Last Thursday, I found myself in a suit and tie, sitting at the back of a Synagogue, observing the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Slipping my silenced cell phone into my jacket’s breast pocket, I was struck by the question that strikes the undevout when attending religious services: “Why am I here?”
We — the infrequent observers — have many reasons. Many of us go for people; spouses because of spouses, children because of parents, parents because of children. We show up to appease, to remember or to stave off guilt.
In grade school, I observed Rosh Hashanah out of pragmatism. My father let me skip school in exchange for attending High Holiday services with him. School started at 8:45 a.m. and lasted six-and-a-half hours. Services at Temple Micah started at 11 a.m. and lasted only two hours. I spent the time playing Game Boy. It was a good deal.
Today, the decision to go or to skip is not so simple. We no longer live with our parents, and taking a day off from work has greater consequences than taking a day off from 7th grade. No one can make us go. And who would care, or even know, if we skip?
But we do go. We’re tipsy when we remember we’ve got midnight mass. We break the fasts we never planned to endure. We roll our eyes at sermons, but we’re listening. Maybe we’re late, but we’re there.
My rabbi’s sermon was about the Binding of Isaac, the story in which God tests the faith of his prophet Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac as an offering. Abraham equivocates but submits, taking Isaac to a mountaintop and then binding him to an altar.
Few passages better symbolize what makes the ambivalent uncomfortable about religious devotion. People today are no less willing than Abraham was to kill in the name of an incomprehensible entity. Though God ultimately rewards Abraham’s faith and spares Isaac’s life, he hasn’t made many interventions for history’s crusaders, suicide-bombers and Kool-Aid drinkers. They continue “faithfully” committing atrocities, waiting for a deliverance that never comes.
And God’s love isn’t as unconditional as the proverbs make it out to be. Tests of faith aren’t just for His prophets. We, too, must hold the right beliefs and pray the right prayers, love the right love and obey the right way. But when there are so many ways to believe and love, and so many laws to obey, there are just as many ways to be found wanting. After years of hearing what we’re doing is wrong or not enough, it’s not surprising when we lose faith.
But the dismay and confusion we feel toward religion should not eclipse the fact that religion is also a force for good. Sh’ma Yisrael is the most important prayer in Judaism. Sung at every service, every holiday and every Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah, it has always been the prayer fondest and most familiar to me, though I never committed its meaning to memory. I always just thought of it as a pretty Jewish prayer — the one that everyone at temple knows and sings together. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. “Hear O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one.” As I sing, I don’t feel the one-ness of God, but I always hear the hundreds of voices ringing up toward the ceiling in unison.
Tonight marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — the holiest day of the Jewish year. And I am going to synagogue.
My religious faith is not indivisible. In fact the utter divisibility of my semi-Semitism allows me to celebrate religion the way I do: looking past what confuses me to cherish the good that I find. It’s faith in the beauty of Sh’ma Yisrael, with skepticism of what it means. It’s faith in the humility of atoning for a year’s worth of transgressions and the confidence to forgive myself without help from above. It’s faith that the teenage boys I see skipping school to sit next to their fathers will someday feel that they are a part of something greater than themselves — the way I feel today.
This faith is special without being exceptional. We may feel it in our churches and synagogues, our mosques and temples, but it’s more than just a religious faith. We feel it watching football games and dancing at music festivals, in the midst of political rallies and serving with our battalions. It’s ineffable but not incomprehensible.
I have faith in this kind of transcendence — faith that a community or a convergence, for an hour or an afternoon, can decide for themselves that they are in the right place for the right reasons. That is why I am here.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.