WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT ORGANIZED RELIGION?
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"I don't believe in organized religion..."
We hear this statement all the time - ALL THE TIME! - from Jews: This has got to be one of the DUMBEST comments ever uttered by some fairly intelligent people!
That's like saying: "I'm for inventing the wheel all over again - every time I need it!" It's that dumb.
Imagine starting your own country and saying, "I don't believe in Organized Nations - I have no use for the United States Constitution - I believe in writing my own - from scratch."
Oh, brilliant! You're going to start from scratch writing your own national constitution without the benefit of what mankind has learned about how to set up a fair and equitable democratic nation?! Even the U.S. Constitution - as ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT as it is - was quickly ammended to incorporate the Bill of Rights, a cornerstone of our democracy. And to this day we keep refining the laws and principles upon which this great nation is founded. It's one of our highest callings - to REFINE our brilliant, wonderful system of law! We learn as we go along - we civilized people - and we benefit from our mistakes - we keep refining. Any great system requires improving and refining! You don't need a PhD. to understand that!
So how come so many really SMART Jews utter this incredibly DUMB statement: "I don't believe in organized religion!"
Only a person who has ZERO KNOWLEDGE of the myriad ideas and practices and stories and history and brilliant thinking and philosophizing and theologizing and ardent searching and mulling and pondering and the incredible amounts of WISDOM that have evolved over the course of 4,000 years of Judaism - expressed in poetic, meaningful, powerful ways - could POSSIBLY make a statement as UTTERLY BRAINLESS as that!
Here's a little exercise for you energetic, creative types who have "no need for organized religion" and don't mind reinventing the wheel over and over again:
Let's start our own mini-non-organized religion right now - just spontaneously - ok? Now let's see... Ummmm - Wait a second - Why would you need this non-organized religion to begin with? Well, let's say you've got a problem. Let's say it's a BIG problem - one of those Fox-Hole problems - you know, like when no one's an atheist anymore.
Ok - So you're in a fox-hole - by which I mean like in some form of WAR - DANGER - you're SCARED OUT OF YOUR WITS! - You could lose your life - or someone very dear to you could lose their life - like maybe your mate - or worse, your child (God forbid!) - it's not a joke! - It's so scary you're in need of some kind of downright heartfelt PRAYER - and you're in need of it RIGHT THIS MINUTE!
Ok - Let's write a prayer that's meaningful to you in the Fox Hole.
Well - gosh - TO WHOM do we write this prayer? Who are you going to pray to in your Fox Hole? Whose help are you going to seek?
Well - look - you're in BIG trouble - you gotta pray to SOMEONE or SOMETHING - so let's say for the moment, you'll try God. Now then - what kind of a God is this God you're going to pray to now that you are in urgent need of help? Well - gosh - there are many ways to envision God. So - quick - which one speaks to you? Oh, gee - maybe it would help if you could review some of those late night dorm discussions about God. Or - well - gee - you gotta come up with some kind of vision of this God you're going to pray to for help. Maybe it would help if you had some kind of knowledge of how other people have envisioned God. Ok - that would be good. Now - where are you going to get that now that you're stuck in a Fox Hole?...
To me - this is where organized religion comes in REAL HANDY. I LIKE the idea that others BEFORE ME have thought about God and what form God might take! I LOVE that Judaism says that God is infinite and all-knowing and unseeable and unknowable. I LIKE that because it's such a great concept - as in magnificent - as in HUMONGOUS - BEYOND MY IMAGINATION! In other words, God is something greater than what I can conceive of! I LOVE that! Because that's an entity that is so powerful, it SEEMS to me that a God like that might be worth entreating for help - might be great enough to help me - in some way or another - in my predicament!
Now what are the words to my prayer? Do I just say, "Oh God, please help me?" Probably - to start with - that would be appropriate.
But beyond that, do I maybe have some words that have been formed by others - over thousands of years - that give my desperate plea some kind of form - some kind of poetry - that have some kind of CALMING EFFECT on me?...
How about: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want... (from the hauntingly beautiful 23rd Psalm...)
To me that's a comforting idea - and a poetic idea. And a few lines down it says: Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death - - What a great way to envision the darkness of danger - of fear - of terror! - or depression. The Valley of the Shadow of Death.... I like that imagery - it speaks to me when I am in pain or scared or full of sorrow - and I like that I have heard those words before - they're especially comforting for me because they're familiar to me. And because they come from the tradition of my people, I feel even more comfortable with them. These are the words my great-grandparents uttered, too! I LIKE that! And I like that they were written thousands of years ago. These words tell me that others before me have needed faith and hope and help and strength when they were in the Fox Hole of Life - and that I am not alone in my urgent need for help...
But you have said you "have no need for organized religion."
Ok - let's hear YOUR prayer... I'd like to hear it. And I'm going to compare it to "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want..." If your prayer is better - I'll be interested - I'll be impressed - I'll want to use it. But one thing I'm pretty sure of - it's not going to be EASY coming up with that prayer - and it's not going to be QUICK.
The fact is, OUR VISION IS CLEARER AND BRIGHTER BECAUSE WE STAND ON THE SHOULDERS OF THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE US - IN EVERY AREA OF LIFE!...
It's incredibly ignorant and ARROGANT to suggest that you could start ANYTHING without benefit of what has gone before you - of what you have learned and experienced already in life - which is largely based on what OTHERS have learned and experienced in life and TAUGHT you.
