In a series comments to a few friends that happen to be scholars of Bibilcal and Early Judaism (and other religious traditions of that era), I suggested that it was time to found a new religion. As tends to be the case with my muses and enablers, they prodded me forward, even recommending some neccesary components of a new religion. As a dedicated follower of the teaching of the sage Ben Zoma that states “Who is wise? One who learns from every human being” (Mishnah Avot 4:1), I took the next logical step to gather every person’s teachings. Yes, of course, I Facebooked. My crowdsourcing was a simple question, “If you were creating a new religion, what would you include”? Two days and 150 comments later, some interesting findings emerged. Below are some selected comments and what I think they teach those of us who are leaders in Jewish (and other) faith traditions. The comments of my Facebook friends are in quotations, the commentary is mine:
“Inclusion” – For Western religions, this is a revolutionary concept. Jewish, Christian and Moslem religions are exclusionary. They draw marked distinctions between the believer and the “other”. Depending on the point in history and the particular theological bent, the “other” might be subject to anything from being shunned to being killed to being sentenced to eternal damnation. Furthermore, even within these religious communities, there are subgroups, with any particular subgroup seeking to negate the others. Inclusionary religion is much different. It opens its doors to all who seek wisdom or the good life. In today’s world, we will meet people whose faith traditions bring a great deal of wisdom to the table. Inclusionary religion welcomes that wisdom, regardless of its source.
“Fusion religion” – Along the same lines, fusions are both inevitable and even desirable. I’ve helped churches that wanted to experience a Passover Seder and participated in meditations in synagogues that felt very Buddhist. Tunes to prayers float from one religious tradition into another. And speaking of music in fusion religion, think about the gospel Ein Kelohainu scene in the movie Keeping the Faith https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmWUsSXmS9w.
“Slaughtering a chicken onto which sins have been transferred” – Whether you’re a follower of Old Testament religion with its sin offerings and the goat that was sent into the desert carrying the sins of all Israel, a Christian who believes that Jesus died for the sins of all believers, a follower of those Santeria groups that sacrifice chickens, or one of the small percentage of Jews who wave and slaughter a chicken before Yom Kippur, the idea of transferring sins and casting them away is a powerful one. This is also a reminder that, however modern we believe ourselves to be, the idea of symbolic action still resonates.
“Chocolate”, “Donuts”, “Barbeque”, “bourbon”, “beer”, “pizza” – Food and drink are not simply for physical sustenance or for social occasions. They are social lubricants that bring people together in religious and spiritual settings. If you’re in a synagogue setting, you can’t underestimate the pull of a decent kiddush / oneg Shabbat. In many cases, the real connections that build community or lay the foundation for community impact happen over food in that setting, not in the religious services themselves. The congregation I belong to serves mojitos on the holiday of Purim in the spirit of the day. This is not a bad thing for our people. And even in you happen to belong to a religion that eschews alcoholic beverages, don’t skimp on the food part.
“A myth of origin and etiologies that explain why things are the way they are” – Religion suggests both an origin of our world and our lives, as well as some logic for how our world is what it is. The Torah was so interested in a creation story that it included (at least) two different ones. Does the creation story have to be historically true? Apparently not. No less a scholar than Rashi came along, suggesting that each biblical creation story’s “day” could have easily been (at least) a thousand years. Science, as well as religion, has its creation myth. People seem to not only want a creation story that explains our origins but that explains more about our world. In theJewish tradition, we not only have the two versions of creation in Genesis, but we get an additional version from the mystical teachings that add the idea of an imperfect act of creation, challenging us to fix it all. So, our Judaism and our other religions not only have to have the stories; they have to be creative enough to edit and embellish them as we search for meaning in challenging times.
“Thou shalt not be a schmuck. All the rest is commentary.”, “Do your best and Don’t be a jackass” – For many centuries philosophers and theologians have tried to distill the great religions down to their core ideas. The prophet Micah tried with “He has shown you, O human, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). The closest statement from ancient Jewish literature to what the Facebook comment suggested is in the name of the great sage, Hillel: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary” – Talmud Shabbat 31a.
” Respect for others” – What should be obvious, at least to those following traditions that say things like “we are all created in God’s image” is not so apparent. And we need this teaching. Desperately. Which leads us to…
“A deity that teaches humanity how to overcome our fears, greed and hatred and work alongside those who are ‘other'” – We are all in this world together. What impacts one part of the world will impact the entire world. We need to work together to address common challenges. Or face the consequences. Religion should help us to move to working together.
