Friday, July 29, 2011

Spiritual, Not Religious, Authentic Judaism : B.S. Decoded

(This is my rebellion post. I officially wrote my last MHK blog post a week ago. But I'm a contrary person, so I am rebelling by posting again. Enjoy.)

Human beings generally don't like being labeled or stereotyped. But sometimes, stereotypes contain some truth. It may be an exaggerated and demonized version of the truth, but it's truth nonetheless. For the purposes of this post, I'm talking about those who try to avoid open and clear labeling of their religious beliefs - those folks who are "spiritual", not "religious" or "authentic". Take, for example, born-again (or once-born) Evangelical Christians. 

I empathize with them. When you have a passionate spiritual encounter, you glimpse The Truth. You see love, hope, faith, kindness and safety. You see The Answer. The problem is that you become convinced you are seeing not just The Truth, but also the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I myself am highly prone to extremist, polarized thinking, so I can't look too far down my nose at others for having the same thought process.

I think one reason many Evangelical Christians say they are "spiritual" rather than religious is because they believe they have found The Truth. The only trouble is that they are aware that people all over the world are having their own religious  encounters with The Truth. Evangelicals wish to set their experiences apart. They cannot bear to see their experiences put on the same shelf all those other "misguided" people. These Evangelists may once have been blind, but they are convinced that now they see; their religion is utterly, absolutely, for-real for-real totally-truly-for-evermore  The Truth

But that truth is fragile. A Christian's assertion of being a "spiritual, not religious" is a very subtle way of using language to manipulate a dialogue into being framed around the assumption that their beliefs are objective truth rather than subjective belief. And as much as Evangelical Christians try to convince others, I think, deep down, they are partly trying to convince themselves as well - as if not subtly panning other religions would open the floodgates to uncertainty about their own.

The second reason I think many Evangelical Christians proclaim "spirituality" over "religion" is connected to the former reason. One reason people feel religion is such a dirty word is that it has been the cause of so much persecution and violence, oppression, treachery, and all-around ungodly behavior.

Our contemporary society is largely literate and has access to the archived history of religion. What's more, we live side by side with those whom our religious ancestors persecuted and/or were persecuted by; the descendants of the victimized "others" now tell their ancestral survivors' stories in the open without fear of being violently silenced by those who would wish to keep these historical religious horrors secret. As a result, we cannot mentally hide from the unholy pasts of our religions. So in dispensing with the word "religion", Evangelical and born again Christians are attempting to distance themselves from an ancient history of forced conversion, torturing, kidnapping forced labor, starvation, theft, rape, etc... The long and bloody history of Christianity in the United States alone is written in the tensions between Native and Euro-Americans and the silent shame that haunts many white Americans. 

Similarly, the word "faith" is employed to "soften up" a religion. When faced with the fact that one's religion preaches eternal torture for non-believers, and being forced to see the clearly violent and unhealthy parallels between the desire for merging church and state in North America (particularly the U.S.) and the extreme Sharia law ethics of the "enemy" in the East, the word "faith" is a way to say, "we're not ranting dangerous lunatics...we're not like them". 

Ok, I'm done with Christianity for the moment. Next religion.

"Authentic" is a frequently used term in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish organizations. Take JWed for example, an online dating service dedicated to "Jewish Dating for Marriage". It never once mentions the fact that it is an Orthodox-based website. Instead, it's FAQ section gives this answer as to who they believe is Jewish:

JWed is for marriage-minded Jewish singles of any religious affiliation or background. Non-affiliated, secular, traditional and orthodox Jewish singles are all equally welcome. The only qualifications are that you are Jewish, single, and genuinely interested in marriage.

As an authentically Jewish service, you must be born to a Jewish mother or have completed a universally-recognized conversion...A universally-recognized conversion is a conversion to Judaism which has been completed in full and which is recognized by all Jewish streams including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. 

