My father was raised in a religious Jewish home, an orthodox Jewish home. His mother, I always heard, was very religious. She was, as far as I can tell, not from the merciful school of Hillel, where love of God and kindness toward others is taught with patience, kindness and a touch of humor. My father’s religious upbringing was harsh. It seems remarkable to me that he absorbed and transmitted as many of the deeper moral lessons of Judaism as he did, considering how they were taught to him.
As a result of the heartfelt moral teachings of my father, I am compassionate toward the religious impulse. It is right to be kind to the helpless, to be gentle, to treat animals well. It is right to identify with the vulnerability of the dispossessed, the orphan, the homeless. It is an excellent thing, probably the best single thing a person can do, to refrain from doing to others what you hate having done to you. My sister and I were raised to feel solidarity with the oppressed, a certain awe about the mysteries of history and the universe, and compassion for animals and underdogs.
As a result of my father’s distilled religious lessons, and the way they were often disjoined from the way he actually lived, I have little patience for the rituals of religion. I’ve never shouted out “this is bullshit, you goddamned hypocrites!” during a religious service, but it’s very hard for me to sit through one, to rise, and please be seated, and please rise. Obedience to God, as interpreted and demanded by men, is as repellent to me as obedience to any tyrant.
“Whoa! Whoa!” said the skeleton of my father, holding up a bony hand. “Wait a second, there. You’re writing a frame to set up a series of stories about my practice of religion and my feelings about it. The reader doesn’t care about your opinion of religious services. They want my religious life, mine, the protagonist.
“You’re going to take the half dozen or more anecdotes you’ve written about my religious life and combine them into one chapter, combing out the repetition and giving as full an account as you can of my religious life. You’re going to call it ‘My Father’s Religion’. Nobody gives a shit about your editorial feelings as you begin. Strike that whole paragraph about obedience to religious tyrants.”
Don’t be a religious tyrant, dad. That kind of categorical certainty is part of what is so hateful about religious strictness. God’s supposed insistence on you doing whatever incomprehensible thing God is urging on you becomes an unquestionable religious duty. You take your religious leader’s word for it. Or, if you’re really inspired, God’s word.
Take your first born son to a hilltop, tie him to a pyre, bind him so you can cut his throat, set him on fire and offer him as a burnt offering to the All-Merciful. The boy will go along, docile as a lamb, because he’s righteous, and does as God will command be carved in stone, Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, and you’ve taught him blind obedience to the will of God, and to his father.
For your willingness to slit your first-born son’s throat and burn his body, you’ll become Judaism’s first righteous patriarch, oddly enough. Your unflinching faith will position you for all time as the moral source of three major world religions. Then for thousands of years y’all can kill each other over who most humbly and truly worships the All-Merciful King of the Universe.
“Well, that’s your jaundiced view of religion,” said the skeleton.
Like I said, I make the distinction between the religious impulse, the spiritual longing to connect to something higher and more wise than yourself, a worldview to help you behave justly, and religious ritual and dogma, propagated by blood-thirsty religious leaders with swords in their hands. I think you made the same distinction yourself, increasingly so over the years.
“Yeah,” said the skeleton with a sigh, “I did make the same distinction. And increasingly so as I went along. Those Born-Again morons in the prayer circle around me on my deathbed, I tried not to judge them too harshly. I was too weak to judge them, in any event, but you know what I was thinking. Sad idiots doing the best they could, somehow. Going to mega-church and voting for Dubya Dumbass Bush, righteously hating with God on their side, trying to convert dying Jews before forsaking the lonely widows of those souls they believe they’ve saved.
“I’m not pretending I was a religious person, I just think you have to tell the story of my religious life better. That’s all I was trying to say.”
I read you, Rebbe. I’m working on it.