March 31st, 2015 — Rabbi Sharon Brous
Read the original article in Today.com here.
At some point in college, I was invited to Shabbat dinner in a classmate’s dorm room. I remember neither the host’s name nor any of the guests, but I know that the evening culminated in a traumatic incident with the bottle of salad dressing I had brought, which the host inexplicably jettisoned into the dorm hallway as she screamed, with tears in her eyes, that I had totally treifed up her kitchen by bringing in unhekshered food. This, in turn, made me burst into tears, as I tried to explain that I didn’t understand a word she was saying (treif? heksher?). The fact that a sealed bottle of Italian dressing, even one lacking rabbinic certification, could not render a countertop treif — unkosher -—(which I only learned years later) did not seem to matter to her in the slightest.
After a number of similarly humiliating incidents, I came to see the Jewish community and institutional religion altogether as rigid, judgmental and exclusionary. For years, I walked away, until at a certain point I determined that I at least owed it to myself to learn enough to no longer be embarrassed, and found myself diving back into the traditions of my grandparents.
Today, I spend much of my time talking to young, unaffiliated, religiously disconnected Jews, people not unlike me at the time of The Salad Dressing Incident. I’m not alone in feeling or having felt more like an outsider than an insider — alienation and shame are as prevalent in the Jewish world as guilt, ambition and white fish.
But what I hear when I talk to these folks is interesting: Many reject perfunctory recitations of prayers that they don’t understand, but the idea of spiritual practice resonates deeply — conjuring gratitude, forgiveness and wakefulness in moments that would otherwise be routine and meaningless. They even appreciate their ability to bring holiness into otherwise mundane acts, like waking up, going to the bathroom, drinking a caramel Frappuccino.
They detest the formality and rigidity of American religious services, but they (hungrily) embrace nonconventional prayer environments that authentically embrace anger, ambivalence, longing and love. They won’t join just because their parents did, but they understand and deeply appreciate the idea of community, of showing up for one another. Even in a time of fragmentation, isolation and radical individuality, they get the power of connectedness.
So while it’s true that there is unprecedented disaffection, defection and disinterest among young Jews toward religious life, in my experience, it’s not because they reject the core elements of community, prayer, ritual, gratitude, forgiveness, holiness, and God — what they reject is a 20th century iteration of institutional religious life that feels devoid of life, passion and spiritual challenge.
One of my cherished teachers is a Benedictine Monk named David Steindl-Rast, who teaches that religion is like an erupting volcano: fiery, powerful, dangerous, “gushing forth red hot from the depths of mystical consciousness.” But the stream of lava quickly cools off. A couple hundred years pass, and what was once alive is now dead rock, devoid of all traces of life.
So much of American religious life has become irreligious. Hard, dead rock. Far greater emphasis is placed on the container — the formalities, rules and rites — than soul and spirit. Institutions seem more concerned with what we wear than where we are. Too often, it feels like institutional perpetuation for its own sake. And all that, it turns out, does little to attract and inspire.
Given this reality, the work today is, as Steindl-Rast says, to push through the crust and rediscover the fire buried deep beneath the surface.
So I advise folks to think of religion today as an excavation project. Before walking away, try digging a little. You just might find something beautiful hiding deep beneath the surface.