Jewish Journal


March 10, 2005

I’m Not Religious

Parshat Pekuday (Exodus 38:21-40:38)



"Please understand, rabbi. I'm very spiritual. I'm just not religious."

It is the anthem of a generation.

I'm spiritual: I wrestle with the meaning of my existence. I cultivate my inner life. I feel God is very close. I sense my connectedness to others and to the earth and I try to live compassionately.

But I'm not religious: I'm uncomfortable in the institutions and structures of organized religion. Formal religion binds my freedom and gets in the way. I'm eclectic. I take the best of all traditions but I belong to none.

The organized community derisively dismisses this sort of thinking as narcissistic, immature and assimilated. But there is something here not so easily dismissed. In an early essay, Martin Buber proposed a dialectical relationship between "religiosity" (our "spirituality") and "religion."

Religiosity is the impulse to seek the divine unmediated by the forms of the past. It is, he wrote, our "feeling that transcending [our] conditioned being, yet bursting from its very core, there is something unconditioned.... [And it is our] will to establish a living communion with the unconditioned."

Religion, on the other hand, is comprised of the insights derived from one generation's religiosity captured in symbols and forms and passed down to the next generation. In the process, these once living and creative insights freeze into rigid dogma and authoritarian ritual.

Religion, Buber argued, needs a constant flow of new religiosity as a renewing source of vitality and creativity. Absent such a flow of the new and the creative, religion freezes to death. But religiosity, precisely because it is new and creative, threatens established patterns of religion and so it is repressed.

The organized community needs the "spiritual but not religious." We need their passions, their anger, their creativity and their hunger for spirit. We need Jews who seek with all their hearts a connection to God. We need Jews who demand godliness in institutions, passion in their rabbis and teachers, poetry in prayer and wisdom in learning. In past generations, these were the rebels, the revolutionaries, the spiritual outlaws, the souls on fire, who brought new life to Judaism, new meaning to Torah and new visions of God. They were the original Chasidim of Eastern Europe, the mystics of Safed, the poets of Jewish Spain, the weavers of midrash of the Talmud, the prophets of the Bible.

At the same time, they need the organized community. Henry James once said that America is a "hotel culture." A hotel is a place we sleep and eat, but we don't live there. We don't set down roots there. It's not ours. We never fully unpack. Spiritual searching uprooted from community and history leads us not to deep wisdom but to a spiritual hotel. And in a culture so obsessed with self, the spiritual search can quickly become the worship of the self. One currently popular spiritualist movement promises that you can "become like God," escaping suffering and pain and even conquering death. It's all about the self.

Long ago, the Jewish tradition recognized this as the path to loneliness and despair. "Lo tov heyot adam levado" ("The human being is not meant to be alone") (Genesis 2:18).

The uprooted, self-absorbed, self-possessed life is not fully human, not fully authentic. To live for the self, or to define the self apart from community, friends, mentors, is not to live at all. The Jewish spiritual search takes place within the bonds of community. Intimacy, friendship, community come with claims on me -- on my time, my attention, my resources. But instead of destroying my freedom or erasing my uniqueness, these claims are the source of my sense that my life matters, that my existence has meaning.

The community needs the "spiritual but not religious." They need the community. Can we find some way to bring them together?

A marvelous image from the Torah: After the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, God commands: "Build Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8).

This week, the sanctuary is complete, and the cloud of God's presence enters to dwell within the community of Israel. In the weeks to come, we will read of the journey. At each stop, the sanctuary was erected. Then it was dismantled, moved and erected again. So it is through our history. But in each place, the terrain is different. The sanctuary's materials wear out and must be repaired. The light shines differently. We are different. So each time we erect the sanctuary, it is different from the last time. But each time, God enters and dwells among us in our ever-renewing sanctuary.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and author of "Tough Questions Jews Ask -- A Young Adult's Guide to Building A Jewish Life" (Jewish Lights), which was recognized as a finalist for 2004 Jewish Book Award.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and author of "Tough Questions Jews Ask -- A Young Adult's Guide to Building A Jewish Life" (Jewish Lights), which was recognized as a finalist for 2004 Jewish Book Award.

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