Choosing to be Religious: Yom Kippur Day 5775


Most of you are probably like me– and if faced with the ultimatum of describing yourself as “spiritual” or “religious,” you would lean towards describing yourself as “spiritual.”

Often, I would like to claim the “spiritual but not religious” identity, too. So many people are abandoning the term “religious” in favor of the term “spiritual” because as people of the post-modern era: we like our freedom, are often suspicious of institutions, and we value individuality. Somehow, identifying as “religious” or subscribing to a “religion” sounds like we have signed up to be another cog in the wheel, a mindless drone programmed to submit to a questionable religious authority. That is, as opposed to being spiritual people who have our own, independent, personalized spirituality. The term “religious” has become a word considered in the pejorative.

Take my non-Jewish agnostic paternal grandfather Gerald E. Miller for example. A retired 3-star Vice-Admiral of the Navy, he has served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam. Three years ago, at the ripe age of 92, he published a book on the nuclear weapons stockpile for the Smithsonian.1 He has known war and the human cost of it. And, whenever we watch the news together, he speaks up– “See all of this devastation! Did you know that we’re in the middle of a culture war?! People of different religions are pitting people against each other– people will never get along because of their vastly different religious ideas.”

As a rabbi, part of me cringes when he says this, you know, because I am a religious person 24/7. But part of me really agrees with his resentment of religion. I mean this past year alone we saw so many news headlines that led to deaths, restrictions of rights, and suffering because of, and in the name of, religion. Just a few examples:

We saw the rise of ISIS, and the destruction of thousand year old buildings and several devastating beheadings. We saw the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case restrict employee’s access to healthcare based upon their employer’s beliefs. We saw rockets hurled at Israel, and Israel in turn pummeling Gazan tunnels and along with them schools and yes, some innocents.

We saw further evidence that religious extremism continues to fuel homophobia through the video of a boy named Daniel Pierce being verbally and physically assaulted by his parents because he told them he was gay. During the onslaught, his mom told him, “You have made a choice from what you’ve told your daddy. You can deny all you want to but I believe in the word of God and He does not create anybody that way.”2

All of this of course would lead any rational person to declare religion as an utterly destructive force in the universe and that would make us want to distance ourselves far from it. Clearly.

One might suggest that if we live in the modern world and we care about humanity and peace among all, we should have, at some point, seriously considered abandoning the endeavor of religion altogether. So, my agnostic grandfather has a point. There are way too many examples, proofs, that religion is a devastating, divisive, and destructive force in the world.

Perhaps that’s why, 12 years ago, when I told my grandfather that I was going to go to rabbinical school he responded, “that’s very brave of you.” For a long time I wondered what he meant. The word “brave” in that sentence seemed like a euphemism for a much more concerned word that he was holding back. But why did he choose the word

And then I realized– of course his knowledge of the Jewish religion was through his experience in WWII — he knew of Jews mostly as victims murdered simply for being Jewish. And here I was pursuing a path that would forever inextricably link me with this identity. Through this lens, yes, this is very brave of me.

But, here’s something deeper that I know about my grandfather, too. When he was about my age, after WWII, he continued to rise through the ranks of the Navy and became a squadron leader during the Korean War. He led 24 pilots on bombing missions over the 38th parallel into North Korea. At the end of the war, he had lost 6 of the 24 men he led into battle. He wrote home to my grandmother Dotty, the daughter of a Protestant minister who had become quite secular herself, asking her to find a religion for the two of them and their young family.

You see, in the midst of tragedy one may find oneself searching for meaning, a system of beliefs, a community of people who wrestle with God, a religious community. And, isn’t that true for so many of us? Frequently, as a chaplain at UCLA medical center, people would call upon me to offer a pre-operative blessing. People who would explain that they are not religious and that they are surprised they called and wanted a blessing, but they did before surgery.

I know when I am scared or in peril or grieved I find comfort in turning to Rabbi Lisa and Cantor Juval, and of course reading from our deep treasure trove of religious texts. Instantly, I am given comfort. Isolation disappears, and I know that others are active witnesses to my experiences. Especially weeks like this, I am comforted to share the comfort of community.

During hard times, I am inspired by biblical ideas that “this too shall pass” and a long history of a people in struggle – like Abram whose wife Sarai was taken by the Egyptians upon their first foray southward, Isaac who was nearly sacrificed by his father, Leah the elder sister of Rachel who thought she would never find companionship, the Israelites who found themselves on the run from the approaching Egyptians only to come to the red sea blocking their path, Hannah who never thought she would bear a child, Jonah who somehow was swallowed by a whale literally or metaphorically.

Each of these people who our tradition tells us are our forebears (and for those of us who converted, they are considered our spiritual forebears) somehow found the persistence and perseverance to eventually overcome precisely that thing that was preventing their well-being. Yes, even Jonah, whose story we read today, somehow emerged from the belly of the whale unscathed. When I am going through my metaphorical periods of feeling swallowed by a whale I turn to religious tradition, religious community and these religious leaders, these gurus, for inspiration and strength.

