Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The Role of Religion

January 1, 2013 3:38 am 1 comment

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.

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.

1 Comment

  • “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.

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 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 →
  • Arts and Culture Uncanny Toy Replica of Israeli ‘Wonder Woman’ Gal Gadot Auctioning on eBay for Over $1,600

    Uncanny Toy Replica of Israeli ‘Wonder Woman’ Gal Gadot Auctioning on eBay for Over $1,600

    An artist is auctioning on eBay a Wonder Woman doll he purchased and repainted to create an uncanny replica of Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who will play the superhero in an upcoming 2017 spin-off film. Noel Cruz purchased a 19-inch action figure of the Batman v Superman star and replaced its plastic hair with a new wig, and added a material belt and Princess Diana’s lasso, according to the blog Io9, which first reported on Cruz’s work. He then painted the doll to make it look like the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture British Jewish Star Daniel Radcliffe Hopes New Movie About Neo-Nazis Will Spark Dialogue to Defeat Antisemitic Rhetoric

    British Jewish Star Daniel Radcliffe Hopes New Movie About Neo-Nazis Will Spark Dialogue to Defeat Antisemitic Rhetoric

    Racist and antisemitic rhetoric supported by white supremacists can be defeated by opening channels for meaningful dialogue, British-Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe said, ahead of the release of his new film, in which he plays an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a neo-Nazi group. “[White supremacist ideologies] have more power the less we talk about them. So hopefully this does start a kind of conversation, which would be a tiny part of a much larger conversation that needs to happen,” the actor, 27, told The […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas Reveals She Can Read, Speak Hebrew

    Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas Reveals She Can Read, Speak Hebrew

    Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas knows how to read and speak “a little” Hebrew, she revealed in the Aug. 15 issue of Us Weekly. The 20-year-old gymnast, who told the magazine that her favorite book is the Bible, was featured in a spread about the USA gymnastics team — which was awarded the gold medal in the women’s all-around finals at the Olympics in Rio on Aug. 9. In her 2012 memoir, In Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith, Douglas wrote that her […]

    Read more →
  • Features Ben-Gurion University Institute Tackles Water Shortages, Hygiene in Developing Countries

    Ben-Gurion University Institute Tackles Water Shortages, Hygiene in Developing Countries

    JNS.org – Israeli water experts believe that by 2050, almost half of the world’s population will live in countries with a chronic water shortage. What’s causing the shortfall is population growth, which leads to a greater demand for food, increased pollution and climate instability, according to Prof. Noam Weisbrod, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research (ZIWR) in the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In Israel’s Negev Desert, which has long been plagued […]

    Read more →