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Religious? Not Me!

Religious? Not Me!


G‑d Who?

A famous Chassid named Reb Mendel Futerfas once approached a Jewish man and asked him if he would like to put on tefillin. "Oh no, " the man said. "I don't believe in G‑d." "Neither do I," Reb Mendel said, without missing a beat. The man looked at him, surprised. Reb Mendel continued, "The G‑d that you don't believe in, I don't believe in either."

Some have a mental image of G‑d as an old man with a long white beard sitting in the clouds, holding candies in one hand and a whip in the other. Some think He's some invisible energy that pervades all of existence. Some believe He's a controlling force that's way beyond anything and everything we can perceive with our limited senses.

When I hear the word "religion" I instinctively cringeTo be honest, I hardly ever even thought about the possibility of a G‑d. The times it did cross my mind, I figured, eh, the chances were pretty low. I sure didn't see anything that would give me any indication that there is some faraway Being somewhere in outer space controlling the entire universe like a puppeteer— because that's what people mean when they say "G‑d," right? Ha, I scoffed. These things were better left for the fairy tale books. I live in the real world, thankyouverymuch.

When I grew a bit older, I started to wonder if there was indeed a cosmic unity to the world, but I did not call it "G‑d." If anything, I thought, G‑d was a distant, abstract Force that had nothing to do with me, so I might as well leave that for the philosophers to squabble about and get back to my biology homework.

Then, religion was the farthest thing from my mind. Now, it's almost all I think about. But not in the way you might think.

The "R" Word

Nowadays, when I hear the word "religion" I instinctively cringe. My stomach turns. My hands become clammy. My throat dry. On occasion, I have been known to break out in hives.

This tends to confuse people who know me as a Torah observant Jewish woman. The exchange usually goes something like this: Someone casually tosses out the R-word in conversation, triggering in me a sudden reaction. The conversation screeches to a halt. A confused look is usually accompanied by a long pause.

"What? What did I say?" the person asks in bewilderment.

"I am not religious," I answer with a shudder, after which I shake it off and try my best to continue the conversation as normally as possible.

If there's one thing I learned from my time spent in yeshiva learning what it means to be Jewish, it's that I should never be religious. Religious people are boringly conventional rule-followers who walk around robotically fulfilling a to-do list of duties for the majority of their lives—and feeling guilty for the rest.

I admit. I used to be kind of like that. Once upon a time, I allowed people to "convince" me that G‑d does in fact exist and that the Torah is indeed Divine, and then saw it as my duty and responsibility to abide by it. Don't get me wrong; the Torah-Is-True-So-Suck-It-Up-And- Deal-With-It mentality wasn't as scary and daunting as it sounds. A Torah lifestyle seemed so shiny and sparkly and inviting. It had all these great perks. It gave one's life meaning and structure and fulfillment. It provided nice things like community and tradition and a sense of being part of something much bigger than oneself. Perhaps most importantly, there was always a holiday with delicious, home-cooked food waiting just around the corner. And let's be honest. Who doesn't love that?

But a while after committing myself to the Torah-Is-True mantra and taking on more elements of a Torah lifestyle, I slowly started to feel an inexplicable heaviness come over me. And after hearing a myriad of forms of the same question, "Why are you doing this?", I started to doubt, to wonder. Why am I doing this? I tried clutching to "The Truth" as my base for solace and comfort, but like a tight rope under too much weight, it seemed to be fraying before my eyes.

And then, I started learning Chassidut. Not the airy, feel-good, diluted Kabballah stuff that I had once thought was Chassidut, but real Chassidut. Chassidut from the Masters. Chassidut from inked Hebrew letters on crisp pages of leather bound books, illuminated and brought alive by the brightest, most caring and humble teachers and mentors I had ever known.

Religious people are boringly conventional rule-followers who walk around robotically fulfilling a to-do list of duties for the majority of their livesI could say I experienced a paradigm shift, but it was more like a paradigm earthquake. Like stripping off wallpaper, Chassidut tore down all of my preconceptions of what G‑d is, what Torah is, what a Jew is. It made me realize that the world in which I lived was much deeper than I could have ever imagined. The more I learned, the more I began to peel off the layers of my identity as a "religious" person following rules that were imposed on me from this abstract maybe-maybe-not "G‑d" that is entirely distant and removed from my conception of reality.

Suddenly, the weight lifted. I stopped feeling myself so much. I was simply a Jew yearning for depth, trying to access the deepest part of myself, the deepest part of reality. Now, I wasn't just doing out of some parochial conviction. I was simply being. Being myself. In the truest, deepest sense.

Choosing Life

I'll try to explain what I mean with a Chassidic explanation of a verse from Torah. In Deuteronomy, chapter 30:19, G‑d says, "I call this day upon heaven and earth as witnesses. I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life."