My grandfather, after the war and without returning home first, with integrity and honor, personally visited each widow of each fallen combat pilot under his care. No wonder he was searching for something, some religious community to offer some bit of strength from long long ago. When one sits on a park bench in Seattle with a widow of a man you led into war and who didn’t emerge alive, you hold her hand, let her cry, and you think, he once told me. I often imagine him sitting there thinking about his comrade’s life and his purpose on earth. I imagine him thinking about his purpose on earth. I imagine him thinking about why his comrade was taken out and why it wasn’t him and thinking about how to make his name a blessing by dedicating his own life to values his comrade’s death stood for– freedom, integrity, justice, liberty.

All of these thoughts can be pondered alone. But, I think my grandfather was looking for a community of people whose purpose was to explore these timeless questions in community. That’s what religious community provides.

But here’s the thing– shortly after he returned home, he and my grandmother divorced. And my grandmother did find a warm welcoming meaningful religious community that she became a significant part of for the rest of her life– but my grandfather was left to himself to ponder these questions about life and death, the purpose of existence, the role of religion, and war. I would imagine that these experiences shaped him. And so, of course, watching the news, he has grown weary of organized religion as it is the cause of so many devastations today.

But, what about all of the upsides of organized religion? I come from a largely multifaith family– with Jews of all denominations, Christians, Christian Scientists, Catholics, a Buddhist and even a Zoroastrian.

I have seen religion bring depth and meaning to the human experience: giving us a framework for understanding birth, maturity, sickness, love, death, gratitude, the seasons of time. Each of us chooses to be in relationship with religious tradition because there are benefits to doing so. And, I guess what I try to convey to my grandfather implicitly, is that living Jewishly identified is not only a sometimes fatal liability, nor is it only something to benefit from when one is going through difficult struggles. Engaging in Jewish religious community is also fantastically enriching and has been for me personally. It brings me joy to see individual joy magnified through the uplift of the community.

The cycles of Jewish time encourage me, over the course of the year, to feel the full human range of experience: from deep contemplation on days like this, to profound silliness on Purim, from feelings of spiritual distance from the Creator by mourning the destruction of the Temple, to feeling completely taken care of by a God who led us from slavery to freedom, and every week there’s a joyful holiday- Shabbat! When I embrace the Jewish religion, I embrace these rhythms of time, and a community that is in search for this kind of meaning regularly each and every year.

But, it wasn’t always this way. Because I grew up in an interfaith family, and my dad wasn’t Jewish, in third grade, I was told that I wasn’t really Jewish. But, over time, I realized I had to get over the ugly, elitist, exclusive side of religion and re-engage to find the healing, comforting, daring, magnifying, meaning making side of religion. And it has been incredibly enriching.

A story about Rabbi Akiva– you know the scholar who was famous for being completely illiterate until the age of 40? Akiva was a poor shepherd. He had descended from converts to Judaism and at the time, the community did not regard him as fully worthy of support. He grew to hate organized religion– for good reason. Because he saw what was lacking and some of the hypocrisy of religious institutions. He felt all of the privilege that they enjoyed while he worked and worked as a meager shepherd out in the land all day. The Talmud tells us that during those years he had such hatred for Torah scholars that if he had the chance, he would have bitten them like a wild donkey.3 When he turned 40 years old, he became the head shepherd for a wealthy landowner. The landowner’s daughter, Rachel, and he fell in love, and she agreed to marry him on condition that he pursue the study of Torah, and work out his tumultuous relationship with the institution of religion. But, when her father learned of their marriage, he disowned her and they lived in poverty. Nevertheless, she was resolute- she insisted Akiva pursue study for several years as was the custom. He heeded his new wife’s request. Eventually, he returned with over 24,000 disciples! And, his father-in-law
begged forgiveness for his initial error in judgement.

Rabbi Akiva’s favorite maxim was, “Love your fellow as yourself.” And, his struggles early in life helped him identify this greatest commandment in the Torah. Indeed, even through the Roman destruction of the second Temple, his love of others, and his love of Torah eventually ensured the survival of the Jewish religion– though all others were murdered by the Romans, it was through his remaining five disciples that the tradition
was carried on through that dark time.4

Precisely the man who was so weary and embittered by organized religion was the one who saved it. Over time, in seminary, he learned to love the tradition, see the beauty in it and genuinely share that with thousands of disciples.

I share this story because so many of us find religion and religious institutions to be hypocritical, narrow-minded, more divisive than unifying. But, we can learn from Rabbi Akiva, who chose, at the behest of his wife Rachel, to re-engage with the tradition and find and assert the worthy and precious, contemplate meaning and purpose, and to celebrate life. To add his voice to the enterprise and refresh it from within.

