Good yontev. I heard about this phenomenon a few years ago and I thought it was curious. There was this group of people who got together to hear inspiring stories, sing songs together, comfort each other when life is hard, celebrate with each other when life is good, and try to make the world a better place. They called it Sunday Assembly. Here’s the description from their website:
The only way to understand Sunday Assembly is to experience it for yourself. There will be singalong songs, moving stories, passionate speakers—all finished with tea and cake (or coffee and doughnuts!).
Just by being with us you should be energised, vitalised, restored, repaired, refreshed, and recharged. No matter what the subject of the Assembly, it will solace worries, provoke kindness and inject a touch of transcendence into the everyday.
But life can be tough… It is. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, we have moments of weakness, or life just isn’t fair. We want the Sunday Assembly to be a place of compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted, and loved.
You can join a choir, sing in the band, attend and facilitate self-help groups, welcome those who are socially isolated, host potluck dinners, share hobbies, and much more.
Most of all, have fun, be nice and join in.
Yeah… Basically they’ve just reinvented religion, but without God. Although, doesn’t that part about “inject a touch of transcendence” seem to cross the line into the Divine? They actually say that they are “a secular congregation that celebrates life”. It’s funny isn’t it, that even if you don’t believe in God, you still might want religion?
Religion serves a useful purpose. Why else would billions of people around the world practice one type of religion or another? Why else would people who were completely secular reinvent religion to create Sunday Assembly? There is a reason why people call themselves secular Jews and something like 80% of Jewish Israelis are chiloni or secular. They remain proudly part of the Jewish People, just without the God part.
So what exactly is religion for? It’s not like we have reliable records from prehistoric times, it was pre-history after all, that tell us: we’re going to found religions and here’s why. But it’s not hard to infer some of the original reasons for religion. I have no doubt that explaining the unexplainable was one of the reasons for religion. Why are there hurricanes? Why are there droughts? Why are hunts sometimes successful and sometimes not? Why are the crops succeeding or failing? Why do we get sick? Why do some people recover and others don’t? Why do we die? What happens after we die? How did all this come into being? You want to know the answers? The gods, or in our case God, singular, the One and Only, ordains it so. Today, we use science to explain the world and science does a pretty good job of it. Not a complete job, but a pretty good one. What happened before the Big Bang? What makes consciousness? What happens to us, our consciousness, after we die? Perhaps science will answer those questions too, at some point. Perhaps we will forever rely on religion for those answers. Or perhaps we will just get used to not knowing some things, though I doubt that. Human beings seem to have an insatiable curiosity about life and the universe.
Religion has also been an attempt to control our environment and what happens to us. About to take a sea voyage? Appease Poseidon with a libation and maybe you’ll make it there and back safely. Have difficulty conceiving? Pray to God and perhaps you’ll give birth to the child you’ve been praying for. About to enter battle? Sacrifice to Mars for victory. Prayers and sacrifices were attempts to control ourselves and our environment.
If explaining and controlling the world were the only reasons for religion, then I am sure that the Enlightenment, which began 350 years ago, give or take, would have ended the need for religion by now. Yet the data shows that religion is still going strong in the world. Therefore, there must be more reasons for religion. In general, religions tend to promote pro-social behavior. That is, religion helps us create the rules and incentives that allow us to live with each other in groups and achieve more than we would alone. One pro-social behavior is to define and enforce moral behavior. Let’s look at three of our top ten: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t murder. What if we didn’t have these moral laws and people lied, stole and murdered whenever they felt like it? You would be wise to limit your interactions only to the severely limited group of people that you know and trust well. How much could you achieve if you were limited to such a small group? Could you build the pyramids? Invent the semi-conductor? Live the lives you do today? Not at all.
Other pro-social behaviors that religion promotes are those that help other people when they are in need of help. We call it Social Action, but it’s just helping people who are in need whether we have a connection to them or not. I am sure that we have collected hundreds of pounds of peanut butter and hundreds more pounds of other food during these High Holy Days. None of us will know who will be helped by these generous donations, but we do it because it’s the right thing to do, because Judaism tells us to, because it makes us feel good. We feel good when we help other people, especially when they need it most. Religion pushes us to help when others are in need. Religion pushes us to make the world a better place than it was when we entered it.
