Tag Archives: Religion

Judaism Without Religion

The Most Current Version of You
Being in a new place provides incredible freedom to be the most current version of yourself. We are all constantly learning, changing, growing, and adapting, but sometimes it’s challenging to openly do that around people who have certain expectations of us, certain experiences with who we are and desires for who we should be.

In a new place, however, meeting people who have no experiences with, or expectations for, you and your behavior means that you enter with a clean slate. You present the newest version of yourself because that’s who you fundamentally are in the given moment. There’s no one telling you otherwise, surprised when you respond a certain way, or waiting for you to do A when you really want to do B.

While I’m not new to Singapore, I am meeting new people both at work and outside of work. This has given me an opportunity to present myself with the background of the past year, a year during which I learned a lot, experienced a lot, read a lot, and gained some clarity about the way that I understand the world and myself.

My Jewish Self
About two months ago, I had a conversation with a new friend in which I described myself as culturally Jewish and denied feeling a sense of traditionally “religious” connection to the group that I’ve affiliated with for my entire life. I talked about religious practice as a way of connecting with a community separate from having any sort of “belief” in anything supernatural. I also acknowledged that this understanding, the separation between culture and religion, had been an extended process, one that I was only beginning to feel comfortable articulating.

Recently, my friend reminded me of that conversation. “But,” he added, “I think you’re a lot more spiritual than you said. Maybe not quite religious, but you’re not just doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking in order to maintain a cultural connection with a group. It seems like there’s something else.”

I smiled. He wasn’t wrong. I had described myself as spiritual rather than religious for years and have only recently (in the current iteration of myself, in fact) stopped doing that, opting instead to speak more broadly of culture. So in that sense, my friend wasn’t right, either.

Reflecting on that conversation, and appreciating both my friend’s perceptivity and his willingness to highlight what he saw as incongruence between what I said about myself and what I did (specifically in reference to taking off work on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so that I could go to synagogue and pray), has left me thinking about my trek from a belief in a higher entity to where I am now.

Religiosity
Being religious means following the letter of a specific text for no other reason than the text is called sacred. It means believing that there’s a higher being, likely omniscient and all-powerful, controlling the Earth and the skies, the world and its people. It’s the tradition of replying, “Blessed is God” when asked how you’re doing, of ceasing all work after sunset on the day of rest, of avoiding certain substances because of their uncleanliness or mind-altering properties.

Being religious means praying about real questions, like whether to go ahead with plans that seem dependent on the weather, and believing that you have been given (though not that you’ve found) a real answer. Often, being religious also means denying scientific explanations for phenomena that we see in nature and in ourselves. Instead of searching for the answers, being religious means trusting (having faith) that the answers will be revealed, all in good time.

Truly, I do not want to sound disparaging. I did not grow up in a religious household but I did attend a religious school. As a child, I was taught many of the views and practices described above and I clung to them because they helped me organize my world. They helped me find comfort in what I did not understand and could not otherwise handle. From that perspective, I appreciate the good that religion does for individuals. I have experienced its calming influence and sense of security.

But, as a student and teacher of history, I have also learned to be wary of religion. Countless wars. Death. Destruction. Avoidance of responsibility. Lack of political action. Barriers to scientific research. Discrimination. Hatred.

No one person’s belief should cause such anguish to others.

What I Used to Call Spirituality
It has been a long time since I’ve held any specific religious views and a very long time since I’ve sighed with resignation and performed (or not) an action because of a supernatural being. But I still find joy in community experiences that have religious origins. What stands out to me in these experiences, however, is not the religion but the collectivism, the understanding that we are all coming together because we value one another as individuals and have chosen to create a community.

An example to illustrate:

I was last in Israel with the grade 8 students at my school and we spent our first Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) together as a group in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown (because, as scripture says, “It was evening and it was morning. The . . . day.”) and we walked up to a sort of promenade overlooking the Old City. It was dark and we could see some cars still out and about, but for the most part, it was quiet.

