Organized Religion, Part I

February 8th: Terumah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though many may consider this section of the Torah to be among the most pointless, it has the potential to be among the most relevant? Why would some thirteen chapters on the assembling of the Mishkan—the ancient “tent temple” which traveled with our ancestors during their wanderings in the desert—be relevant? Because this is the first organizational meeting in Jewish history, and we have the original synagogue building fund! “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so inclined. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointed oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.1-8)

 In the practical work that allows synagogues to exist, funds must be raised; leadership must be elected; worship services and programs must be arranged. There are lots of details which must be determined, and the product of the membership and traditions and decisions are what we could call organized religion. It is organized because communal endeavors require organization. What then are we to make of the comment, “I do not like organized religion”?

 Is the complaint that one wants spontaneous religiosity rather than something that has been planned? This is actually an ancient concern, expressed in the Mishnah by Rabbi Shimon: “When you pray, let not your prayer become routine, but let it be a sincere supplication for God’s mercy.”  (Avot 2.18) As a result, there is a dynamic tension in Judaism between keva, the fixed forms of prayer, and kavannah, the spontaneity that is necessary for a true connection to God. All forms of Judaism work on keeping both approaches, but the Reform Movement encourages it even more—hence our many “creative prayer books” that incorporate traditional forms and more modern expressions. 

 Or, is the complaint that all the organizational work—fundraising, committee decision making, the adjudication of different and competing visions of congregational life—is distracting from spirituality? There are certainly different skills and activities involved, but a mature person realizes that a certain amount of work is always necessary in enjoyable or meaningful activities. Just as a good meal requires preparation and cleanup, so does the spirituality in religion require planning and infrastructure.

 Or, is the complaint about the inadequacies of many of the people involved in religion? Whether it is outright criminality or rude or disrespected behavior in the holy precincts, religion is often maligned by its own practitioners: “religious people” behaving irreligiously. This can certainly be disappointing and off-putting, but it is the exception which proves the rule. Though religion can bring out negative personality traits in people, its aspiration is to bring out the best. When we are beset in congregational life with conflict or bad behavior, it is an opportunity to respond with respect, patience, and the love that God has for us. Remember Hillel’s advice from Avot (2.6): “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human!”

 Unfortunately, examples of “religious people behaving irreligiously” abound. Among the most notable is the ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Somehow, the Church has been unable for decades to deal properly with the child abuse practiced by a number of priests, and it is a stain on their pride and the holiness. Indeed, many Catholics have had their faith shaken to the core. It so happens that a friend and colleague of mine, Kathleen Cotter Cauley, a devoted Catholic and a mental health therapist, is one of the people working on the Church’s response and at a fairly high level. She knows the sinfulness and the irresponsibility that has plagued the Church in this regard—as well as the grave damage caused to many, many members of the Church, and nonetheless she is hopeful. She is hopeful because she believes in the pure message of the Catholic Church and in the need for this message in members’ lives. And, she is hopeful because she sees her beloved Church, a large and slow-moving religious institution, finally responding in appropriate and holy ways to a religious tragedy.

 The word religion too often gets a bad reputation because individuals bring their imperfections to religious institutions. The religions preach goodness, but the goodness is tenuous and can be obscured or diverted by people who mistake their own egos for the will of God. Every time it happens, it is a shame, and, all too often, it is worse. But, the imperfection of these individuals does not take away from the message of goodness and godliness. It just means that the religious message is not being communicated successfully.

 This was certainly the view of Rev. Franklin Littell, a United Methodist minister who spoke of the Holocaust as a Shadow on the Cross. Since every person who carried out the crimes of the Holocaust was a baptized Christian, he sees the Holocaust as a failure of Christianity in Europe, and he dedicated his career to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. With his ministry of the Anne Frank Institute in New York, his mission was to bring Christianity back to its pure and godly message—and to purge it of the hate that shamed Jesus and every other true Christian.

My point is using these extreme examples is that the very real problems in religion are not inevitable. They are rather failures of religion. It is not the organization of religiosity that is the problem; rather, it is the imperfection of people who misuse the spiritual energy religion makes available. While some may reject religion outright, my position is that we are called to use religious teachings and energy correctly—with kindness, compassion, righteousness, and understanding, with the Divine love that God bids us to share.


Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of the organizational pitfalls and possibilities of religion.