Last month I published a post from a colleague in Israel about how a modern woman can maintain a religious lifestyle. Ayellet Vider-Cohen is a psychologist and practicing feminist Orthodox Jew. This week I asked her to address the following questions:
1. Why do you think so many people, who in their adult lives are intelligent professors or heads of companies or dynamic individuals in some creative field, seem to get so concrete and simplistic when dealing with religion, either for or against?
2. Let’s say I’m a secular Israeli living in north Tel Aviv or a secular American from Seattle, living the good life – plays, concerts and all that modern culture has to offer. I ask you: why should I give up all these pleasures for some set of rules, like keeping the Sabbath or some commandments from some book no one is sure who wrote?
3. Let’s say I’m a deeply observant Christian from the Bible Belt of the U.S. or from Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and I ask you: how can you, a religious woman brought up in a religious home, consort with these secular people who have no spiritual values and no deep commitments? Aren’t you afraid of getting lost along the way?
4. Why do you think there is so much mistrust between the two communities, whether in Israel or in the U.S.? What does each side need to open up to in order to make a genuine connection with the other?
To which she replied:
Your questions are challenging and make me wonder about the connection between religion, violence, conflict and war. Religion has always been associated with violence because religion has a totalitarian aspect to it.
Religious identification is totalitarian and when one totalitarian stance conflicts with another totalitarian stance it creates very strong reactions. This is true whether you’re talking about pro-religious or anti-religious stances.
Religion directs a person toward an internal stance of devotion and sacrifice to an idea of a spiritual entity which transcends human existence. That is, it is greater than human existence and thus we project on to the divine entity a lot of desires, longings, fears, and hopes, such that it has tremendous power in our internal world. When our faith is disrespected, something very deep within us rebels; when our sacred space is desecrated we experience a deep injury.
Religion is an anchor in an ever changing world, with political upheavals, economic and family crises, and technological advances that change the face of society. All this causes us to feel insecure and uncertain. Against this changing reality are ancient texts, old traditions that have been kept for thousands of years and give us a feeling of stability. Religion is a stable anchor in a shaky world. Threatening this stable anchor can cause extreme reactions that stem from deep fear and anxiety.
In my conception of religion there is room for doubt – where there’s no doubt there’s no faith, just certainty. I think that when people try to create religious certainty they become zealots and over react to anyone who’s different from them. I think the deeper my faith the more tolerant I can be, toward other religions, beliefs and secular positions. I believe in a tolerant religion, a religion that allows for internal freedom, that expands my inner world rather than restricts it.
When someone threatens my religious freedom and tries to impose upon me a zealous, fanatical religion I feel the religion has gotten lost – that there’s no religion and no religious values or religious faith. There’s only oppression and control – the exact opposite of religion as I understand it.
The only think I have to add Ayellet’s points is that I believe we all have religious impulses – it’s only that they don’t always find a home in a mainstream religion. For many people politics or the environment or some other worthwhile cause can be imbued with ultimate meaning, and the dynamics that Ayellet is so beautifully describing above apply exactly to those positions as well, and for the same reasons. It is a challenge to hold our sacred truths – whether they be explicitly religious or not – along with a healthy dose of humility and doubt. It requires us to recognize that whatever we hold most dear and true is an approximation that is as limited as we are.