A religious person might interpret this verse to mean that "life" and "blessing" refer to Torah and Mitzvot, and "death" and "curse" refer to doing sins--disconnecting oneself from Torah and Mitzvot. But Chassidut teaches that life and death, blessing and curse, are not two separate entities from which we must choose. No, the Torah is telling us something much deeper: that everything in existence has life and death in it. The external of something is the death of that thing, and the internal of something is the life of it.

The internal-external paradox exists in everything in the world. The external of food, for example, is its appearance and taste; the internal of food is the nutrition and energy it provides. The external of money is the number of zeros that appear on your bank statements; the internal of money is the ability it gives one to sustain and enhance one's life and the life of others. The external of a person is his body; the internal of a person is his soul.

But what does it mean that external is death and internal is life? Anything external is in a constant state of deterioration, while anything internal is in a constant state of growth. To use an obvious example: physical beauty declines with age, while wisdom increases. And why is it that a person shopping for a car would prefer, all else equal, to buy one that is new than to buy one that is used (i.e. has lots of "experience" on the road), but if that same person needs life-saving surgery, he will want a surgeon with the most experience? The answer is that since the car is something external, something physical, it deteriorates, becomes less valuable, with use. When it comes to a person, however, experience is internal, you might even say spiritual. Therefore, it is in a constant state of elevation and improvement.

Judaism is not something we do. It's who we areSo when G‑d tells us, "Choose Life," He is saying that He wants us to strive to connect to the essence, the internal of everything. He is saying, very simply, "I want you to be a deep person."

And a truly deep person not only wants to connect to his own life-source and soul; he wants to connect with the Life of his Life, the Soul of his Soul, A.k.a. G‑d. In fact, in one of the prayers we say during the Bedtime Shema, we call G‑d the Soul of All Souls. The first time I heard that, it took me a while to wrap my mind around it. I can hardly grasp what a soul is. But the Soul of all Souls? That really sent my head reeling.

But that's what G‑d really is. He's in us, if we dig deep enough. So, we love G‑d for the same reason that we love ourselves. "You should love me because I am your life," G‑d tells us (Deuteronomy 30:20).

Tossing the To-Do List

Therefore, Judaism is not a religion, and Torah and Mitzvot, the commandments, is not a to-do list of duties. Does a person write on his to-do list, "Brush Teeth" or "Eat Breakfast" or "Go to the Bathroom"? Of course not. We do those things because we're human beings, and that's what human beings do. The same goes for a Jew. Because Judaism is not something we do. It's who we are. Torah and Mitzvot connect us to that innermost part of ourselves. And the deepest part of a Jew is his soul, whose source is the Soul of All Souls.

In other words, Judaism is about having a relationship with G‑d. But not an employer-employee relationship--more like the relationship between husband and wife. In fact, Kabbalah refers to G‑d and the Jewish people as Bride and Groom. The Zohar even calls the 613 commandments 613 romantic tips.

How can a commandment be a romantic tip, you ask? I'll try to explain by way of analogy. Everyone knows that complimenting one's wife and giving her flowers may as well be in the ten commandments of marriage. Well, imagine a guy who goes to a marriage counselor and asks, "How many times per day do I have to give my wife a compliment?" or "How many times per year do I have to buy her flowers?"--and then checks off his to-do list after every compliment he gives and every bouquet of flowers he buys. You'd probably say he was either a jerk, or mentally unstable.

A husband who does nice things for his wife, even those things involving self-sacrifice, does them because he loves her deeply. He feels she is truly part of him and has a strong desire to become closer to her. If compliments and flowers come out of duty, out of guilt, out of obligation, it means the relationship has gone awry.

A mitzvah is not something to check off a to-do list. It is the channel through which a person accesses his essenceThe same holds true for our relationship with G‑d. A mitzvah is not something to check off a to-do list. It is the channel through which a person accesses his essence, an expression of a Jew's intrinsic, unbreakable bond with G‑d. If we perform a mitzvah out of a burdened sense of duty, fear of punishment, or worse, guilt--then we've completely missed the point.

Many Jews are turned off by a Torah-observant lifestyle because they see it as something outside of them, something that clashes with their existence. But Torah is not an agenda imposed on us that, oh by the way, happens to have some great perks, too. That's religion. Torah is the opposite of religion. It's a Jew's very essence.

Getting to the Essence

Chassidut is often likened to oil. On one hand, oil is distinct and separate from everything, unable to mix with any liquid. On the other hand, oil pervades everything, penetrates all matter. The same is true for Chassidut. Because of its essential nature, Chassidut is beyond particulars, manifestations, qualities; yet it is the innermost core of everything. As essence, it both encompasses and transcends. It's not bound to any specific thing, yet it is the deepest, most quintessential point of every thing.