The Term "Authentic Judaism" is, in my opinion, intentionally misleading. JWed claims to be open to all denominations, but this is a lie. JWed does not accept Jews from all denominations. It accepts people who match the site owners' theological requirements. Whether applicants are Reform or Conservative is incidental.

What's more, JWed's membership criteria of a "universally-recognized conversion" for converts is another attempt to hide the site's Orthodox nature. The only "universally-recognized" conversion are those that are Orthodox. (While non-Orthodox denominations accept Orthodox conversions, Orthodoxy refuses to acknowlede the validity of non-Orthodox conversions.) Oh - and by Orthodox, I mean rabbinic Orthodox conversion of either Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi tradition. You can forget conversion by a Kes, which is a Beta Israel, or Ethiopian rabbi, or a Karaite religious leader ( Beta Israel and Karaites are traditional, differently practicing Jewish groups). Apparently, respecting "authenticity" and tradition only applies to Orthodox tradition. 

JWed does some tap dancing around the truth to try to conceal the fact that it is an Orthodox-based website. By why be dishonest? Because non-Orthodox Jews often view Orthodoxy through the lens of both modernist prejudice and our past negative experiences with the Orthodox community. We view Orthodoxy as a bastion of oppression and denigration of women, superstitiousness, fear-based religious practices and prayers which are the desiccated, pointless remains of a dying religion. That's not a very attractive picture. If JWed can obscure the fact that it is an Orthodox-based site, it can encourage potential Jewish converts to Orthodoxy to marry each other and have children who will be suitable future converts to Orthodoxy.

Using the term "authentic" subtly manipulates the discussion by saying, once again, "everything else is nonsense - but this is The Truth. It's beyond the categories set forth by other Jewish denominations. There is no competition. This is special. This is different." And by refusing to openly state their religious affiliation, Orthodox kiruv groups can avoid repelling targets of Jewish evangelism who might otherwise be uninterested in being converted.

One group I had such an experience with is Aish HaTorah, an ultra-Orthodox kiruv (outreach/evangelism) organization. Aish HaTorah does many wonderful things to help Jews all over the word both spiritually and materially, and a wonderful, important resource for the Jewish community. But I believe Aish HaTorah knows that most non-Orthodox Jews would reject Orthodoxy outright, and so rarely presents itself as such on its main or affiliate websites.

Several years ago, I was accepted into an ultra-Orthodox seminary without honestly being told what it was. I must take responsibility for this because I did suspect it was Orthodox and made the wrong choice by not finding out more information - but I wasn't properly informed either.

Through this Aish HaTorah program, I was given a full scholarship, fed, educated, given access to old Jerusalem Temple remains, and taught some interesting things about Jewish theology and lifestyle. I was given a hell of a lot. The program I entered was sponsored by those passionate about their religion and who cared about their Jewish kinfolk.

But I was still in an Ultra-Orthodox program that had not openly advertised itself as such. The result was a very "colorful" seminary experience for both myself and the organizers... oh how I'll always remember the time I confronted a Shabbat host about the racist anti-Arabic tone of their anecdote, or the time I pointed out that Abraham, the "father of kindness" was a rapist who lived off of forced labor.

I have used the examples of Orthodox Judaism and North-American Christianity to make my case here, because these are the religions I have the most experience with and exposure to. If you are wondering why I didn't include Messianic Judaism/Torah Christianity, there are many places online you can find a much more in depth critique of this religion's tactics.

Although I have not included other religions I am less familiar with, I caution you against looking down your nose at these "unenlightened" paths in contrast to your own. Whether you are an "intellectual" atheist or "enlightened" Buddhist, all paths are littered with a bloody history (ex. Chinese State Atheism, Aum Shinrikyo, Sinhala Buddhist). The desire to convert others and the willingness to employ deception to one viewpoint are a symptom of the human condition, not a particular religious path. 

If that's too bitter a pill to swallow, consider it this way: Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I think "spiritual, not religious", "faith-based", and "authentic Judaism", are other names for bullshit.  You can baptize it, lay hands on it, speak tongues over it, or stamp it with a kosher label. But I can still smell it.

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