Creating Your Own Custom Religion

I have a lot of questions.

As most of you know I teach the Introduction to Judaism course sponsored by the UAHC and housed at Temple Adat Shalom. I've taught this course every year but one (oddly the year one of Noam's best friend's mother wanted to take the course) for over 25 years. One summer, while we were still in New Jersey, the Union tried an experiment and offered the course in the summer when it met twice a week instead of the usual once a week.

We met, as we do in Poway, in the classroom or library of a congregation in Edison, New Jersey. I share this with you now because during the class, a young man, who had been raised a Jew, made one of the most amazing statements about Judaism I can recall. It has stayed with me ever since We had been discussing the origins of Christianity (which I usually do sometime late in December, but this time it was in the humid heat of summer) and our conversation had moved on to whether Jews should have Christmas trees. The young man said: "I like Reform Judaism because I can do anything I want."


I understand that I may have lost a congregant to Etz Chaim for making a similar comment ("Sorry") here my first year. Well, such is life.

What do you think, you can just make Judaism anything you want it to be?

I don't deny that Judaism has changed greatly over the millennia, I am an active participant in that transformation. And, even though Hillel when asked two thousand years ago about how to find out what the appropriate response to a question of practice, answered: Go check what the people are doing. Nonetheless, there is a process.

In this mornings issue of Ha'Aretz, the leading Israeli newspaper two other articles appeared that relate to this development. Yosef Dan, a professor of Jewish Studies at Hebrew University and the winner of the Israel Prize notes the term "post-Jewess" in the description of one of the characters in a recent book by John Updike (which I haven't read). Dan remarks that you can be "post-modern" and "post-Zionist" you cannot be "post-Italian" or even "post-Catholic" (they are usually either non-practicing or "lapsed") and wonders what Post-Judaism means. He's checked with some of his sources in New York and found that no one there is (yet) using the term. Dan wonders from this what it means to be a Jew in America and Israel today. Are we developing some new form of identity?

In my Intro Class, I do mention (at the opening session) that in America today you can change your identity, almost as easily as wearing different colored shades. I remember in the late 60s and early 70s many of my (Jewish) friends became Bosnian. they got the fine leather slipper-sandals and went folk dancing every night. I've had people take my class and be very enthusiastic about becomeing jews, attending every event at the synagog for the year and then some around the time they take the class, only to disappear a year later. What happened? Did these people become post-jewish? Did they move through their Jewish period much like Picasso moved through his blue period?

The other article in this morning's Ha'Aretz is by Israeli anthropologist Shlomo Deshen. He studied his secular students and learned that they have begun to transform Yom Kippur, so that a new understanding of what it means to be a "Jewish Israeli". Deshen breaks down the responses of his students into five categories: Religious Pattern : a few made a point of stopping by the synagog for a short visit and more even fasted for most, if not all of the day. Family Pattern : more of his students made a point of using the time to be with family. Seclusion : When I saw this category I thought his students had redefined the day in serious terms, but no. Though sixteen said they spent the time in some form or seclusion, many saw the day as "the great bore" or "most oppressive day of the year" and needed "to kill time." While a few said that they fasted only one used the time to review her life and her future. Among the half of his students who used Yom Kippur for a Get-together a significant number used if for bicycle riding. Deshen suggested that this has a humanistic-ecological aspect and gives new significance to the custom of not using motor vehicles on Yom Kippur. Deshen indicated that there was no evidence of absolute Nonobservance .

In its July-August issue the Utne reader had a number of articles about "designer God" the current proclivity for taking a bit of this religion and mixing it with some of that and making the religion you want. The subject is still an active one on the Utne Readers Web Salon.

George Barna in his Index Of Leading Spiritual Indicators writes that American is becoming a "spiritually diverse society" with at least one result: "[a] new perception of religion: a personalized, customized form of faith views which meet personal needs, minimize rules and absolutes, and bear little resemblance to the 'pure' form of any of the world's major religions."

A new collection of descriptors are used for this phenomenon, among them "pastiche spirituality" and "religion a la carte". I remember in rabbinic school, one of our professors sadly described the modern [Reform] rabbi as the "pump-boy at an old style service station" or alternatively as the "maitre d' in a Five Star kosher style restaurant." Interestingly enough this idea is spreading beyond Judaism. A Christian theologian working in the field of sociology of religion is writing a book about the fluidity of belief to be called "The Divine Deli."

Many people suggest that this entire phenomenon is the due to what we now call "New Age Spirituality." Houston Smith (scholar of comparative religion) said in an interview in Mother Jones last year (97/12): "What you describe as New Age, and what I call the cafeteria approach to spirituality, is not the way organisms are put together, nor great works of art. And a vital faith is more like an organism or a work of art than it is like a cafeteria tray."

Along with the lead article, the Utne Reader asked ten "spiritual guides" what they thought of the idea "Should you start your own religion". At least 2 of the 10 are Jews (we can't be sure because of their names). Sylvia Boorstein who has written about Judaism and Buddhism (You may have heard the term: "BuJew") suggests having a community to work with and Rabbi Rami Shapiro goes home to Jewish sources to quote from Lech Lecha and tell people to leave home to find whatever they need.

What does this mean for us at Etz Chaim?

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©Mark Hurvitz