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January 1, 2013 3:38 am
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The Role of Religion

avatar by Erica Brown / JNS.org

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Religious symbols.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a global study of religion whose findings have appeared in newspapers and social media everywhere. Using more than 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers, it found that 84 percent of adults and children around the globe are religiously affiliated; the median age of two major groups, Muslims (23 years) and Hindus (26), is younger than the world’s overall population (28). Jews have the highest median age (36) of the groups studied.

But the study also concluded that one out of every six people has no religious affiliation—the third largest group in relation to religion, equal to the world population of Catholics, about 16 percent. Christians double that population. Jews are only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. An increasing number of people, however, do not attach themselves to any world faith. This should be of concern to anyone who cares about religion.

Clergy and religious leaders often spend the majority of their time trying to strengthen faith in those who show a sparkle of commitment, and yet the disengagement of tens of thousands should make us think more about what it takes to enhance faith in the world generally. It takes passion.

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Contrast this spiritual malaise to a passage of Talmud (BT Shabbat 83b) that highlights the role of passion and religion. A rabbi entered a study hall and suddenly an esoteric matter he had studied for many years was suddenly clarified for him by one sage, and he had yet another level of illumination. One cannot miss a moment of study, for in that one moment, intellectual clarification can unexpectedly happen.

As the passage unfolds, one sage commented that Torah is only attained by one who “kills himself in the tent,” based upon an odd reading of a verse: “This is the Torah: A person who dies in a tent…” (Numbers 19:14). The verse is an introduction to obscure laws of purity. Figuratively, the sages made some unusual connections between learning and death. “Rabbi Yonatan said: One should never prevent himself from attending the study hall or from engaging in matters of Torah, even at the moment of death.” Learning takes place in an instant. Learning should take place until the very last moment, and finally, as the quote above implies, in order to learn in depth, one must “kill” oneself in study.

This use of language is inherently violent and disturbing but manipulated in this commentary to turn physical violence on its head. When you care about something, you give yourself totally to it. You feel the “flow,” in the word of one researcher. You become deeply engaged and committed. Rather than give your life in the name of religion, give your life to it. Engage in ideas. Argue vehemently. Debate rigorously. Allow faith to inform ideas and shape attitudes as one of many vehicles of comfort and insight. But if faith becomes a sword, then it will not frame who we are. It will become religion’s letter of resignation.

Jon Stewart once said, “Religion: it’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” In a world where religion has been the source of so much violence and internecine battling, many people will just walk away altogether. But in the absence of religion people may lose a language in which to express deep universal sentiments about love, kindness, suffering and community. In the words of a friend who began his involvement in Judaism late in life, “Since I’ve become involved with Jewish life, not one day has passed where I have questioned my purpose in life.”

Affiliation should not be about membership. It should be about the inner life. We have to make it that way.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

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  • JDE

    “But in the absence of religion people may lose a language in which to express deep universal sentiments about love, kindness, suffering and community.”

    It’s entirely possible to express those sentiments within a humanistic framework.

    “In the words of a friend who began his involvement in Judaism late in life, ‘Since I’ve become involved with Jewish life, not one day has passed where I have questioned my purpose in life.’ ”

    That’s fine, but there are many people who try religion and don’t find meaning or purpose in it. People of faith never want to confront this.

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