And when it comes to our life, that's what the Torah wants us to strive for: Essence. Depth. Being an internal person. Choosing life.

Everything else will fall into place.

Chava Shapiro is a writer and member of the curriculum development team at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. She lives with her husband and children in Hillside, New Jersey.
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Sara La December 27, 2014

Beautiful a eloquent article'!! Thanx so much Chava!! Reply

Kate Gladstone Albany, NY/USA February 13, 2011

Karen:you misunderstood some of what you looked up Karen: you misunderstood some of what you looked up (which explains why your look-up revealed no meaning for "reli-").

An English analogy:
"Riverside" isn't a derivative of "reverse,"
and a finger isn't something that fings. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA February 8, 2011

Kate, I looked it up in Google. Origin:
1175–1225; Middle English (< Old French ) < Latin religiōsus, equivalent to religi ( ō ) religion + -ōsus -ous and Reli- giosus ; Sacrum, Sacrificium. Sacer, sacred, as the property of the gods, acknowledged as such by public authority, opp. profanus, ..GIOSUS...look it up. giosus: v. monstrous. portentously So, putting the two meanings together, we get sacred monsters or portentiously sacred. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 7, 2011

extremes I believe we're all pulling from the STREAM, the same STREAM, and that what we are doing, is deeply about Divinity moving through us all, and that we are all of us engaged in a cosmic give and take, that is, deeply, Divinely inspired. We learn from each other, we gain insights, and we each have puzzles to solve and experiential knowledge that when shared, helps others who are struggling with their own issues.

The word EXTREME is aurally also EX STREAM.

I get into deep arguments with people and, being human and humane, for me, there are the same deep questions about the nature of our lives. I do see that tikkun olam, is the motive force, and that we are gifted stories that move us up a ladder of compassion and love. We are only puppets if we think that way. I believe we all would freely choose LOVE, and that the story, all stories are geared towards that recognition, that Divine WILL is our WILL. And that love is the resolution of this collective story, leading to PEACE itself. Reply

Kate Gladstone Albany, NY/USA February 7, 2011

to Anonymous That "-giosus" isn't the base of either word; it's the last letter of the base, plus five letters' worth of endings.

Calling it a base is as if you heard the words "talking" and "looking" and decided that they were based on the word "king." Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 7, 2011

how we open doors Hi again, and perhaps I am writing too much, so Chabad, don't put this in if I am taking up too much space.

I want to say, that it is in our tradition to ask questions, as in our wonderful Passover Seder, in which the young child recites the Questions, Mah Nishtana...and note the different kinds of children who are getting an explanation for the meaning of the Seder Plate and the Exodus from Egypt.

It's how we all open doors. I think there is one question nobody really asks, but yes, I have, and that is, how is it we can do this total magic all the time with language, with words? How is it we can so constantly pun? How is it that we can come up with the most amazing titles for stores, as in a hair dresser's called Shear Magic.

People do not ask the why of it? We take it for granted, this clay, we all use that is really totally MAGIC. Examine this and you will see. How can we do this so constantly and so well? Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA February 7, 2011

I love what you're doing, Ruth. This part of being "religious" can have its extremes, however. When I was a public school teacher, there was another teacher who insisted that the children learn that the Bible was written by Shakespeare and the proof was numerical. I can't remember the scripture, but it had to do with Shakespeare's birthday and the alignment of the numbers of the chapter and verse as his proof. As long as what you do is interesting, that's good. When it becomes a belief you put up on a pedestal, it's an idol, because it is on the same plane as worship. It's a fine line. Also, a suggestion...maybe you can put your takes on the words into a book? I would certainly buy it. Very interesting! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 7, 2011

more.... Hi Gisele, I did write about this, early this morning, but I don't see what I wrote on line, maybe not just yet.

I wrote that I am experiencing massive coincidence and a story that is deeply coded within words, as words do deconstruct for me constantly and I see, within them, a "key" that does unlock doors. It's a gift, and I am sharing this as best I can. If you read many of my commentaries you can see, what I am doing, with words.

It's not entirely "new" for sure. The ancient mystics, both the Kabalists and the Sufis, wrote about a wheel of letters, and surely, we're all doing it, with words. There is an alchemy to how we can do this so constantly in all languages, meaning pun and delve within to make perfect sense, and experience the joy of language, of words, of the Hebrew letters, and, beyond. Reply

ruth housman mmarshfield hills, ma February 7, 2011

the word in world the whirrled in world... The MOT, Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, MOT means, word in French,,,,I am traversing languages and it's a deep listening, a GIFT, call it the "I sing" on the cake

G_d gifted me an insight into the nature of the letters, moving across Babel

Words come flying to me, by day, in the night, and I do deeply, profoundly perceive the potentials within the letters and words, that G_d used to construct the universe, "one verse": a Unitary Universe, something of great amazement, a story that ties all creativity together.

