Religion should look like and act like religion — or why bother? *UPDATED*

There’s nothing like trying to find a good synagogue to teach you that, when religion seeks meaning in pop culture not God, it no longer serves mankind.

Religion Judaism Passover Seder PlateWould any of you argue with me if I opened this post by saying that traditional religion is under attack in the West? No, I didn’t think so. Some religions, though, or at least some branches of the Judeo-Christian faiths, didn’t wait to be attacked. They just surrendered. They thought that, by surrendering, they’d stay alive, but they merely hastened their deaths. I have a few examples, and then I’ll see if I can use those examples to help prove my point.

On April 19, 2019, just as the sun is setting, Jews around the world will begin to celebrate Passover. According to tradition, Jews have been celebrating the Exodus story, and their escape from slavery, for more than 3,300 years. Even if one doubts tradition, it’s certain that they have been celebrating it for over 2,500 years.

As with all serious rituals, Passover follows a strict form. For thousands of years, in Israel itself, in Europe, in the Americas, in Asia, in Africa, and in the Middle East, in Australia and New Zealand, in whichever part of the world Jews have settled, they have taken seriously the admonition that they must commemorate the Exodus story. It’s a story that began when Moses, on behalf of an enslaved people, faced down the most powerful monarch in the world, a feat he accomplished because God was at his side and had his back. In different countries, there will be differences in food, language, clothes, furnishings, and music, but the core ceremony is always the same. Whether I go to a traditional seder in England or Argentina or Israel, I will feel at home.

Regular readings know that I grew up in a non-religious, yet highly Jewish, household. My father grew up in an orthodox German orphanage and then, having escaped the Nazis, spent the next two decades in British Mandate Palestine/Israel. My mother grew up the child of a mixed marriage, but from the age of 13, interrupted only by her years in a Japanese concentration camp, lived in British Mandate Palestine/Israel. For both, Jewish education and observance went without saying.

When my parents moved to America, though, they still thought that “being Jewish” went without saying. They were wrong. In America, if you want your kids to know Judaism, you must belong to a synagogue. It never occurred to them, though, to join one and, given my Dad’s long-standing communist tendencies, he would have resisted if my Mom had suggested they join. Moreover, given that my Mom’s favorite holiday was Christmas (remember that mixed marriage, right?), a wholly Jewish lifestyle wasn’t going to happen.

Nevertheless, in an interesting way, my childhood still managed to be wholly Jewish. Despite my Mom’s mixed DNA, she identified 100% as Jewish, as did my Dad. Having both been in the Israeli military during the Israeli War of Independence, they identified 100% as supporters of the world’s only Jewish state. With only one or two exceptions, all their friends were Jewish. My parents were steeped in Jewish history, values, and culture, which inevitably found its way into my psyche. Even in silly ways, we knew we were Jews. As kids, my sister and I could identify every old-time Hollywood star who was secretly Jewish (Leslie Howard, Lauren Bacall, June Allyson, John Gilbert, Edward G. Robinson, Theda Bara…. I can still list most of them).

Most importantly, although we did not observe the High Holidays (that would have involved paying to belong to a synagogue, plus Mom would never fast because, as she said, “I have low blood sugar”), we did celebrate Passover. Oy, did we celebrate it!

Given that my parents were bilingual in Hebrew and English (they were, in fact, multilingual, but that’s another story), we did the whole service in both Hebrew and English. Also, we sang all the songs twice. Why twice? Because my parents grew up knowing different versions. They always fought over which was the “correct” version, so we always did both versions.

In my memory, the Passover dinner lasted eight or ten hours, but I think, more accurately, from the moment we sat down until we kids went hunting for the afikoman, the meal ran about three hours. Still, though it was long, I loved certain parts of it. I loved the four questions, I loved placing drops of hyper-sweet, purple-red Mogen David wine on the plate to commemorate the ten plagues, I loved singing the songs (both versions), and I loved, really loved, the haroset, which is a wonderful blend of chopped apples and walnuts, flavored with honey, cinnamon, and a dash of lemon (or sweet wine). The haroset more than made up for having to take (tiny) bites of maror, the bitter herb to remind us of the pain of slavery. (Our maror was horseradish from the local grocery.)