“Creating a contemporary apocalypse” – Since ancient times, humanity has tried to forecast how the story ends, in this case the story of our world. Some versions of the “end of days” are positive ones; others negative. This comment suggests that it’s time to update these visions.
“Elvis” – Well, I can’t argue against this one. Why not include a mythology of popular culture, especially one who, like certain religious figures of the ancient and more contemporary worlds, is believed by followers to have not actually died?
“Abolish all sins, as long as people are not hurting each other, I say anything goes!” – In Jewish history, the Frankist movement and its parent movement, Sabbateanism, used this type of approach. It has been suggested (though not necessarily proven) that the Sabbateans even changed the blessing thanking God for matir asurim – freeing those who are imprisoned – into the words thanking God as being matir isurim – permitting that which had been prohibited. At the very least, this comment suggests that Judaism, and other Western religions, has overemphasized restrictiveness. And so…
“NO dietary laws” – Kosher laws as practiced today do a few things: They teach self-discipline, most probably a good thing. They also limit observant Jews’ ability to interact socially or even to travel without significant challenges, both of which were probably not intended effects of the writers of the law. The dietary laws have also changed greatly over time, and even within this writer’s lifetime, becoming progressively more restrictive. There is a biblical command that a nazirate, one who has voluntary sworn off wine, among other things, must bring a sin offering at the conclusion of the period of abstinence. Why? According to the Midrash, because that individual swore off good things that God had provided for humanity. The current Jewish dietary laws, most of which are developments of either historical evolution or rabbinic enactments, are highly restrictive. Not coincidentally, the Reform and Conservative movements have pushed back and asked for liberalization of them. And, until very recently, even the Israeli rabbinate has been considerably more lenient in most matters of kashrut, compared to rabbinical authorities in America or Great Britain, for example.
“Ritual” and “Beer Ritual” – Even with liberalization, people want their ritual. For example, the early Reform movement opposed the Bar Mitzva ceremony as it was being practiced. By the 1970’s every Reform temple had reestablished Bar (and Bat) Mitzva, and even those adults who had missed out because of the earlier elimination of the ceremony were lining up for “adult Bar/Bat Mitzva”. While I don’t know what a “beer ritual” might be, the roots of the idea could be close to the wine that was used as part of the ancient Temple rituals.
“Worship responsibly” – I am choosing to interpret this suggestion as follows: Pray. But act, too. Judaism teaches that “ein somchin al haness – we don’t rely on miracles”. So pray for them. Read some Psalms if you’d like. But be a responsible person, meaning you have to act as a partner with God. “God will provide” is the supreme copout.
“Tolerance for those who don’t practice faith the way others do” – Nah. Tolerance isn’t enough. What’s called for is respect, honor, value towards those who practice other faiths or practice the same faith as you might, but with some variations on the theme. Personally, I am proud to say that I have learned much from devout Christians and Moslems with whom I have worked in Jewish organizations.
“Compassion for those who are need of guidance” – This is a trait of God in most religions. And let’s face it, imitatio dei really rocks as a doctrine.
“God should be without gender and no anthropomorphism” – Rambam, Maimonides, suggested that the use of human descriptions of God was part of the bible in order for God to be understood by the common human. Perhaps that is the case, but it has also had unintended negative consequences, not the least of which is that the “image of God” in which we are created has often been presented as only a male God figure.
“God that is humanlike and whimsical” “Leadership and authority” – God has been created in the image of humanity, as much, if not more than humanity has been created in the image of God. For some of my commentators, a whimsical God is what is called for, much as people need to learn to lighten up a bit, especially in our stressful world. For others, leadership and authority are needed in our real world and God should reflect that human need.
“Religion is really complicated” – True. And we need to keep some parts simple. If you think about the moments that moved you spiritually, they are likely not the complex moments. More likely, they are memories of simple times: a Passover seder, lighting Shabbat or Chanuka candles, the smell of challa, or the first time you got up to lead En Kelohainu as a kid. We need to continue to invite people to simple religious experience.
And the closing bit of wisdom: “Going to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple doesn’t make you religious – much as going into your garage doesn’t make you a car or truck.”
My appreciation to those quoted above. Their names have been edited out to protect their synagogue membership. But I certainly invite them to leave their names and comments below.
Meanwhile, take the same challenge. Design a religion from scratch. Then see which parts you can make part of the religion in which you are involved. And let us know how it goes.