liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
"Are you religious?" is often the second or third question people ask soon after meeting me. The fact that I'm Jewish usually comes up fairly early in conversation, and it's a natural small-talk follow-on, but I find it really hard to answer.

When it comes from Christians it usually means something like, do you have a deep spiritual connection with the Divine? And really, I'm the least spiritual person you could imagine. I am mostly a believing monotheist, but it's an intellectual belief, not something I experience or feel viscerally, unlike many of my friends. I suppose you might say I have agnostic tendencies.

I've had a couple of experiences that I might describe as spiritual, I suppose. But I don't trust that kind of thing at all; I know very well that the human brain is extremely good at fooling itself about things like that. Those experiences are the furthest thing from being the basis of my religious identity; I am fairly certain that if I were a convinced atheist I would have had similar emotionally intense, almost visionary encounters at some point and I would have called them something else.

For me, religion isn't an emotional state at all. It's a way of living your life, it's a community with a common purpose, it's an identity. I'm just as much Jewish when I'm tired and blah as when I'm feeling uplifted by beautiful music or similar. I'm probably more Jewish, if it's possible, when I'm at my most intellectual and scientific.

When it comes from secular people from a Christian culture background, it often means something like, are you one of those incredibly virtuous people who disapprove of everything fun? Sometimes even more sneering than that: are you insufferably pious and homophobic, then? Well, no. Not even the more neutral version of that.

It's a bedrock principle for me that my religious practices are mine, not to impose on anyone else. It's wrong for me to eat pork; it's not immoral in general to eat pork, and in fact non-Jews are explicitly permitted to eat it within the same system that forbids me. I wouldn't criticize a fellow Jew for their dietary choices either, because my particular Jewish background, Reform, is founded on the principle that these kinds of practices are a matter of personal choice. Now, if someone explicitly buys into the same system as me, and I thought they were behaving unethically, I would criticize them or at least disapprove of them, but that's a whole different scenario.

I'm also not in the least ascetic, and there's very little of that tendency in my religious background. Fun isn't in principle harmful, and suffering and self-sacrifice aren't considered desirable. So from a religious perspective I'm very much in favour of people enjoying themselves, eating good food, using alcohol and sex and whatever mind-altering system they prefer to have a good time. I do disapprove of some things that some people find fun, notably gossip. Though it's a vice that I'm very much prone to myself; I try to restrict myself to positive gossip rather than the cruel kind, but I can't afford to be too hypocritically self-righteous about that one!

On the homosexuality issue, I know there's a lot of pain coming from Queer people about how they've been treated by religious institutions. I don't at all want to minimize that, and if it sometimes means that a person I've just met makes a negative prejudgement about me because I'm religious, that's really completely understandable. Still, the truth is that English Reform Judaism, while by no means perfect on gay issues, was ahead of secular society and way, way ahead of mainstream Christianity when I was growing up in the 80s. Many of the rabbis I really looked up to were (and are) openly gay. And while some segments of the Jewish world are homophobic, we've never been into taking half a Bible verse out of context and basing our whole moral system on that, there's always commentary and interpretation.

So yes, my religion does guide my ethical choices, otherwise it would be a completely pointless religion, honestly. It also does affect things like my diet, clothing and sexuality. So in that sense, I am religious. However, I'm not in the least interested in trying to convince anybody else to take on the same practices as me. And I certainly don't think I'm in any way superior to anyone else who has a different religion or none, or who practises Judaism in a different way from me.

Jews quite often mean: do you keep a very detailed set of rabbinic laws down to the last letter when it comes to sabbath observance and eating kosher? (Sometimes they use the Yiddish word frum, which conveys this concept more directly, but based on its Germanic roots it probably does literally just mean religious, and religious is the nearest English translation we have.) The simple answer is no I don't. I use electricity on the sabbath, I carry small items, I use transport and sometimes spend money, though I do try to place limits on how I do those things. My kitchen at home is kosher to a reasonably high standard but there are certainly people who are more strict about these things than I am, and I eat anything vegetarian when I'm away from home.