Every year, Passover was a ritual observance. Every year, we children were reminded of the Passover story and the glories of individual liberty. Year after year, Passover carved out a very specific place in my memory, the only place in my childhood deliberately reserved for God.

My seders stopped when I ceased to be a child in my parents’ house. I had almost no Jewish friends and it never occurred to me to take the lead in my own Jewishness. Eventually, I married a man who had been raised in a house even less religious than mine and he viewed Passover as anathema because he believes it celebrates of mass murder. (His views, along with the views of other Jews hostile to Passover, became the genesis for my annual Passover post.) I decided that it was better to raise my children Passover-free rather than have an annual fight over whether Passover is a good thing or a bad one.

However, in the interval between leaving my parents’ home and having my own, I attended two memorable Passover dinners, courtesy of Jewish friends. Both seders departed from tradition in significant ways, and both made me wonder why, if you take traditional values out of religion, including God, you should even bother with the pretense of being religious.

The first memorable seder occurred when a college friend invited me to share her Passover. Because the family attended a southern conservative synagogue, I was worried that their seder would be even longer and more religious than the ones from my childhood. I need not have worried.

Although my friend’s family could not have been more welcoming (I still consider my friend and her family among the best and nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing), their approach to Passover dismayed me. They rushed through every prayer, skipped the songs, and wouldn’t stop talking about everything but Passover through the entire, very abbreviated ceremony. That was when I — the most non-religious person in the world and, at that time, an avowed atheist — concluded that, if you’re going to do religion, do it right. Otherwise, why bother? This ceremony was just a long dinner. It had no greater meaning.

Around five years later, I was working in San Francisco, so at least 1/5 of my friends and colleagues were gay. One of those gay colleagues very kindly invited me to his Passover celebration. I was the only straight person there. To be clear, the host and his other guests made me feel incredibly welcome and the food was traditional and delicious (more traditional, in fact, than my mother’s would have been). Moreover, unlike the seder with my southern friends, this seder followed closely the framework of a traditional Passover service.

What made the whole thing peculiar, though, and left me feeling very distant both from my childhood Passovers and from the Book of Exodus itself, was the fact that the attendees recast the ceremony entirely. It was not about God freeing the Jewish slaves and preparing them for the Land of Israel. Instead, it was all about the gay struggle to come out of the closet. God really had no place in this service. I left well fed and having had a good time, but believe me when I say that “Nearer my God to thee” was not the refrain playing in my head. The louder song was probably “YMCA.”

Not long after that second Passover seder, I attended two weddings within two weeks. One couple belonged to a deeply conservative Christian faith and participated in the most traditional service I’ve ever attended; the other couple had one of their friend gets a mail-order New Age ministry certificate in order to perform their “joining ceremony.” In the first ceremony, the couple made a series of covenants to each other, each of which had God as the central figure in the covenant. In the second ceremony, the couple said they liked each other and vowed to hang out together as long as they continued to like each other. I was pretty certain that the first marriage would last. I knew, however, that the second wouldn’t last and, indeed, it was over less than a year later.

All of which brings me to today, when I had three reminders that one should look to religion for one’s values, as opposed to demanding that one’s religion look to pop culture for its values. The first reminder came about when I went looking online for a synagogue. It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a regular sabbath service and, for varying reasons, I decided now was the time.

Based upon my “If I’m doing religion, I’m going to do the real thing,” I looked for a conservative synagogue. As far as I’m concerned, based upon attending innumerable bar and bat mitzvahs over the years, reform synagogues are way too kumbaya for me. There’s lots of hand holding, clapping, and navel gazing, but a peculiar absence of religious rigor. I therefore searched for a “conservative synagogue” in my area.

The top hit billed itself as a “conservative synagogue.” Nevertheless, I felt a little worried when I saw it boasting that it is “egalitarian” and conducts an “alternative” service, whatever the heck is. The website didn’t explain either of those terms, but they sound suspiciously like virtue signaling to me.