In this way, Rabbi Akiva seems to have chosen life. He chose to rejuvenate a tradition from which he was alienated. Isn’t that the contemporary struggle so many of us face today?

The Torah portion on this holiest of days implores us to “choose life”– and the question is: what kind of life are we choosing? Are we choosing to flee from religion or opt instead for an ephemeral sense of “spirituality”? Or are we willing to, like Rabbi Akiva, re-engage in the enterprise of religion, and open it up and value every person’s engagement in it? Are we going to help dismantle the entitled and elitist grip that extremists have upon the term “religious”? Are we willing to reclaim the term “religion” and build religious institutions like BCC that are dedicated to welcoming, liberal, and rational ideals so that others can associate religion with a meaningful and altogether enriching experience, too?

There was a time when Jews didn’t have a choice. A Jew was born into a family and this determined what his profession would be, where she would live, how far he could progress in life. But the enlightenment era emancipated the Jews– we could now become “citizens.” In those early days, while some did choose to assimilate entirely, others chose to acculturate while still maintaining their Jewish identity.

During the Holocaust, the idea of choosing covenant again came into question. After all, how could one choose an identity that might result in one’s own death– not to mention all of the other theological difficulties that would come with continuing to keep the covenant through such atrocities.

Rabbi and professor of Jewish History, Yitz Greenberg, born in 1933, writes: “I submit that [the] authority [of the covenant] was broken [during the Holocaust], but the Jewish people, released from its obligations, chose voluntarily to take it on again… the Jewish people was so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry
on its mission.”5

In other words, overall, we as a people were so in love with the Jewish worldview, principles, ethics, values, rhythms of time, and, yes, the food, that we knew it was too good to abandon. The global Jewish community chose life even after the Holocaust.

Again, we are given the choice. But, the news headlines make it difficult. Pop culture and movies and cartoons and sit coms depicting tropes often paint all religious practice as fanatic, and something that should end up on Anderson Cooper’s Ridiculist, or on one of Bill Maher’s shows or his film Religulous, or in one of Sascha Baron Cohen’s movies. It drives people away and many never see the actual beauty that religious affiliation can add to a person’s life.

Perhaps this is why Rev. Lillian Daniel gripes in her recent book When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church: “I am tired of hearing people say stupid things in the name of Christianity. I am tired of nutty, pistol-packing pastors who want to burn the Koran. I am tired of televangelists who claim that natural disasters are the will of God. I am tired of Christians who respond to the pain of disease with a lecture about behavior. I am tired of preachers who promise prosperity. As grumpy as it sounds, I am even tired of Tim Tebow…. I am tired of people who say they want a church like mine but cannot be bothered to attend one…Perhaps I am really just tired of myself. In criticizing others in their faith, I hardly live up to the best in my own faith. Perhaps the people who irritate me the most are exposing my own false doctrines. And this is why I can’t do this religion thing all by myself. This is why I need community.”

During a recent December visit with my grandfather, in Washington, D.C., Christmas coincided with Hanukkah. I found myself in my grandfather’s kitchen each night lighting the 9-branched menorah. He asked about it and I shared all of the meaning and beauty that lighting the candles brought into my life.

Each night, as the number of candles lit increased, so, too did his questions and appreciation for the ritual. By Christmas eve, seven candles burned brightly in the kitchen. And, as my extended family gathered in the formal dining room for traditional non-religious, family based Christmas dinner, my grandfather paused and asked– “Where is that Hanukkah…thing?”

“It’s in the kitchen” I replied.

“Why don’t you bring it in here?…I like it.” my grandfather admitted. And then he asked me to lead a blessing before the meal.

I did, and so, and we enjoyed Christmas dinner with the Hanukkah candles burning bright.

It didn’t escape my attention that he said that the reason it should be on the formal dining room table was because HE liked it as opposed to another legitimate reason for it being on the table– which is that I liked it.

My agnostic identified, wary of organized religion grandfather had taken on an embrace of a religious ritual because he liked it. He saw some good in it. He chose to embrace the universal good in it.

Is this what it means to choose life? To choose to see the good in the things that appear bad? To choose to re-engage in the endeavors that bring us heartache and yes, often embarrassment in order to restore them to their original glory?

Is this something that we can do with the term “religious” when we refer to ourselves and can we do it knowing that we are doing so because, through religious communities like BCC, do we embrace a Jewish religious covenant of universalism, camaraderie, justice, peace, healing through the particular depth of our Jewish tradition? Will we, liberal Jews, have the courage to claim our rightful place among the global Jewish community? Today is Yom Kippur, a day dedicated to working things out between ourselves and our Creator– what will we choose?


2 From:
3 The Talmud (Pesachim 49b), also adapted from:
4 Ibid.
5 From:

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