We sat in a circle for the Friday evening prayer service, which is full of singing to welcome Shabbat. At one point, a few of the kids stood up and starting dancing. Before the rest of us quite knew what was happening, we were all on our feet, singing and dancing, laughing in our circle overlooking ancient history, juxtaposed with modernity in the cars and neon lights just below us.

My heart caught in my throat and there were tears in my eyes. To feel so much a part of something, to be in this beautiful place with my friends and my students. There was a very real collective energy in the air, an understanding that each of us had a place in the community we had created.

So for me, it wasn’t the prayer. It wasn’t the religious aspect of ceasing work Friday night to sing songs welcoming the day of rest. It was the fact that we were all together as a group, that everyone was welcomed and valued as an integral part of the community. For many present, this was a religious experience. But for me, this was a moment of transcendence because of the community itself regardless of the religious elements around which the community coalesced.

And that means that none of this has anything to do with spirituality at all.

What is Actually Cultural . . . and Then Some
Talking this over, another friend reminded me that finding joy in shared experiences is a common element of humanity. As humans we strive to connect to others, to relate to them and find a sense of belonging with them. Humans are social, tribal animals and we develop groups to help us feel a sense of safety and security. We like to be together because we survive better in groups than we do on our own. We support others in order to feel a part of their lives and to let them in as a part of ours. Culturally, we seek out connection with those around us because it makes us happier.

Additionally, sharing this experience with students was a moment of pride for me as an educator. My students had set aside their differences for a time and come together out of the sheer joy of the experience, the release of inhibition that comes from total engagement singing and dancing in the open air.

Looking around at my colleagues, I saw my own happiness and love reflected on their faces. We’d been traveling with students for about three days at that point and we were anxious and tired (and getting tired of them) but in that moment, it didn’t matter. That was why we worked as hard as we did. That was why we put up with what we did. We had worked to build a community and we were watching it develop and grow.

What was significant, then, on that promenade overlooking Jerusalem, was the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group and the joy that stems from positive engagement with others. For me, then, this was a cultural experience.

A cultural experience . . . and then some. We can think about culture in terms of the anything that makes up the way of life of a group of people. This includes what we immediately see (food, clothing, celebrations) and also what we don’t immediately see but might be able to figure out given time (concepts of beauty, ideas of success, what constitutes a good life). Belonging, connection, relatedness, and shared experiences are all part of culture but exist on their own, too. So this experience was cultural, yes, but there’s more than culture that matters here. There’s an emphasis on shared humanity that transcends the culture of any one group.


As always, I’m glad for the dialogue that sparked these reflections. I’m glad to have a deeper understanding of myself from looking through the eyes of others and letting their ideas probe my own. I’m always willing to think, discuss, and clarify and it’s helpful to be around people who are responsive to that.

On Living

Yesterday I thought I saw a former student walking towards me on 14th Street. I felt a grin spread across my face and nearly called out to say hello. And then I remembered.

That student passed away earlier this year. She was shot.

The stranger came closer and I realized they hardly resembled each other. I turned my head away. No one looks too long in New York.


Early last week my mum called to tell me that a dear friend of my sister’s had died. Drug overdose.

I was on the train home when she called and I had nothing to say. After staring out the window in silence for a few stops without seeing any of the stations, I called a friend and asked for help. He told me, There’s nothing to say.


On Friday, I had a conversation with a student, a rabbi’s son, about what happens when God isn’t there or isn’t listening. This child is suffering and doesn’t know why God can’t hear him. He suggested that maybe God has grown too old, too frail, and is now incapable of doing all that God used to do to intervene in the lives of everyday people and propel the world towards a higher plan. My student mentioned that he thought people who believe in God are less likely to commit suicide than people who don’t. Why? I asked. Because even if you can’t live for yourself, you can live for God, he explained. Statistically, I think he’s right, but I said a few words about mental health and the importance of medication for fixing a sick brain, just like medication fixes a sick body. You mean depression? he asked. I nodded. Yeah, he said, I know about that.