I thought that I might learn something by reading the rabbi’s bio. The rabbi turned out to be Harvard-educated, which is already a clue that this synagogue probably has a non-traditional edge. Sorry, but I’m biased.

Reading further did not change my instinctive take about the rabbi. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked trying to push a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Hmmm. Harvard he may be, but that position doesn’t argue well for his intelligence. While Leftists relentlessly push for a two-state solution, Palestinians are very clear that they want a one-state solution: their state, built on the bloodied bodies of dead Jews. As far as I’m concerned, those who keep insisting that Israel “negotiate” with people who openly want Israelis dead are not very bright.

But you know what killed it for me? And I mean absolutely killed it: At the end, of the rabbi’s little bio, the bearded man (there was a photo) who boasted about his lovely wife and children, included his pronouns. Given that the congregation is allegedly conservative, I should have been grateful that his pronouns were “He/ his/ him” but I wasn’t grateful. I was disgusted.

Just yesterday, a tweet reminded me that the Old Testament is old-fashioned in that it posits a binary world:

While God may have a male and female element (since both men and women were created in his image), we’re not supposed to. We’re not gods. We’re just created in his image, with God having separated his male and female identities into two distinct parts. Thus, as with so many things in the Old Testament, the world is clearly divided: Clean and unclean, holy and profane, man and woman. A manifestly male rabbi in a conservative synagogue should not be suggesting otherwise. (I have since decided that I’ll go to the local Chabad house.)

And then, just to round out today’s thoughts about religion functioning as religion, rather than as a soothing gloss on top of pop culture, I saw a post at PJ Media: Nuns Should Look Like Nuns, not Real Estate CEOs with Dolled up Hair and Hoop Earrings. The author, Thom Nickels, writes about a parochial school childhood in which nuns dressed like nuns, complete with traditional habits. He then describes his experience a few years ago, when he found himself in conversation with a nun:

Several years ago I had the privilege of talking to a modern St. Joe’s nun when I went to a friend’s Vesper memorial service at Rosemont College.

At the reception, I sat beside a neatly coiffed woman whom I assumed was a college administrator or bank executive. She wore an emerald broach, amber earrings, a silk scarf, as well as a perfume I’ve often smelled while walking through the women’s department in Macy’s.

While slicing into a lamb chop, I asked the woman, “What do you do for a living?” When she told me that she was a St. Joe’s nun I thought of the old nuns in my parochial school with their towering headgear and veils. What a difference forty years makes.

“You’re really a nun?” I said. In my own way, I was showing her that I disapproved of her lay clothing.

I looked in vain for a microscopic lapel cross pin that might indicate Sisterhood, but instead found the broach that indicated Macy’s.

Nichols was dismayed and, in writing about that dismay, he makes a very important point:

While many Catholic women’s religious orders ditched the habit after Vatican II, many orders did not. It’s also true that some religious orders have returned to the traditional habit. It may seem odd, but surveys indicate that “secular dress” orders like the St. Joe’s nuns are experiencing a decline in membership, whereas convents where the traditional habit is worn are experiencing huge membership booms.

I’ve always believed that visual symbols are powerful because they relay a message.


At my parish church, St. Michael Archangel Orthodox church in Northern Liberties, I had my first interaction with an Orthodox nun from the famous St. Martyr Princess Elisabeth Monastery founded in 1999 in the Minsk region of Russia. This particular sister was touring the States to give a lecture on the work of her convent and school, a boarding home for children and adults with special needs, and a homecare facility for mentally challenged children.

The sister in question wore a full, traditional habit, standard operating procedure for nuns in the Eastern Church.

The same might be said of the Dali Lama, who travels the world dressed as a Buddhist monk, and who has never gone to Brooks Brothers or Macy’s in order to be outfitted in secular clothing or jewelry of any kind so that he can “fit in” and disappear.

When you have a message to deliver, it pays to stand out.

