Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Music Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish indie singer Ezra Furman released a song on Wednesday that he said was dedicated to his grandfather, who escaped Nazi persecution. Furman told the website Consequence of Sound that the new track, called “The Refugee,” is his “first song entirely concerned with my Jewish background and present, a song dedicated to my grandfather who fled the Nazis, as well as to all of the refugees desperate for a home today.” He added, “May all the wanderers find the homes they seek, and […]

    Read more →