My student asked what I thought about a God who doesn’t listen, and I told him I no longer believe in anything I can’t prove. What about air? he asked. You can’t prove that you breathe air. I cupped my hand in front of my mouth, took an audible breath, and blew into it. Yes, I said, I can.

I asked my student how it felt to think that God really isn’t listening, really isn’t anywhere, and really can’t do anything at all. He wasn’t ready to go there. That’s okay. In times of suffering, it’s helpful to think that someone or something is watching and cares.

This I know because I’ve been there.


What makes you good at what you do? my therapist asked once.

I don’t like the self-promotion part of having a career.

I think that kids just want to be treated like people. I think a lot of adults lose sight of that and I try really hard not to.


Last summer, I read an article on one of my favorite blogs about The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. Shortly thereafter, I read the novel and recommended it to everyone who asked for a good book. I’ve yet to see a more moving portrayal about what it means to live and to love.

The article contains a quote that has been saved on my GoogleKeep ever since. de Botton says,

My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways – and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.

That’s what I’ve been reminded of this week. That we’re all fragile, that life is fragile. That we’re all holding ourselves together to get from one day to the next and that allowing others to simply be, to breathe freely and deeply, is perhaps the greatest act of compassion we can perform for one another. An act in which we merely stand by the sides of those we love, holding their hands when they need it and letting them go when they don’t.

We are all these incredibly fragile beings. This acknowledgment should give us permission to err, to be forgiven, and to grow, both together and apart, as friends, partners, lovers, and just as people.

We are all doing the best that we can. Knowing this means going easy with one another, as de Botton suggests. Understanding and accepting others for who and what they are then comes from a place of genuine care and concern for well-being. It means meeting individuals where they are, not where we think they should be.


You act like there’s no one left
Alive in the whole city
Well maybe the end is upon you
And what then?
Here, repeat after me
It goes, I won’t stop loving
I won’t stop loving
You don’t have to be perfect
You don’t have to play well
You don’t have to fix everything
All by yourself
Now don’t laugh ’cause I just might be
The soft curve in your hardline

-“Hardliners,” Holcombe Waller

Whoever you are, whatever you need, I will go easy on you. You’re safe here.

Travel Guide: Jerusalem

I recently had the pleasure of chaperoning a two-week trip to Israel with the eighth grade class at my school. The purpose of the trip was to develop strong cultural connections with Judaism and the land of Israel, celebrate their B’nai Mitzvah together as a grade, and form new and better friendships with their classmates. Based on the reflection that the guides led on final night, I’d say that mission was accomplished.

Many organized trips to Israel like ours cover the three regions of the country; the north, the south, and the central region, which includes Jerusalem and its surroundings. We spent the first four and last three days of our trip in and around Jerusalem, and that’s what I’ll walk you through in this post. Stay tuned for the others!

We hit the ground running after a 12-hour flight that landed at Ben Gurion International Airport at 6:30am! Despite kids’ pleas to go to bed, we headed to Neot Kedumim, a biblical garden and land reserve that highlights animals, plants, and plant products mentioned in the Old Testament.

 

Highlights included herding sheep . . .

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. . . and planting trees, a vital part of every first trip to Israel as a way of “giving back” to the land and contributing to its continued prosperity.

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It was the first trip to Israel for many of our students and we spent some time singing and celebrating on the Talpiyot Promenade that overlooks the Old City.

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This was also a perfect location to experience some of Israel’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions of religious and modern life.

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We spent most of the following morning at the City of David, the archaeological sites that date back to the Second Temple period (about 530 BCE-70 CE). Attractions included a walk through Hezekiah’s Water Tunnel, an underground tunnel built in the 8th century to protect Jerusalem’s water from Assyrian invaders. As it was a bit chilly that day, I opted to wait outside and take pictures overlooking the Old City, but my students said it was a lot of fun.

 

We also visited the Davidson Center, which is a museum dedicated to the ongoing archaeological excavations around the Temple Mount area of the Old City.

