Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Ties That Divide Still Bind

In my work and in my life, I have always been quite critical and even cynical about religion.  I have argued in my work that religion, like other ethnic ties, are used by politicians to distract and divide.  Yet today as I was in the audience during a relative's religious rite of passage (Bar Mitzvah), I was struck by how much of the prayers, songs, chants and other rituals are burned into my brain.

I hated going to services growing up, and spent most of my time in the synagogue figuring out how to climb to the top (twas a Frank Lloyd Wright design as you can see to the right).  I stopped going to services after my Bar Mitzvah (which was a painful experience given how little I wanted to prepare for it) except for the high holiday services (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) when I was a teen and except for the occasional Bar Mitzvah of the next generation.  Yet I found today's service (quite long) magnetic?  That the songs and all the rest helped to generate a sense of commonality/community.  Which is, of course, the point.

I still found myself outside more than inside.  That even though I was born and raised in this community, I am an outsider as I do not believe.  People can say that it is an ethnic community and one can belong even if one does not believe, but the core of the community is a shared belonging to a religious identity.  While I remember how the songs are sung and how to say/chant the prayers, I do not do so because I am not willing to celebrate or promise my allegiance to this or any other god.

And this reminds me that any identification creates a sense of us and them.  I was very much a them today despite the appearances of us-ness--the garb, the physical similarities to those around me.  I was reminded of the title to my first book and its snazzy cover that neatly demonstrated the concept--that ties that bring (some) people together are also divisive.

I participated because family is more important to me than religious identity or differences.  But I was uncomfortable and always will be at occasions like this.... until we get to the eating and drinking part.  Oh, and the occasional dancing is ok, too.

One of my cousin's asked me to Semi-Spew today, but I am not sure this is what he was looking for.  Oh well, you get what you pay for.



Dan said...

I can assure you that you're far from the only one to feel the discomfort you describe. I used to feel it a lot more myself, but I've found that taking the time to clarify in my own mind exactly what I embrace and what I reject about my religious identity has reduced the discomfort a lot. Ambiguity is unsettling, but if you know exactly where you stand, then you can enjoy whatever attachment you feel, while declining any connection you oppose.

Rob Chasen said...

My experience is entirely congruent with yours. Once I did not have children, even going to high holiday services became largely moot, so now it's the occasional wedding or bar/bat mitzvah -- and no one notices that I have never bowed at the parts of the service where people sway and bow, or that I am extremely selective about which songs I choose to sing.

Yet I still attend Passover Seders (hell, I hosted one this year, for the first time in more than a decade, and loved doing so). I tell myself that it's the most universal holiday, celebrating freedom of a people from slavery, and as such, it's ecumenical (we even closed my Uncle's seder, when I was growing up, with MLK's I have a Dream speech). What I liked most about hosting this year (which involved just a dozen people in my NYC apartment, and my writing (and cutting-and-pasting) the Hagaddah, is that it's one of the first seders my brother's secular kids have participated in, and the first seder for several non-Jewish couples who are close friends.

But it's still a tribal celebration, steeped in literally thousands of years of ethnic and religious identify, so intellectually I'm not really in favor of it; while emotionally, it's very powerful.

Steve Saideman said...

Thanks to both of you for your thoughts on this.