Saturday, July 21, 2012

Man Seeks God

I recommend Man Seeks God, by Eric Weiner. It's a really interesting memoir about a man who searches around the world for something he's missing. In the book, Weiner explores eight different religions (although mainly the mystical branches of these religions) in an effort to "find his God." In the end, he concludes that his premise was wrong, but he's much more comfortable with religion, specifically Judaism, than he was at the beginning.

He comes to Judaism (his family's faith) through Kabbalah, which he studies in Tsfat in Israel. I find Kabbalah fascinating because it is an individual approach to Judaism, but I can't subscribe to it myself because its focus is a direct connection to God. However, some of Weiner's conclusions about Judaism really resonated with me. For example, he points out that because Judaism is so old and has survived so much, it is flexible. That so much of Judaism involves questioning and challenging, not subscribing to a creed. I think this is why so many famous scientists have been Jewish.

He also points out that if people like him (and me) leave Judaism, then the only people left will be the ones who focus on doctrine to the exclusion of everything else. And he emphasizes again and again that "Truth is what works."

So even as I take the first step towards becoming a Humanist Celebrant, I am comfortable remaining a Jew, a Religious School Teacher, and an active member of a Reform Congregation.

So many things in religion are what Weiner describes as "post-it notes for the soul--" things that remind you to pay attention, to help others, to take care of yourself. These things are good even without God (and without a soul, even.) And recently, while listening to a podcast about money, it occurred to me that if money only works because we believe in it, maybe other things can be evaluated the same way. Sure, I understand that the paper in my wallet has no intrinsic value, but I believe in it because thousands of times in my life I have handed it to someone and gotten stuff in return.

Prayer works for me, too. I never believed in prayer really. I didn't think that if I prayed for something, God would do it. But prayer has always worked for me. I love the ritual and community experience of services. I like the way it feels in my body and the way it focuses my mind. I like learning something new as my focus changes because of the vocabulary I've been teaching at school or the experiences I've had that week. And silent prayer is a chance to list the things I want for myself--peace, generosity of spirit, the ability to forgive. I think that meditating on these things is a useful task, even though nobody else is listening. Focusing my attention on the ways I want to improve has to be a good use of time. So in that way, it works. So why not?

And there's something to be said for participating in rituals that have supported my ancestors for thousands of years. Sure, I understand them in a different way, but I understand freedom in a different way from the Founding Fathers, and I still consider myself an American. I am a Jew. I can't run away from that, whatever I do. Humanistic Judaism doesn't seem like the place for me, so like Weiner, I'm going to have to find my own path.

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