One Foot in Each World

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Religion might be the touchiest subject in the world, or at least a mighty candidate. Those who feel strongly about it (one way or another) have trouble considering others’ beliefs; those who don’t feel strongly about it see little need to discuss it. Religious convictions (including atheism) often come bundled with attitudes of superiority; those with religious faith see atheists as spiritually impoverished, whereas atheists often see the religious as deluded or worse. Even within a given religion, there are demarcations and judgments; some look down on their less observant fellow worshipers, while others pride themselves on not being one of those “crazy” types. Add to this the centuries of conflicts between and within religions, and you have a sensitive subject indeed. But perhaps there are ways to think and talk about it, even with disagreements.

First of all, what is religion? It begins with the apprehension of something beyond our concrete knowledge but somehow involved in our lives. We start to see this as a god; a text that reveals this god takes on a sacred status. Practices arise out of this perception; if there is a god, and if this god is good, then one should make as much room for the god as possible, driving away the god’s enemies, whatever they may be. Religious rituals, services, and prayers, as well as dietary and other practices, can be seen as ways of letting God in.

For many an atheist, this is nonsense or worse; religious practices distract from a truly moral way of life–where one strives to make the world a better place for its own sake–or a life of self-fulfillment, where one seeks one’s own advantage. There’s no god watching over us, no afterlife awaiting us, just ourselves and our choices, be they selfish, generous, or both.

These views seem diametrically opposed, but maybe they aren’t. It’s possible to hold both of them at once. I have no way of knowing whether there is a god or not. I consider it entirely possible that there is none, and no afterlife either. Yet religious texts and liturgies–Jewish texts and liturgy in particular–have a meaning for me that cannot be explained away or reduced. Judaism emphasizes the communal and the social, but for me it is primarily internal. I loved those hours of learning a Torah portion late into the evening, pondering the meanings, looking up the etymology of word after word, figuring out the logic behind a particular trope pattern–or else sinking into the liturgy, listening, singing, chanting. This is similar to my relation to literature and music but not exactly the same. I say “loved” because I learn the Torah portions much faster now and have been focused on leading services, which requires more than one kind of preparation. Leading services is a great joy, but it shifts the attention to the external. You not only learn the texts and prepare your voice, but also make adjustments for the many possible occurrences: special guests, a large crowd, a complete lack of crowd, a changed location, etc. I imagine that rabbis and cantors (as well as priests and leaders of other religions) must work hard to protect their internal lives. Religion is a kind of internal life that cannot be replaced with anything else.

A future rabbi (now a rabbi in actuality) told me about five years ago that I had one foot in the secular world and the other in the religious world, and that this was not a bad thing. This remains true. I reject a sheltered existence for myself; I want to be in the world, and that means being among people who differ from me, as well as those with whom I share interests, background, priorities, experiences. I need the retreat as well, not the retreat of escape, but that of sinking into texts, thoughts, melodies, both secular and religious. I know that these two (or three or four) worlds meet, the secular and the religious, the external and internal, because I live them. Yet how difficult it is to explain the intersection (or overlap, or intertwining, symphony, or stew)! I suspect that when human life reaches an end, when the whole story wraps up, if it ever does, each of us will turn out to have been at least slightly wrong. Maybe that’s the upshot of the “double life”: each one reminds the other that there is more to learn and more people and things to learn from.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál last night; this was one of many entries in a “light painting” (fényfestés) competition. Here the art is projected onto the Reformed Church.