The universal definitions of religion are wide-ranging. Some define religion as a set of beliefs, while others define it as an array of rituals. Some emphasize the truth of ideas, others – the illusion of thoughts. Generally, however, religion is regarded as “the relation of human beings to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine.

Unfortunately, this model of religion may not always be positive. At times, the relationship one may have with the “holy or sacred, spiritual or divine” may even become dangerous. Historically, crimes committed in the name of religion have spewed immeasurable destruction in our world – from the Roman persecution of Christians, to the Spanish inquisition, to the Islamic jihad of today.

Moreover, if this is religion, what good does it serve? Why should one desire it? How can a good person subject himself to religious ideals that are shamefully abused by evildoers?

A New Definition

Perhaps, the enigma of religion stems from the misguided notion that the purpose of religion is to help us fight the bad in the world; Religion exists to fight racism, bigotry, sexism, fanaticism and all of the other bad features of the world. Subsequently, people who practice religion devote a large part of their lives to helping others, and bringing goodness to their surroundings. These noble aims are very much a part of the fabric of religious thought, but on some level they may miss the point and subvert the very goals they seek to achieve. Since, in the very quest to help others, it is possible to neglect the most vital frontier of all: the frontier of the inner self.

In the pursuit to better the world, many fail to better their own selves. In their desire to practice religion, they discount the true meaning of religion. For religion means fighting yourself, more than fighting others; improving yourself, more than improving others; gaining control over yourself, and your negative inclination, more than gaining control over the world. My dear mentor, world-renowned scholar – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, once advised me, so poignantly: “Know that the greatest obstacle to me, Adin, is me. The greatest obstacle to you, Pinchas, is you. But once you learn to master yourself, you will not have any problem in mastering the entire world.”

Light Comes From Light, Good Comes From Good

It is important, even vital, to be conscious of outside threats.  In our increasingly open world, we must know how to identify and fight, without compromise, the bad that relentlessly attempts to penetrate the sanctity of our inner circles. We must learn to decipher the various manifestations of bad, and conquer them with unwavering vigor. Being positively involved outside, in the world, is of high importance too. “Tikun Olam” projects and other forms of social-aid initiatives are essential to the peace and success of our society. But we ought to remember that positive change begins with the self. Just as light can only come from light, a good world can only come from a good person.

This is also why the word for ‘religious’ in Hebrew is “shomer (mitzvot)”, the “guardian (of good deeds).” Because the true meaning of religion is to constantly guard the good within from being contaminated by bad. A “guardian” knows that, “the beginning of wisdom is the inner fear of God,” and a “guardian” knows that his ‘inner fear of God’ must play a crucial role in every atom of his life. All others, may label themselves religious, but if their inner fear of God is lacking, they may be, at the worst, religiously irreligious.

The Return To The Private Self

The legendary Chassidic Master from the city of Kotzk in Poland, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787–1859), once professed to his disciples, that “when I was young, I desired to change the world. But I quickly realized that this was an impossible feat, so I decided to work on my city alone. This too became unachievable, so I focused solely on my family. But I now finally realize that the only person I can truly change is myself.”

With these staggering words, Rabbi Morgenstern was not abandoning his quest to change the world. After all, he never ceased to lead his thousands of followers with conviction and determination. Rather, he was merely suggesting that real change must begin from within.

It would behoove modern day man to return to the private self and internalize that which Judaism has forever emphasized to all; that self-improvement through genuine introspection and deeds of goodness and kindness, such as prayer and charity, is the only mean to creating a lasting difference in the world. And if the deeds originate from a refined and virtuous being, they will reverberate in the world infinitely more than actions originating from self-deception or hypocritical pretenders.

This is religion and this is its compelling call to you, and me, and our inner, private selves.

2 Comments

  • see also p 32 of the hebrew version of buber’s darco shel adam al pi torat hachasidut – a reb simcha bunim quote !!

  • rabbi allouche shalom
    got to your blog via arthur kursweil’s daily rav steinzaltes’ quotes
    yashar koach
    jeff goodman
    yerucham. israel

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Relationships US & Canada Time Out Features Single Lady Who Likes ‘Big Schlubby Jewish Comedians’

    Time Out Features Single Lady Who Likes ‘Big Schlubby Jewish Comedians’

    A profile published Wednesday in Time Out New York highlighted a 25-year-old Brooklyn woman who claimed she is attracted to chubby Jewish comedians, Maxim Deputy Editor Jason Feifer pointed out via Twitter. Talking about a date she went on, Steph, a sunglasses designer living in Borough Park, told the magazine, ”He was very attractive, just not my type. I like big schlubby Jewish comedians and he was clean-cut.” Feifer posted a picture of the magazine page and commented that Steph’s preferences amounted [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Gold on the Galilee: Israeli Kayaker Comes of Age, Eyes Olympics (VIDEO)

    Gold on the Galilee: Israeli Kayaker Comes of Age, Eyes Olympics (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Three years ago, kayaking coach Roei Lev found aspiring Olympian Ilya Podpolnyy crying on the steps of the Jordan Valley Sprint Kayak Club overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Podpolnyy, then 17 years old, had just been disqualified from the Israeli kayaking championship. He couldn’t survive the heats. He didn’t make the start line. He was devastated—and he had no one with whom to share his hopes, his dreams, and his disappointment. His divorced parents still live in [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    “Girls” creator Lena Dunham responded on Tuesday to charges of antisemitism over an article she had penned for the New Yorker, saying it was all in good humor. Speaking to Variety, Dunham reflected on her “tight-knit Jewish family, where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication.” The article Dunham referred to was called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” with options such as “He doesn’t Tip” and “He’s Crazy for Cream Cheese.” Among Dunham’s critics, Anti-Defamation [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Retired NBA player Keyon Dooling tweeted a link on Wednesday to a wildly antisemitic article that accuses Jews of seizing control of the world’s media and using it to promote their own interests. The article, published by an obscure blog in April 2013, highlights six companies it claims are owned by Jews — such as Time Warner, Inc. and the Walt Disney Company – that allegedly “control 96 percent of the world’s media.”  The post includes allegations of “Jewish control” and says [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz responded to an outcry from Jewish fans on Tuesday, saying he will go ahead and play in the season opener despite the fact that it falls on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “Keep getting tweets about that being the first night of Rosh Hashanah… Don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s a tough break,” the Jewish athlete wrote, referring to the Giants’ on-the-road game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    JNS.org – When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    A Hebrew tattoo sported by Croatian soccer star Mario Mandzukic became an internet sensation in Israel after it was exposed on Tuesday during a Champions League match between Ateltico Madrid and Real Madrid A first glance, the tattoo, on the athlete’s back, might leave one with the impression that it was an unfortunate artistic mistake, since the Hebrew letters do not make sense as they are written. However, a closer look at the tattoo shows that it was actually written [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    For the past two years, I have served as Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner. I’m perhaps most proud of the paper’s commitment to publishing diverse and opposing viewpoints on the controversial issues of the day. We pride ourselves on voicing different opinions because we know that most issues are not black and white, and because our community is better served by a public debate. In my life outside of the paper, I am a professional actor and playwright. And similarly, [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.