I took a deep inner voyage, a journey of soul to get to this place and my impulse is only to share. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA February 6, 2011

Latin origins of "religious" Keli-giosus meaning sacred and onta- giosus, an infectious disease. They both have "giosus" in their base word. Interesting. I think people who flaunt their religiosity have, then, a sacred infectious disease. hahahaha Reply

Gisele Dalman Scheonberger san diego, ca February 6, 2011

You state that you, "... are following a story that is deeply about words"... tell more. Reply

Anonymous cape coral, florida February 6, 2011

I think people of all religions can be ignorant and that is where they are with G_d! I was a christian at one time and I never hated Jewish! G_d made everyone and G_d can take us get rid of us all anytime! We need G_d and if someone is brought into the world with parents that didn't know they could pray to G_d directly with out help from some Idle that is where they are with G_d and I am not Judging anyone and I recognize I am blessed that G_d allows me to see an understand ignorance! A Jew should feel Blessed because G_d enlightened them! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 3, 2011

personal experiences in these discussions a writer said to me, I don"t count personal experiences. First, we're all discussing from personal experience, our own life perceptions, derived from how we filter and uniquely process what comes to us. Physics itself has demonstrated that the observer influences even what is observed. As to this "thing", synchronicity, I could point out that this joins the lives of others to the astonishment of story, so it is not merely personal, being one person affected. In fact, I write letters or call those who are part of these connects to share in the wonder.

To know me personally would be to know my impulse is to share, as share is to her and cher iced, that which is dear. I am not writing exclusively about coincidence. I am following a story that is deeply about words. Reply

Gisele Dalman Schoenberger san diego, ca February 2, 2011

Your words, "No, the Torah is telling us something much deeper: that everything in existence has life and death in it." are pivoting and profound. I have a new perspective on everything from this observation. You pointed out something that is so sure and yet so hidden, in a way; with so much external entrapment everywhere around us and going into us through our eyes and ears... thank you! You've given me a whole new menu of food for thought! Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA November 25, 2010

Ruth, LOVE your play on words. You are SO SMART and wise! LOVE it. Atonement becomes at one ment. Forgive becomes for give. Wow. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 24, 2010

The New Yorker Cartoons There is a beautiful set of dog cartoons that were put into a book. I looked last night and the one that really amused me was the dog looking up into the night sky and there is a huge word up there, above him, and it is DOG, and of course we all know that Dog read backwards is, G_D.

I can say, dogs are man's best friend. They love and they love unconditionally. My dogs would prefer a walk to food, even if they are hungry. And dogs are just so forgiving.

So I am saying, look to the words, look high, and low, because in words themselves there are deep truths about the universe we all inhabit, together. Love is surely the motive force or should be.

Atonement and At One Ment. For Give and Forgive.

Language is totally DIVINE. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma November 23, 2010

Us Regular People Thank You, Karen Joyce!

You have a most poetic name. I like it that it ends with BELL. I often say we're all climbing Jacob's ladder and that "ding", the bell, alerts us to something new and wonderful that allows us each to climb a little higher, as rungs of a ladder are to ring.

And I hear the "Kare" in the name, Karen. And keren chayemed is for charity. I am taking a walk across languages. Everyone is so welcome to join me!

I also like being a regular person. In fact, I hope we all like who we are and how we are.
I like it very much, as you do, that Chabad accommodates diverse opinions.

I do believe we all have a window on the truth and that we do deeply learn from each other. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA November 23, 2010

Ruth, you are so poetic. Love it. Also, I love these topics on and so appreciate the more Orthodox writers letting us "regular" people chat and voice opinions. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 24, 2010

when the rain falls/G_d too reigns I think these are tears, and I often feel the rain, even when it's not raining. It's called sadness. It's a feeling that sometimes overwhelms us, and we cry, and that too, is rain. Falling, falling, falling.

I am aware that reign is also aurally rain. I am aware of a story that is greater than our stories, that surrounds us, and weaves us together, just as the spider, as Charlotte in her web.

Why shouldn't G_d love atheists? If you are a true believer, then you do know, G_d, created atheists. Maybe we all need them to keep questioning, to question barbarity, the presence of terrible cruelty in this world, and to question the very notion of a G_d who reigns Supreme, over all Creation.

Just and Unjust has nothing to do with atheism. Just has to do with just this, what happens, in a world, that is filled with injustice. I have an American Indian friend in jail so many years, and it's clear justice has failed him, totally.

Herein lies a story we did not write. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA October 23, 2010

Great summary, Linda!!! You hit the nail on the head, so to speak. Ouch. Bad cliche, huh? In fact, seeing as this is an ORTHODOX JEWISH SITE, the author's message is quite ASTOUNDING. Reply

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