However, I'm certainly not completely secular either. Obviously Jewish ritual practices are a reasonably important part of my life. If I simply answer no, then people may be surprised when I turn down the prawn cocktail. Also, it bothers me that these two elements, out of the whole huge and complex body of Jewish law and ethics and philosophy, are used as identity markers to the exclusion of everything else. If someone eschews electricity for 25 hours a week, and refuses to eat anything that doesn't have a completely known and controlled origin, then they're a "religious" Jew, and if not, then not. I think this is partly down to the Orthodox attempt to define Orthodox Judaism as the real, authentic Judaism, and Orthodox-style diet and sabbath observance are the two most obvious ways to mark someone as a member of that tribe. (I should make it clear that I am not criticizing people who do put a lot of emphasis on detailed sabbath and food observances; that's a perfectly reasonable expression of Judaism, my problem is when it's seen as the only valid expression of Judaism.)

For me, religion is a little bit about keeping the detail of Jewish law. That's a very important way to keep the community together, and to ensure that there's still a recognizable continuity of religious practices over multiple generations. Shabbat is an amazing institution in lots of ways, and diet has such a strong emotional pull on people, as well as being something that you have to think about several times every day. But that's not the main point. The main point is treating all human beings like the image of God. It's about moving through the world in a way that's fitting for interacting with God's creation. Rituals and detailed law about everyday habits help with that, but they're far from the whole picture.

And then, well. Supposing I answer all these people with their different assumptions "No, I'm not really religious", that doesn't make any sense of how much time and effort I put in to running services (which occasionally bleeds over into running communities), and Jewish education. The Jewish community is a huge part of my life, and that's a deliberate choice I've made, not something forced on me by my family or anything like that. Mind you, it's a huge part of my parents' life too, and obviously that is something that has influenced me.

Just the very fact that people are asking me whether I'm religious is itself a sign that the answer is yes. To say I'm not religious feels like denying a big part of my identity and background. When I approach the world, I do so through a Jewish framework. Now, if I were completely secular, I could say, "I'm Jewish but I'm not practising", or "I'm a secular Jew". And that would be the whole story without needing to deny any aspect of my identity. This is certainly an important part of what being Jewish means; I don't have hard numbers but I suspect the majority of Jews in the world identify as Jewish for ethnic and cultural reasons rather than religious ones.

Also, I kind of find the question embarrassing. I don't actually mind being the explainer of Judaism, or the first (actively, or at all) Jewish person that another person has met who needs to answer all their basic questions. I quite enjoy those things. (Though that is not blanket permission to go and pester all the people you meet who come from a different culture from yours; lots of people find it intrusive and hate it!) But talking about something as personal as religion and identity and stuff when the conversation is still at the small-talk level, that's not something that comes easily to me.

Still, I'm making a start by writing this post, aren't I?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 09:01 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
That was really well put. You just need a word that means all that to use when replying with... :)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 09:53 am (UTC)
simont: (Default)
From: [personal profile] simont
I'm faintly tempted to suggest Ben Goldacre's catchphrase...

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 10:40 am (UTC)
lethargic_man: (capel)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
"Yes, though it depends what you mean by religious" sounds good for an answer providing an opening to me (though obviously that's conveys more than your version that you want to have that conversation).

I'd render "frum" by "observant" rather than "religious", BTW.

And brava on managing to convey so much in such a succinct essay.

You're right about people coming to you with predefined Christian associations with terms; that's why I prefer using Yiddish terms like "daven" (rather than "pray") even in conversation with non-Jews.

I think the worst example of that clash of associations I came across was when someone once asked me "Michael, is marriage a sacrament in Judaism?" My first answer was "What's a sacrament"; my second had to be "Depending on how you look at it, in Judaism either everything's a sacrament, or nothing is."

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 04:03 pm (UTC)
jenett: Big and Little Dipper constellations on a blue watercolor background (Default)
From: [personal profile] jenett
I sometimes have luck with "My religion is really important to me, but it's hard to condense down. I'm almost always glad to talk about it, though!" which gets some of that across.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-02 12:19 am (UTC)
leora: a statue of a golden snake swallowing its own tail. (ouroboros)
From: [personal profile] leora
I think that's a very good answer. I consider you to be highly religious, because to me, being religious means that your religion is important to you and you take it seriously.

This may not seem like much, but a lot of people do claim to have a religion, but don't really attach much significance to it. For example, most of my family considers itself Jewish, but this is more about ancestry and ethnicity. Sure, we have a Passover Seder each year and we gather to exchange gifts on Channukah (which is more about an excuse for a gathering and gift exchange). My parents will not eat pork and my father will not eat various seafood, but this is more about early ingrained aversions (at least for my father). It's basically something they have because they were born into it. They never chose it, and they don't much care about it. They identify with it, because they were born into it, but it's not something they particularly value or agree with.