It’s not just that it pays to stand out, of course. If you’re neither willing to walk the walk nor talk the talk (nor dress the dress), you don’t seem to believe in your own message. And if you don’t believe in your message, why should I? Instead, you’ve just got a job like any other job and why in the world should I care.

It’s no surprise that religious institutions that pander to pop culture are failing, while those that don’t have continuing vitality. Religion, by standing apart from other institutions, serves vital functions: Most importantly (to my mind), it reminds us that we are not animals. Sure, we’re mammals, and we share DNA with monkeys and worms, but the fact is that we are very, very special animals because we have cognitive abilities and existential awareness that other animals lack.

No matter how clever or smart animals are, no matter their extraordinary skills, no matter their ability to feel love, joy, hate, and fear, I will stake my life on the fact that no animal asks “Why am I here?” or makes the philosophical statement “I think, therefore I am.”

As I told my son when he was a very little boy, lions are not “bad” because they kill. They kill because that’s how they eat. They don’t have the cognitive ability to reshape alternative food sources to satisfy their nutritional needs nor can they question the righteousness of what they do. They just do.

(In the same way, as an aside, all those Marvel superheroes are boring, because their super powers mandate success and make courage meaningless. A man throwing himself onto a bomb to save his comrades, knowing he will die, is brave. A superhero doing his/her superhero thing is as mindless, in a way, as that lion.)

The moral component of religion is incredibly important, and this is where the pop culture pandering is such a problem. Religion creates standards.

A healthy religion is predicated on recognizing every individual’s divine spark. Based upon that premise, it sets out rules for living that optimize healthy relationships at both the broadest and smallest reaches of society. In that regard, I highly recommend Dennis Prager’s 10 Commandments videos, for they explain how the Commandments are not just irritating prohibitions against letting people “be free,” but are, instead, the surest pathway to a free, safe, and successful society. The Ten Commandments set out abstract principles that, once properly understood, can and should apply to all people regardless of race, color, country of national original, sex, sexual orientation, etc. Once a society catches on to this, you will not find a better place or time on earth to live.

In the same way, an unhealthy religion, rather than recognizing that we are all God’s creatures, instead creates unhealthy hierarchies that confer special status upon the few and then allows those few to do whatever they need in order to bring the rest of humankind to heel. Morality isn’t based upon abstract ideals that guide all people. Instead unhealthy religions have myriad, often constantly mutating, rules that enforce the hierarchy, that are often random in application, and that can be incredibly cruel (and equally random) in effect.

Leftism is one of those unhealthy religions. And Islam, if practiced in perfect accordance with Mohamed’s teachings, is unhealthy as well.

Healthy religions can become unhealthy if those in charge decide that, to remain “relevant,” they must abandon their larger, traditional principles and, instead, look to pop culture and Leftism for guidance.

Matthew writes that Jesus warned against the folly of building a house on sand:

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

Those faiths that choose pop culture as their moral guide (i.e., He / him / his), aren’t building their house on sand, they’re building it on sewage. When the rains come and those houses collapse, they won’t just be washed away, they will be drowned in a cesspit of ideas drawn from a grotesque amalgam of Hollywood and Leftism.

I understand that religions grow and change with the times. (For example, while I find this wedding tradition fascinating and rather beautiful, especially considering that it probably hasn’t changed in 250 years, it would not be for me and I’m grateful that there are less intensive alternatives.) Reform can be a wonderful and, in same cases, a necessary thing.

But if that reform takes you away from central principles and even away from God himself, I ask again: Why bother? You don’t want religion; you just want to force a traditional institution to make you feel good about yourself. Worse, you’re willing to destroy the institution — and the benefits that accrue to society if the institution is an inherently healthy one — to reach that end.

UPDATE: This excellent article nicely discusses the way Leftists co-opt religion for nefarious ends.

UPDATE II: Coincidentally, my friend Mike McDaniel was thinking along lines similar to mine. He’s written a wonderful post about the way in which America’s churches are being torn asunder by Social Justice Warriors anxious to impose their left-wing values on traditional faiths — and to take off with all the money and buildings while they’re at it.

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