What Does It Mean to be Religious?

I know a woman who smiles at strangers and models her life after the example set by Jesus Christ.

She interprets his time on Earth, and subsequent ascension to Heaven and spiritual leadership, as being of service. Helping the poor and the downtrodden, helping others, not thinking of himself but rather finding ways in every step, every glance, every day to do something to make the world a better place.

I can get on board with that kind of being religious.

Although I am not a Christian, I respect that approach to religion, devoting one’s life to emulating an impressive spiritual example.

I loved visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India this past winter. The peace-promoting Sikhs welcomed me without question.

When I was in India this past winter, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn about the Sikh religion. Since previous western notions of Sikhs were limited to men in turbans represented as terrorists, it was my delight to learn that actually, Sikhs are one of the most peace-promoting people on Earth.

Everyone is welcome at the Golden Temple, no matter your religious beliefs and observances. Take your shoes off and walk along the cool marble with everyone else.

When I go to Jerusalem, I am welcomed only at the women’s side of the Western Wall (Kotel) of the ancient Jewish Temple. Above, where the Muslim Dome of the Rock sits atop the ruins of my people’s most holy site, I am not welcome. To the left, the men’s section of the Kotel, I am not welcome.

What’s that about? I cannot fathom the rationale for excluding everyone but those believers beside you to your place of worship. How can it hurt to welcome everyone in, to share your words of wisdom, your devout observances?

Recently, I’ve had the unique opportunity to interact with people who call themselves religious but who exhibit very bad behavior. Theft. Venomous words. Hate-filled confrontations. Meanness. That’s not being religious. I don’t know any saint or prophet who behaved badly.

It’s a wonder we can live up to the visions we have of ourselves. Being religious isn’t just eating certain foods on certain days and praying the auspicious number of times your chosen religion demands. It’s not about following the rules.

It’s about what lives in your heart.

I know prayerful people who walk wooded trails and exclaim in awe at the wonders of creation. That’s religious.

I know people who welcome strangers and neighbors alike into their home for a meal, a gathering, a place to be. That’s religious.

I know people who are kind and patient, with children, with adults, with people who bear challenges each and every day. That’s religious.

I don’t care what words you recite when the prayerbook is cracked open. If your intent isn’t to bring harmony, love and peace to the world, you may as well close the book.

Today, in my religion, is a dark day on the calendar. Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, is a fast day commemorating all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia.

On this day, both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. On this day, Hitler decreed his Final Solution. On this day, so many bad things happened to us. So religious Jews sit and fast, mourning the memories as a community.

I admire that devotion. Even though it doesn’t resonate with my vision of Judaism. In my vision, my religion offers a light toward peace and community and knowledge and wisdom. We are a people who work hard and welcome strangers and offer kindness.

I don’t deny the importance for my brethren to observe this day. However, I wonder how many have in their hearts a true goal of repairing the hatred of the world and introducing a new era of love? I wonder what practical steps any of my devoted brethren are planning to implement toward bringing about peace?

I wonder what is different today from those hateful days so many decades and centuries ago, which we lament on Tisha B’Av – have we changed as a people? Has the world become more loving? Is there a hopeful light on the horizon?

If not, rather than looking back at awful tragedy, let’s look spot-on at today and come up with a plan that includes all people, toward turning the world around.

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