Kind of like how I'm an American. I was born in the US, it's my citizenship, and I'm not exactly upset to be an American. It's got its pros and cons. But it's not something I chose or value, and I wouldn't have minded being Canadian or English or even some country that doesn't speak English as presumably then I'd have learned that language.

But you seem to have given it thought and chosen to have being Jewish be relevant to you. It seems to mean something to you. You have some connection to it. So, I consider you to be religious.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-05 12:54 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I told Liv some of this in person but wanted to put it here too.

My impression is that if you're just sick of fixing bad assumptions about yourself then you need a quick and relatively polite way of telling people to not file you in any pigeonhole yet, and to move the conversation on, and people have suggested several good ways of doing this, like "more complicated than that" or "depends what you mean".

But contrariwise I'd say that a better answer if the person describing themselves has enough energy left to put into it is one that expresses however much useful information can be crammed into a few words, and then either using that a closing-off point, or a springboard for further explanation.

I'd suggest the important things for people to know about Liv are something like:

* It's important to her (she leads services, she has many friends in Jewish congregations and organisations, etc)
* She's progressive and non-dogmatic: she keeps the sabbath in several ways, but not in ways that are really difficult in western society, and often interprets commandments and prohibitions according to what she thinks is right, rather than always adhering to the most rigid set of traditions available
* The question of God is surprisingly personal/complicated for many people

Now, I tried to describe something like this to you (Liv) but I don't think it's accurate enough for me to recommend, but I hope gives an idea of the level of details that I think would normally be interesting to an average person innocently asking about what ways you were religious, if you were willing to share it.

So, I'd suggest the solution is to prepare a one word, a one sentence, and a one paragraph answer including as much as information as you can, and give whichever feels appropriate. That involves some tedious repetition, but gives the option of just saying "it's complicated", whilst not feeling obliged to say either nothing or a yes-or-no.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 09:52 am (UTC)
simont: (Default)
From: [personal profile] simont
When it comes from secular people from a Christian culture background, it often means something like, are you one of those incredibly virtuous people who disapprove of everything fun?

(I can't help feeling that could have done with some scare quotes around 'virtuous'...)

I don't recall ever having asked you if you were religious (and I hope I didn't do so and then forget), but if I had, I'd have meant it more in the nature of 'do you believe there is a divine being at all?', and it would have been asked out of pure curiosity rather than (as the above characterisation suggests) in an attempt to predict what I could do or say in your presence without triggering a disapproving rant.

And I would have been faintly curious about that because my impression of Judaism (and stop me if this is hopelessly inaccurate, naturally) has tended to be that it considers the question of actual theism to be relatively unimportant; probably not completely unimportant, but also not the most vital thing about somebody's religious position, and hence something that can't be trivially inferred from everything else you know about them. And yet, in my own head, it's one of the most important things about religion, because the fact that I don't believe in a god has always seemed to me to be completely sufficient reason not to engage in anything resembling a religious practice, so that perceived de-emphasis of the point has always struck me as cause for a certain curiosity.

Of course this post, as well as clearly and illuminatingly answering several other interpretations of the question, has also answered what I'd have meant by it if I'd asked it, so thank you for writing it!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 11:04 am (UTC)
simont: (Default)
From: [personal profile] simont
It's interesting that you would have intended to ask about belief; my usual experience has been that people who want to know that mean "Do you believe in God?" and that's a question that I can at least answer in a couple of sentences.

That's a fair point; indeed, if I had ever felt moved to articulate that curiosity of mine, I probably would have been more likely to phrase it as "do you believe in..." rather than the dangerously vague "are you religious".

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 09:44 pm (UTC)
alextiefling: (Default)
From: [personal profile] alextiefling
I think it's a very important difference in world-view between Judaism and Christianity (including post-Christian atheism), and that's one of the reasons why I can find the question hard to answer.

I think I agree with you - but I'd suggest that the fault-line runs through Christianity somewhere, rather than being strictly between Christianity and Judaism. Certainly there are parts of Christianity which most post-Christian atheism doesn't engage with in any sensible way - and I think this is because the part of Christanity which produces those atheists is a part which is very hung up on positive belief and orthodoxy, rather than praxis or moral teaching as such.

I'd witter on for longer, but I don't want to be boring - and I'm seeing you soon, so we can talk then if you like!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 11:39 am (UTC)
kass: "Judaism is my other fandom." (judaism)
From: [personal profile] kass
The main point is treating all human beings like the image of God. It's about moving through the world in a way that's fitting for interacting with God's creation. Rituals and detailed law about everyday habits help with that, but they're far from the whole picture.

