Losing (and Finding?) My Religion

It’s been a while since I set foot in a synagogue. Maybe right after the current president got elected, when I briefly turned to my religion for answers? Even on the high holy days last year I skipped services, since my father insists on going to the Chabad house near him and I can’t stand that place (I understand the draw, but it seems like Judaism for fanatics by fanatics and that’s not my style). Having recently moved to Burbank, though, and with a synagogue almost literally right around the corner, I decided to give Temple Beth Emet a try for Rosh Hashanah. A reform congregation in a fairly liberal area? More my speed.

It wasn’t like a momentous thing, my return to the fold; I grew up in a conservative congregation, so it wasn’t an entirely familiar experience (Judaism is split into three basic factions: reform, conservative, and orthodox). Still, the building definitely felt familiar — mid-twentieth century architecture and design, that musty smell of old books, the usual accoutrements of the American Jewish faith. It’s sad, because Judaism feels like a dying thing, at least here. The attendees were mostly older, with a few younger couples (and, to be fair, the children were sequestered in a different area), and the rabbi made repeated pleas to build the congregation by bringing in new folks. It’s tricky — we worship digital gods now and have no time for the old ones.

My generation is a big source of the problem — all my Jewish friends in LA basically abandoned their faith. Their choice! I’m not rebuking them. For me, though, that’s not entirely an option. As agnostic and rationalistic as I may be, I spent many hours in Hebrew school and in services and studying for my Bar Mitzvah and confirmation. It’s a deeply ingrained thing; one that I don’t often talk about or touch on, but my Judaism is a part of my identity, no matter how deep I bury it. Whether or not I believe in God, I believe in Jewish culture and community as a thing worth preserving.

It’s funny how easily the tunes for the old prayers came to my lips. Some of the arrangements were different, but the big ones were the same, and they’re as imprinted in my mind as Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” That ritualistic aspect of religion may be the most important part. Whether you consider it brainwashing or not, it brings a level of comfort to an embattled mind by allowing you to slip into familiar tones. I’m fully aware of the forces religion bring to play on my psyche: nostalgia, comfort, familiarity. It’s still nice. All the little rituals of putting on the tallis, singing the prayers, standing as they unspool the Torah — it’s reassuring.

I think a big part of the disconnect between me and the faith I was raised in comes down to exactly that: a matter of faith. My inability to give myself over fully to a belief in an omnipotent being, especially considering the world we live in (and have always lived in). Of course, the Jewish God isn’t perfect — there are many instances in the bible where Jewish prophets argue with Him or He makes a mistake or does something kinda shitty. Which is more interesting than an infallible being; even God needs to get His shit together sometimes. That said, I can’t wrap my head around such a being — and I’m definitely not going to solve in an internet essay what great philosophers and thinkers have tried to accomplish for centuries. All I can speak of is my own experience, and it’s a deeply conflicted one.

A lot of people think Hannukah is the big Jewish holiday, but really, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are: the New Year and the Day of Atonement. The week-long period in which we reflect on who we were in the prior year and who we want to be in the following year, when we remember those lost and try to find ourselves. In other words, the perfect time to reflect (especially with my impending marriage to a non-Jew) what role I want my religion to play in my life. I can’t help but think it would be nice to embrace it again. The question is if, after a lifetime of cynicism and disbelief, I can.

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