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Rabbi's Column

Life Is Not a Picnic: Spirituality, Religion and Why Both Matter

Rabbi Janet Marder

Recently I learned an acronym that was new to me: “SBNR -- spiritual but not religious.”  Historically, and certainly in Jewish tradition, there was no split between these two terms, but these days “spirituality” most often refers to the interior life – what is experienced by our “spirit,” heart or mind.  “Religion,” usually linked with “organized,” suggests what is communal rather than personal, fixed rather than fluid, defined by rituals, rules and requirements.

Most members of the clergy are used to hearing, “I may not be religious in the traditional sense, but I’m a very spiritual person.” In fact, according to a 2017 Pew report, more than a quarter of Americans now identify in this way – up 8 percentage points in five years.

There’s an implicit hierarchy in this way of identifying oneself, suggesting that spirituality is a higher, more beautiful and satisfying life path than religion. It may also reflect disillusionment with corrupt or abusive religious leaders, and with religious institutions perceived as rigid, impersonal or materialistic. People who call themselves “SBNR” often tell me that they don’t find meaning in archaic beliefs and practices or rote recitation of prayers. On the other hand, they consider themselves sensitive to the beauty of nature, highly attuned to the unity of all life, and compassionate to their fellow beings.

Forced to choose between rote recitation and a compassionate spirit, I’d certainly opt for “SBNR” myself. But that’s never been the choice Judaism sets before us. Our sages created prayers, rituals and sacred practices designed to break us open spiritually – to make us cry, to lift us up to joy, to connect us with others – and also to make us think, to disturb us, challenge us and impel us to act.

No one would deny that “organized religion” can be spiritually barren -- frustrating, ridiculous or offensive. For example, Rev. Lillian Daniels, a Congregational minister and author of When ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’ Is Not Enough (2013), derides “touchdown theology” – a primitive, chauvinistic way of thinking that imagines “God is sitting up in Heaven on a Barcalounger, with a beer, a bratwurst and a Bronco’s jersey, handing out touchdowns” to the team He prefers.

Similarly, “spirituality” not anchored in a religious tradition often devolves into a kind of shallow self-satisfaction. We experience moments of gratitude or awe, we feel “at one with the great outdoors,” soothed by the sound of the ocean or entranced by the beauty of the sunset. Such moments may be very powerful, and life would be impoverished without them – but religion is about something quite different, and equally essential.

Religion brings us into relationship with a tradition we did not invent for ourselves. In our religion, Judaism, we study and grapple with a system of spiritual teachings and values which demand something of us – righteous and compassionate deeds, continual “work on the self,” moral striving, resisting temptation, an effort to eat, work and conduct our relationships in a holy way. Religion compels us, again and again, to focus on the gap between the life we’re living and the life we ought to live.

Religion also brings us into relationship with a community – individuals as imperfect as we are, whom we learn to accept, respect and perhaps even to love as we join with them in turning ideals into action.

One more thing: life is not all about sunsets, butterflies and the adoring look in a child’s eyes. It’s also about pain, struggle, disappointment, anger and fear. In those dark times, religion offers us ancient wisdom to contemplate and help us grow. It guides us with time-tested rituals that remind us we’re not alone. And in religious community we find fellow travelers who will walk with us through our own dark valley, or sit by our side and listen. The very fact that they are “organized” – stable, enduring, well-structured – allows religious communities to sustain individuals through the most difficult and chaotic periods of their lives. When we need them, others will sing and pray with us, give to us and nourish us, as we will do for them in their time of need.

“Life is not a picnic,” writes Rev. Daniel, “and the people who finally dig in and put down roots in one tradition bigger than themselves figure that out. There is a middle ground between the rigidity of touchdown theology and the superficiality of make-it-up-yourself spirituality. It is called a mature faith, practiced in community over time, reasonable, rigorous, real, grounded in tradition, centered in worship, called to serve and free to dream.”

On Saturday, August 11 we begin the month of Elul – a time of spiritual (and religious) preparation for the Days of Awe. May it prompt us to draw closer to tradition and community, hear the call of service, embrace the life we want to live, and reconnect with our dreams.

Worship under the trees with our new prayer book, Mishkan HaLev: Prayers for S'lichot and the Month of Elul, edited by the Rabbis Marder.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).