Religion can also help create a sense of belonging and group cohesion. One of the reasons that Jews were able to thrive through commerce in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is that we trusted each other, even if we never met in person, just because we belonged to the same group. And since Jews were spread throughout Europe, international trade became easier since we could trust those people we never even met. While this sense of Klal Yisrael is waning today, it does still exist. But there’s a downside to group cohesion too: if you’re not in the group, if you’re excluded from the group, you can have a much harder time. Or if two groups collide, say Protestants versus Catholics, or Hindus versus Muslims, or Jews versus pretty much everyone else, bad things can happen. It’s good to feel like you belong, but group cohesion can also can be misused.
Religion can act as a storehouse of wisdom, passing insights down from one generation to another. The hardest way to learn is through experience. Sometimes hard experience is the only way to learn, but it’s better to learn from someone else’s hard experience. As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9 “V’ein kol chadash tachat hashemesh, There is nothing all new under the sun.” Yes, technology changes, times are different, circumstances vary, yada, yada, yada… But people are people and how we react and interact with one and other is substantially the same, even over time. Religion can give us insights into human interactions that we can learn and benefit from. Of course, as my father often said about me, you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. Too often we will ignore the wisdom of our elders, but it’s there if we look for it.
Religion can be very satisfying. I can’t actually explain why, I just know it to be so. People like rituals, habits, and routines. Maybe we like these things because they make our lives more predictable and being predictable means having more control over our lives. I don’t know for sure why, but I know it to be true. I know I like to read the newspaper while I’m drinking my tea in the morning. I know I enjoy getting together with my family to celebrate birthdays and holidays. When I have gone through personally difficult times, Jewish ritual has soothed me. When people I love have died, religious observance has brought me comfort. For the joy and comfort alone that it brings me, I would be religious.
It’s not always satisfying, of course. There are plenty of ways that religion can be misused and abused. Narrow minded teachings that are misused to reinforce our own prejudices and hatreds. Or religious teachings that bring power and wealth to religious leaders. It’s a miracle, I tell you, when religious doctrine promotes religious leaders to come out on top! Sadly, in today’s world, we have abundant evidence of what happens to unchecked religious leadership. But these are ways that religion is twisted and abused, not religion at its finest.
Yes, yes, I’ve been burying the lead. Religion is about God and our relationship to God. Or at a bare minimum, religion provides a framework for understanding our mystical experiences, those moments of transcendence that even the Sunday Assembly seeks to provide. I have had experiences that I ascribe to God acting in my life and my Judaism helps me to understand those moments of transcendence. Most people have experienced awe, moments where they have felt greater than themselves, moments of transcendence, moments that I identify as having God present.
I know that plenty of people have trouble with the idea of God. That’s okay. The commandment is “you shall have no other gods besides Me.” Mathematically that would be not greater than one and zero is not greater than one. Am I worried if you don’t believe in God, if your not greater than one is zero? Not really. Not anymore at least.
When I was a student at Hebrew Union College, I taught fourth grade Judaica at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue to earn some extra cash. Part of the curriculum was God and belief in God. I tried everything I could think of but, boy! were they a bunch of precocious little atheists. I loved them so much, and it troubled me because it felt like I was failing them that I couldn’t get them to believe in God as I do. So I went to my teacher, Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the most quoted and influential Reform Jewish Theologian. I told him my difficulties with convincing fourth graders to believe in God. What he said to me has never left me. He said to me, if I truly believe that God is real, then God has a responsibility to act in my students’ lives and create a relationship with them. It’s on God to be known in their lives. So no, I’m not worried if you don’t believe in God because it’s on God to make you believe, not me. I can help, but it’s not my final responsibility.
Why Judaism? Because it offers so much and it’s not just about God. It’s about belonging to something bigger than yourself. It’s about being connected to your community, your People. It’s about learning how to act in the world and living better, more satisfying lives. It’s about coming together to build a better world. It’s about being comforted and supported in our need and giving comfort and support in return. It’s about feeling joy and experiencing moments of transcendence. And sometimes, it’s even about feeling God acting in our lives.