Yes. This. Beautifully-said.

I'd like to say something lengthy and interesting in response to this post, but mostly I just want to say ME TOO! (Except for the not-especially-spiritual part, because I am that.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 11:47 am (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea, in a friend's kitchen (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
It may be that "What do you mean by religious?" is the best answer, given the number of different things that can go there—I can say "I'm not religious" or "I'm not observant" in certain contexts, but that is context-dependent. It did just fine when a coworker, having moved into my neighborhood, asked if I could recommend a synagogue, for example.

Along similar lines, I sometimes think the right response for almost everyone to "Do you believe in God?" is "What do you mean by that word?" Or maybe "those words," since "believe" can be as fuzzy as "god."

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-01 01:34 am (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea, in a friend's kitchen (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
Oh, I think "no" can sometimes be an adequate answer there; I think "yes" by itself is only sufficient if there's a fair amount of shared context, likely involving discussion such that there's no need to ask "do you believe in God?" because you already know an answer or three there.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 02:23 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (capel)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
I sometimes think the right response for almost everyone to "Do you believe in God?" is "What do you mean by that word?"

Reminds me of the story of the rabbi, who when challenged by an atheist, replied, "I don't believe in the God you don't believe in, either."

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 05:05 pm (UTC)
ajollypyruvate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajollypyruvate
I've asked people if they were observant (mostly Catholics) because "Are you religious?" doesn't even make sense (to me) unless I were trying to ascertain their agnostic/atheist level.

Dang!

Date: 2010-04-30 05:10 pm (UTC)
ajollypyruvate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajollypyruvate
The sentence where I typed:

Thanks for the post!

got itself lost during corrections. Sorry about that.

Wonderful post. Thank you. Also, you might be interested in reading Continuing thoughts on atheism and how I ended up here.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-30 11:20 pm (UTC)
shreena: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shreena
This was a very interesting read. In terms of what to say to people, I think, if I were you, I'd go for "Well, it depends what you mean by 'religious'" and then either change the subject if you don't want to talk about it or talk about it in more detail if you would like to.

I have a related issue with people asking me whether I'm vegetarian for religious reasons - in a sense, the answer is yes because, if my parents hadn't been vegetarian for religious reasons, I wouldn't have been brought up vegetarian and odds are that I wouldn't be vegetarian now but, on the other hand, I don't hold those religious beliefs myself, I stay vegetarian for other reasons. I tend to get a bit flustered.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-17 01:07 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I am with you there. Community, morality and ethical behaviour is more important for me, too. Though I keep a reasonable Jewish diet. I also keep Shabbat to a certain extend. I chose how far I want to go.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen who was himself unsure of God's existence said he met a 'religious atheist Jew' who was Reform. (I think Jeremy is still in doubt because he critizise currupted Jewish institutions.) I hadn't got this type of question "are you religious" because I mostly spend time with Jews and not Non-Jews. I wonder how they would react if I say I am a 'religious atheist Jew'. If you are in doubt whether there is a god or not you could also say you a 'religious agnostic Jew'. You are not the only one. There are even Rabbis who think like you.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-05-25 11:12 am (UTC)
sunflowerinrain: Singing at the National Railway Museum (Default)
From: [personal profile] sunflowerinrain
Belatedly realising I'd missed more DW posts while offline/travelling/concerting than I thought!

"Are you religious?" is a disturbing question because it sounds like the person has only a vague idea of the myriad meanings (or uses) of the term "religious", and one really doesn't know where to start. One response is to ask what *they* mean, but it could sound a bit rude: alright if you have plenty of time and they are prepared to give the attention so you can go into it properly. If short of time, the "I think religion is a serious business" approach sounds useful.

I'm not sure if it makes it simpler or more complicated that people have heard of Judaism (or at least heard of "being Jewish"). On the one hand, you don't have to start with first principles[0], but you probably have to counter much mis-information[1].

[0] There's an old joke about the Baha'i who dies and turns up at the gates of heaven, Christian-style; St Peter asks what his beliefs were and he replies "I'm a Baha'i", to which St Peter responds "A Ba-what?". Though maybe you have to be one to get the joke...

[1] Though I was much startled to discover that a friend-of-friend, having known for ages that I was a Baha'i, was under the impression that at a 19-day Feast we sat in a circle and worshipped a black stone.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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