Religion's Sins

In our time, religion needs to do penance for past and current sins. For the sin of sexual abuse and the sin of hiding abusers in a veil of sanctimony, for the sin of misunderstanding human biology and the sin of degrading those whose innate sexuality and gender are different, for the sin of coercion and the sin of forcing women into misogyny -- external and internalized -- for these sins, religion must do teshuvah -- repent.

In our time, religion itself is the most religiously guilty. May God forgive us, and it, for such heinous sins.

It is difficult, as a Rabbi, to live in the period of religion's tokheha -- rebuke. To the extent that my personal limitations allow, I teach that God is love and Torah is gentle. I believe that the Torah's message is essential, necessary. But I am increasing aware that, as I preach, those to whom I speak lack the single precondition that would bring Torah into relevance: trust. Most people I know do not trust religion to guide them well, or at all.

This lack of trust was rammed home for me by Shlum Deen -- an ex-Ultra Orthodox Jew who wrote this article for Zeek. Here are the sentences that matter:

What many ex-Haredim are saying, then, to religious leaders and religious communities and religious lifestyles of all kinds: We have lost the trust necessary to embrace your religious views, however moderate they might be. We have lost faith in your ability to convey truths, just as we have lost faith in the Haredi worldview with which we were raised.

The obvious question (put to me many times, loudly) is why shouldn't we then abandon the project of religion? And my answer, however distasteful it may be to some, is that we keep religion because we desperately need it.

In the early 1970's there was a groundbreaking television series called, An American Family. Though it was intended to chronicle the daily life of the Louds, a prosperous family in Santa Barbara, it became a public witness to a private mess -- the parents' separation and subsequent divorce, the coming out of a gay son. The show generated huge controversy.

Kurt Vonnegut, no big proponent of religion himself, spoke about the Louds in a commencement speech to William and Mary College:

Most viewers, and the Louds themselves, claimed to be mystified by the tinhorn tragedies and unfunny comedies thus immortalized. I suggest to you that the Louds were healthy earthlings who had everything but a religion in which they could believe. There was nothing to tell them what they should want, what they should shun, what they should do next. Socrates told us that the unexamined life wasn't worth living. The Louds demonstrated that the morally unstructured life is a clunker, too.

Christianity could not nourish the Louds. Neither could Buddhism or the profit motive or participation in the arts, or any other nostrum on America's spiritual smorgasbord. So the Louds were dying before our eyes.

Between the overabundance of bad religion and a scarcity of the good, we, in the Western, Liberal, educationally and financially privileged world, are starving.

I have to be honest: I do not know how to end the famine. I cannot not see, not clearly enough, the new-time religion that Vonnegut calls for (he doesn't do such a good job himself). And I don't know any more about regaining the trust that has been lost than any other person.

But I do know one thing: the answer is not, with casualness aforethought, to deny that we can live well without the combination of moral and spiritual truth -- that is, religious truth. If it was, we would not be as we are, drowning in privilege, yet feeling so completely adrift. We do not live by bread alone. We were created to embody great virtues, and not only our sovereign individuality. To deny the needs of the soul leaves us not radically free, but unbearably lonely.

We speak of religion as irrelevant, as pathology, or as so personal and intimate that one person cannot speak of it to another without violating propriety. Which is to say that, in our time, only crazy people speak about religion in public, and everyone else sentences themselves to solitary confinement: our feelings of transcendence live and die in silence. On the few occasions that they are allowed into the light, they reveal themselves as pale and shaky creatures, and insubstantial.

We do not need religious dogma -- in fact, a break from bombast would be quite refreshing -- but we have lost any semblance of religious conversation. There are so many people smothering the airwaves with religious and anti-religious words, but I can't shake the conviction that, with a few notable exceptions, I can't seem to hear a damned thing. Our collective life wisdom, except on which 401k works best or how to get into Yale, has atrophied through neglect.

We are stuck. Whether sinner or sinned against through religion, we are stuck. But Torah teaches us that transgression and trauma are not the end of the spiritual path. Rather, both are ameliorated through teshuvah -- repentance, which points transgressor and victim to a new way into old ideas, and into original holiness through new ideas. There is a world of essential meaning beyond the mess we're in today. May God bless us with that kind of new-time religion soon.