 

No visit to Jerusalem, at least for Jews, is complete without a visit to the Kotel, or Western Wall, part of the ancient retaining wall of the Second Temple. Most of the wall is reserved for men and therefore all of my pictures come from the women’s section. The segregation irritated me more this time than it has in past visits to Israel. There’s something truly fundamentally wrong with separating men and women because of invented notions of purity.

 

We walked back through the Old City as the sun was setting. It was beautiful.

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The next day we visited Beit Guvrin, an active archaeological dig that is a lot of fun no matter how many times I’ve done it. There are so many artifacts yet to find! Spelunking there is great, too, because some of the completed excavations are best experienced in the darkness by candlelight. This time, we visited a columbarium dating back to 200BCE! And the park itself is beautiful.

 

After celebrating Shabbat together in Jerusalem, we went to the famed Ben Yehuda Street to eat and shop. I bought some gifts and had a delicious and overpriced falafel – my gift to myself!

 

We returned to Jerusalem for the final two nights of our trip after traveling through the country. Our first stop when we got back was to Latet, an organization that aims to reduce poverty and create a better, more just society in Israel. We volunteered by sorting boxes of food for delivery to needy families for Passover. The kids received very little instruction, someone hooked up an iPod full of Israeli folk songs, and suddenly everyone had organized themselves into groups sorting different food products. In moments, without talking about it at all, everyone knew who was packing boxes of canned vegetables, grape juice, matzah, chocolate spread, and others. There was so much excitement and energy in the room, cheering as boxes filled, laughter as we threw food products to one another (until we smashed a wine bottle and had to clean that up . . . and then promptly continued), and genuine joy in the work we were doing. We participated in two service projects on our trip and I absolutely loved both of them. Doing service work with students is high on the list of my favorite things.

The same day, we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. Our visit started in the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, the area of Yad Vashem that honors non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Remembering that there were people, however few and far between, who risked their own lives to save others is the only way to go through the rest of the memorial without losing all hope.

The museum itself is designed to mirror the darkness of Hitler’s rise to power – you are literally underground in a close, constrained environment. Yad Vashem does not allow visitors to freely walk from one room to the next. Instead, all must pass through each room in turn, zigzagging across a long hallway the way Hitler’s persecuted people had no choice of where to go or how to get there. By the time the war ends, visitors are at ground level and the museum opens to a beautiful view of the world outside. Unsurprisingly, most students were especially moved by the Children’s Memorial. The fact that it even exists is enough to say about it.

But two days later, we visited Yad LaKashish, a beautiful contrast to the Holocaust. Yad LaKashish is an organization that teaches the elderly different types of crafts, like metalworking, bookbinding, jewelry making, and silkscreening. The artwork is then sold in the gift shop to finance the whole program. The artists love visitors, especially young people, and they make truly beautiful things. I was not alone in wishing aloud that I had any artistic ability whatsoever. Clearly it’s never to late to learn!

 

That afternoon, to bring the story of Zionism to a conclusion, we visited the Herzl Museum and reviewed much of what we’d learned in social studies class (a nod to my department – we done good!) prior to the trip about the Dreyfus Affair, Theodor Herzl, and the origins of the idea of a Jewish state.

Our final evening was spent reflecting on what we’d learned and experienced, thanking all of those who had been part of the trip, and enjoying one another’s company before heading to the airport in the wee hours of the morning.


I love Israel because it feels like home. This was my third time there but that feeling was present within me from the first moment I landed at Ben Gurion International Airport back in 2007. There’s an unspoken understanding among Jews in Israel, and this is most certainly a sign of privileged status in the country, that you’re welcome to visit, to explore, to ask questions, and to call Israel home. I did a lot of exploring this time around. I asked a lot of questions, specifically about the relationship between being religiously Jewish and culturally Jewish. Israel answered a lot of the questions I’d been asking before the trip and as always, I left wanting more.

Stay tuned for my posts on our time in the south, my favorite part of the country, the much greener but equally beautiful north, and the vibrant city of Tel Aviv.