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...

  • Features World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →