[Meant to be read as a counterpoint to my last post]
It’s almost as if the schedulers of the Pardes calendar this year had me in mind when they planned the first Shabbaton (communal weekend spent together as a community) the weekend after the tenth anniversary of 9/11. As while the anniversary garnered lots of thought on my part of the destructive nature of religion, the Pardes Shabbaton garnered just the opposite. All weekend I was struck by the undeniable beauty that can exist within a religious community and was left to struggle with what that meant for me and the extremely persuasive arguments I find in favour of turning away from religion, if not denouncing it as well.
The first question that must be asked is: Is the beauty that I perceived, and that I have no doubt is there to be perceived in any faith tradition, due to something inherent in the tradition itself, or is it something that can exist quite separate from religion, but just happens to manifest itself in a religious context? In other words, I would boil down a lot of my feelings of connectedness, happiness, and optimism to feeling like I was in the embrace of a bottomlessly loving community of people who, despite differences on almost all issues, can come together to build community and express themselves through learning and prayer. So is it just easier to build such a community through religious ties, or is there something about religion in some hard-to-define sense that imbues it with the ability to bring community together in a way that no other organization of humans can achieve?
After the theoretical question, the issue gets more personal. Because regardless of whether I conclude (on any given day) that the sense of community I felt was due to religion or not, I felt an unbelievable sense of loving community. And given my problems with Judaism — basically due to a lack of belief in the metaphysical/theological underpinnings of the religion — the question becomes: What level of involvement ought I undertake to this religion, which is both potentially beautiful and potentially dangerous in the extreme (as, I would posit, all religions are)? This train of thought brings me back to reflections I had (though I can’t seem to find the post I’m thinking of) about religion as a purely human, and therefore fallible, endeavour that should not be judged on the cosmic proportions that it so often is (somewhat rightly so, since religion tends to invoke an omniscient, omnipresent deity).
The question of involvement, though, really revolves around prayer, since it is there that I felt the beauty most poignantly. How is it that prayer, directed at a being that I do not believe exists, and including all sorts of language that I would find abhorrent if spoken in a non-ritual context, can make me feel closer to people than almost any other activity? The beginnings of an answer would have to include the fact that the ritual of prayer is one that I was exposed to — with exclusively positive associations — throughout my childhood and thus, in a sense, is less prayer than a series of songs and texts to be read silently that I am intimately familiar with. And having those texts read/sang/chanted aloud in a communal setting, with people who I already respect tremendously, is simply uplifting in the way that sitting around the campfire singing songs that all involved know and love would be. Or is there more? Does the fact that most people involved in prayer, even if I do not count myself among them, consider what they are saying to have metaphysical significance instill a greater sense of meaning into the ritual that ‘rubs off’ on me? Or is the reaction of beauty that I experienced simply my emotional self rebelling against the ‘cold, calculating logic’ of my rational self?
I really don’t have answers (if there even are answers), though I have pointed towards a few of my intuitions on the matter so far. What I can say is that I couldn’t think of a better place to have stationed myself for the next nine months so that I can continue to struggle with this most central of issues and come to a greater understanding.