Friday, October 31, 2008

Letting Go of My Judaism

For a formerly religious individual shifting toward atheism, one of the hardest processes has to be rethinking all the assumptions that we took for granted for years and sometimes decades. The list of these truisms could fill many volumes, and the Bible is certainly the source of many. From obvious ones like those contained in the Ten Commandments, to more subtle views, such as the role of women, it can take a lot of time and patience to examine each one rationally. On top of the formalized canon, we often grow up surrounded by family members, neighbors, co-congregants at church and classmates all echoing the same opinions and disguising them as fact.

Quite recently, I’ve come to see that I’m not entirely innocent of this. While I’ve been pretty diligent about rejecting the fictions fed to me during my 15 years as a Christian, I now understand that I’ve been equally blinded during the 32 years or so since my freshman year of college, when I began exploring the paternal side of my family tree – the Jewish side.

Even a year ago, I would not have thought to post a blog like this.

Here’s a quick summary of a few vestiges of faith that I have stubbornly hung onto, to one degree or another:

• Everything Israel does is absolutely right, no matter how much the world community protests and no matter how brutal it may appear to an “outsider.”
• Jews are inherently more moral than other people.
• All religious law that originated with Judaism is logical at the core, even if it’s hard to fathom in the modern age.
• All Muslims are the enemy.
• Judaism is in danger of becoming extinct and this cannot be allowed to happen.
• Anybody who voices objection to Jewish practices is either anti-Semitic or ignorant, and these two things are really synonymous.
• My Jewish father lowered himself by marrying my Gentile mother; he came from a better “bloodline.”

Is there a “chosen people?” A year ago I would have said yes. I find it encouraging to have backed away from such a notion on two fronts: As a Unitarian Universalist, I promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the goal of a world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all. And as an atheist, I find it unacceptable to endorse “chosenness.” Unless someone can prove to me that Jews, or any other group of people historically singled out as being exceptional and distinguishable from other humans, actually originated somewhere outside our planet and possess measurable, objective qualities that make them superior to others here on Earth, I will strive to reject any such notions, no matter how deeply rooted they are or how strongly rejected by what some call the “conventional wisdom.”

I’d like to try fine-tuning my previous misconceptions, based on those two principles.

• Israel has maintained something closer to a democracy than the other (Islamic) countries that surround it. However, very much like the United States, it has more recently taken its roots for granted – just because it was originally founded to protect a persecuted class of people does not always make Israel the target or the victim. Sometimes the Israeli government falsely justifies brutality and oppression purely out of fear.
• Jews are not inherently more moral than any other people. There is a strong correlation between a codified scripture and a tradition of reason and our Western democratic ideals. That gives Jews and Christians good reason to view themselves as more moral by nature, but in truth, the morality is a learned one, and the learning process itself is highly imperfect. This particular weakness in my thinking hit me just this morning, listening to the NPR report about the kosher slaughterhouse in the Midwest, whose owner, first name Shalom, is the target of a federal investigation for illegal hiring practices. My knee-jerk reaction was something like “Oh, no, a religious Jew knows better than to hire workers under unfair conditions,” and this was based entirely on all the Torah and Talmud that was spoon-fed to me during my college years. Ideas I simply absorbed as iron-bound truth. In a similar way, I was horrified and let down upon hearing of the infamous crimes committed by child abuser Joel Steinberg, and Ira Einhorn, who murdered his girlfriend and then lived as a fugitive overseas for over a decade. I also know how many people make the opposite assumption: that all Jews are fundamentally evil and greedy. In fact, the way I learned it, all non-Jews are anti-Semitic at heart! I knew a woman some years ago who declared that all Christian churches preach “blood libel” every Sunday. This was so ridiculous, I called her on it, thinking maybe I misunderstood what she had said. But she re-asserted it. That was the end of our friendship.

What we have to get straight, once and for all, is that it’s all too easy for us humans to give in to our baser impulses and act completely in our own short-sighted self-interest and think about consequences later. It doesn’t matter what religion or ethnicity our ancestors were! And we all tend to show favoritism toward those who resemble us. It’s a fallacy in our thinking that keeps us down at a primitive level, rather than allowing us to be elevated to our potential of intelligence.
• All religious law that originated with Judaism may have seemed logical at the time it was set down, but its focus was narrow and imperfect. It was used to justify behavior that was a means toward an end. It is not supernatural in origin! It is not timeless or universal. It may be interesting to study and some of it may be adaptable to our present age, but it must all be viewed with great caution and objectively assessed.
• Side note: Yes, our present system of government is based largely upon Judeo-Christian principles that came before. Some of it’s great; some of it has to go. Keep the good stuff; ignore the stupid and harmful. We can have our democracy without someone else’s theocracy.
• Not all Muslims subscribe to the theocratic, oppressive belief system that is so commonly seen on the news. Like Christians, Jews, and other religious people, they’ve been brainwashed and victimized by the entire religious mindset. All humans can be reasoned with, under the right circumstances, and no one should be condemned just because of a label.
• “Judaism,” exemplified at its best by reason, logic, intellect, study, and discourse, is only in danger of becoming extinct if these qualities are neglected and devalued! We can always honor our ancestry and reflect on its lessons, regardless of who we marry or what culture we adapt to. We have to learn to let go of ethnocentrism if we are to advance the only race that matters to our existence: The human race.

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

You have made some important statements here -- and I mostly agree with you. Each and every religion has its bigots and a sense that they are the "chosen" ones -- for better or worse.

One of the better things I did in college was take a course in Eastern religions: Judaism. Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism in its varied incarnations. I learned that a lot of things I had learned about these faiths weren't true and it gave me a perspective on how their respective societies' mores and civilizations had evolved.

It changed me as a Catholic Christian and an American and as a citizen of the world. I'm more tolerant of a lot of things and find myself a lot more tolerant. It's why I call myself a renegade Catholic. And should I change my religous allegiance, I will be a renegade in that denomination as well.