We benefit tremendously - CONSTANTLY - from all the trials and errors that went before us - in every area of life - religion no less than any other area. SURELY you don't need to be told this!
Now then, where are we going to say this prayer? - all alone in our room? Is that how we wish to pray? - after all - we're for UN-organized religion - right? So - I guess that cuts everyone else out, right? Just me alone in my own lilttle room with my own little un-poetic prayer - that's it.
I don't find that appealing. I'm looking for COMFORT and STRENGTH and COURAGE to face all the ordeals that COME AT YOU in life. I don't think I want my OWN LITTLE RELIGION! I want something BIGGER - that speaks to me - and includes OTHER PEOPLE. I don't WANT to worship all by myself in my own lonely little room!
Thus Judaism puts us into a CONGREGATION - minimum of ten - so that we can pray as a GROUP - and we can comfort one another - and form communities to help one another - and have prayer services with beautiful, uplifting melodies running through them - and occasionally the haunting sound of a shofar that evokes the shephards of ancient Israel calling to one another from the hilltops - signalling the start of a holiday - or the new moon... It's so beautiful and meaningful and rich and deep. How could I alone POSSIBLY make-up something to COMPARE to the Jewish religion?!
In addition - I am grateful for OTHER religions - ORGANIZED religions! I am grateful that they help other people to reach out to God - that they offer comfort to others - and community to others - and most of all, that they offer STANDARDS of BEHAVIOR - because I believe that religions help sustain the bedrock of civilization - which you might say is CONSCIENCE - the CONSCIENCE to know the difference between GOOD and EVIL - and to DO GOOD - even if EVIL is the more seductive at times! I am so very, very glad that religions help parents to teach children HOW to do good - and RESIST EVIL INCLINATIONS! How much harder it would be to teach our children to behave in civilized ways if we didn't have religious teachings and STANDARDS to guide us in teaching our children!
(Of course it's true that religions can create fanatacism and other excesses and we know only too well how cruel people can perpetrate misery and oppression while invoking religious "ideals" - Yes, this is true - it is the price we pay for having the institution of religion in our lives. While the power of religion can indeed to be turned to evil purposes - we believe it is far more beneficial to society than NOT having religion in the world. We believe the world would be a dreadful free-for-all if there were not religions to help guide us humans in our behavior...)
Now once you have a GROUP of people together - a CONGREGATION - you can say prayers like our beautiful Hashkivenu - "Help us, O God, to lie down in peace, And awaken us to life on the morrow...... - - Strengthen us against the evil forces which abound on every side...." Now I find POWER in a prayer like that - said on behalf of the CONGREGATION - all of us together - Strengthen us as a GROUP, O Lord! - Now that's a powerful - and poetic - prayer! - far and above anything I could think of spontaneously by myself...
(It must be noted that of course there are times when one does pray alone - of course - and Judaism says we each have direct access to God on our own - we don't need a priest or other "holy" entity to intercede on our behalf with God. Prayer alone is part of Judaism, too....)
Now some people object to organized religion because through such institutions people form Us & Them Boundaries. It's true - this does happen. But people organize themselves into groups all the time. My Block Association on West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village is DIFFERENTIATED from the Block Association on Charles Street - one block away. And as a group - the Greenwich Village block associations are differentiated from, let's say, Brooklyn block associations - and so on - up the organizational tree. But this makes SENSE. OF COURSE we organize ourselves into groups that have meaning for us! Mankind has been organizing itself into groups since time immemorial. There's OUR TRIBE and then there's THE OTHER TRIBE on the OTHER side of the mountain - and OUR ISSUES are differentiated from THEIR ISSUES - and HOW WE DEAL WITH our issues is differentiaed from HOW THEY DEAL WITH THEIRS, etc.
No less so with religions which deal with such fundamental ideas and issues as, Why are we here? - Who created this world? - How can I get HELP dealing with LIFE which can be so HARD - so PAINFUL - so HEARTBREAKING at times! WHO is there to HELP me?! - And WHAT do I say? - etc.
We do get fired up about this issue - so we'll be blunt here: Anyone who says "I don't believe in organized religion" is - in our book - amazingly arrogant, ignorant, thoughtless and just plain foolish! It's truly the ULTIMATE in SOPHOMORIC - as in maybe a SOPHOMORE might say something as basically dumb as that - but after the sophomore year we hope you'll be thinking on a more intelligent, more mature, wiser level than THAT!
Quite to the contrary - Judaism is just LOADED with WONDERFUL, STIMULATING, BEAUTIFUL, ENLIGHTENING and UPLIFTING material that stretches back thousands of years.
It is our suggestion that anyone even slightly curious as to the great institution of Judaism start the GIGUNDA (but joyous) task of ACTUALLY READING, LEARNING ABOUT, EXPERIENCING and STUYDING just a teeny-tiny portion of the great body of material that has been created throughout thousands of years before you were born! - before uttering a statement as INANE AND THOUGHTLESS as, "I don't believe in organized religion."
The wonderful thing is, you might be amazed and delighted at how much of this material ACTUALLY SPEAKS TO YOU - once you ACTUALLY ACQUAINT YOURSELF WITH IT!...
End of lecture.
Time for a cookie! - All Kosher - (OU/D) - Yum!...
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