It’s time to reclaim religion
This is a transcript of a speech delivered at TEDWomen 2016.
I was a new mother and a young rabbi in the spring of 2004 and the world was in shambles. Maybe you remember. Every day, we heard devastating reports from the war in Iraq. There were waves of terror rolling across the globe. It seemed like humanity was spinning out of control.
I remember the night that I read about the series of coordinated bombings in the subway system in Madrid, and I got up and I walked over to the crib where my 6-month-old baby girl lay sleeping sweetly, and I heard the rhythm of her breath, and I felt this sense of urgency coursing through my body. We were living through a time of tectonic shifts in ideologies, in politics, in religion, in populations. Everything felt so precarious. And I remember thinking, My God, what kind of world did we bring this child into? And what was I as a mother and a religious leader willing to do about it?
Of course, I knew it was clear that religion would be a principal battlefield in this rapidly changing landscape, and it was already clear that religion was a significant part of the problem. The question for me was, could religion also be part of the solution? Now, throughout history, people have committed horrible crimes and atrocities in the name of religion. And as we entered the 21st century, it was very clear that religious extremism was once again on the rise. Our studies now show that over the course of the past 15-20 years, hostilities and religion-related violence have been on the increase all over the world.
But we don’t even need the studies to prove it, because I ask you, how many of us are surprised today when we hear the stories of a bombing or a shooting, when we later find out that the last word that was uttered before the trigger is pulled or the bomb is detonated is the name of God? It barely raises an eyebrow today when we learn that yet another person has decided to show his love of God by taking the lives of God’s children. In America, religious extremism looks like a white, anti-abortion Christian extremist walking into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and murdering three people. It also looks like a couple inspired by the Islamic State walking into an office party in San Bernardino and killing 14. And even when religion-related extremism does not lead to violence, it is still used as a political wedge issue, cynically leading people to justify the subordination of women, the stigmatization of LGBT people, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This ought to concern deeply those of us who care about the future of religion and the future of faith. We need to call this what it is: a great failure of religion.
But the thing is, this isn’t even the only challenge that religion faces today. At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call religious routine-ism. This is when our institutions and our leaders are stuck in a paradigm that is rote and perfunctory, devoid of life, devoid of vision and devoid of soul.
Let me explain what I mean. One of the great blessings of being a rabbi is standing under the chuppah, under the wedding canopy, with a couple, and helping them proclaim publicly and make holy the love that they found for one another. I want to ask you now, though, to think maybe from your own experience or maybe just imagine it, about the difference between the intensity of the experience under the wedding canopy and maybe the experience of the sixth or seventh anniversary.
And if you’re lucky enough to make it 16 or 17 years, if you’re like most people, you probably wake up in the morning realizing that you forgot to make a reservation at your favorite restaurant and you forgot so much as a card, and then you just hope and pray that your partner also forgot.
Well, religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.
Religion is waning in the United States.
Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself. And what they need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.
Of course, there is a bright spot to this story. Given the crisis of these two concurrent trends in religious life, about 12 or 13 years ago I set out to try to determine if there was any way that I could reclaim the heart of my own Jewish tradition, to help make it meaningful and purposeful again in a world on fire. I started to wonder: What if we could harness some of the great minds of our generation and think in a bold and robust and imaginative way again about what the next iteration of religious life would look like? Now, we had no money, no space, no game plan, but we did have email. So my friend Melissa and I sat down and we wrote an email, which we sent out to a few friends and colleagues. It basically said this: “Before you bail on religion, why don’t we come together this Friday night and see what we might make of our own Jewish inheritance?”
We hoped maybe 20 people would show up. It turned out 135 people came. They were cynics and seekers, atheists and rabbis. Many people said that night that it was the first time that they had a meaningful religious experience in their entire lives. And so I set out to do the only rational thing that someone would do in such a circumstance: I quit my job and tried to build this audacious dream, a reinvented, rethought religious life which we called IKAR, which means “the essence” or “the heart of the matter.”
Now, IKAR is not alone out there in the religious landscape today. There are Jewish and Christian and Muslim and Catholic religious leaders — many of them women, by the way — who have set out to reclaim the heart of our traditions, who firmly believe that now is the time for religion to be part of the solution. We are going back into our sacred traditions and recognizing that all of our traditions contain the raw material to justify violence and extremism, and also contain the raw material to justify compassion, coexistence and kindness — that when others choose to read our texts as directives for hate and vengeance, we can choose to read those same texts as directives for love and for forgiveness.
I have found now in communities as varied as Jewish indie startups on the coasts to a women’s mosque, to Black churches in New York and in North Carolina, to a holy bus loaded with nuns that traverses this country with a message of justice and peace, that there is a shared religious ethos that is now emerging in the form of revitalized religion in this country. And while the theologies and the practices vary very much between these independent communities, what we can see are some common, consistent threads between them.
I’m going to share with you four of those commitments now.
The first is wakefulness. We live in a time today in which we have unprecedented access to information about every global tragedy that happens on every corner of this Earth. Within 12 hours, 20 million people saw that image of Aylan Kurdi’s little body washed up on the Turkish shore. We all saw this picture. We saw this picture of a 5-year-old child pulled out of the rubble of his building in Aleppo. And once we see these images, we are called to a certain kind of action.
My tradition tells a story of a traveler who is walking down a road when he sees a beautiful house on fire, and he says, “How can it be that something so beautiful would burn, and nobody seems to even care?” So too we learn that our world is on fire, and it is our job to keep our hearts and our eyes open, and to recognize that it’s our responsibility to help put out the flames.
This is extremely difficult to do. Psychologists tell us that the more we learn about what’s broken in our world, the less likely we are to do anything. It’s called psychic numbing. We just shut down at a certain point. Well, somewhere along the way, our religious leaders forgot that it’s our job to make people uncomfortable. It’s our job to wake people up, to pull them out of their apathy and into the anguish, and to insist that we do what we don’t want to do and see what we do not want to see. Because, we know that social change only happens when we are awake enough to see that the house is on fire.
The second principle is hope, and I want to say this about hope. Hope is not naive, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is, it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside and says you can dream and think expansively again, that they cannot control in you.
I saw hope made manifest in an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago this summer, where I brought my little girl, who is now 13 and a few inches taller than me, to hear my friend Rev. Otis Moss preach. That summer, there had already been 3,000 people shot between January and July in Chicago. We went into that church and heard Rev. Moss preach, and after he did, this choir of gorgeous women, 100 women strong, stood up and began to sing: “I need you. You need me. I love you. I need you to survive.” And I realized in that moment that this is what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about giving people back a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a sense that they and their dreams fundamentally matter in this world that tells them that they don’t matter at all.
The third principle is the principle of mightiness. There’s a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” It’s not all about me. I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” Which is to say, it’s true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. We even now have a religious ritual, a posture, that holds the paradox between powerlessness and power. In the Jewish community, the only time of year that we prostrate fully to the ground is during the High Holy Days. It’s a sign of total submission. Now, in our community, when we get up off the ground, we stand with our hands raised to the heavens, and we say, “I am strong, I am mighty and I am worthy. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”
In a world that conspires to make us believe that we are invisible and that we are impotent, religious communities and religious ritual can remind us that for whatever amount of time we have here on this earth, whatever gifts and blessings we were given, whatever resources we have, we can and we must use them to try to make the world a little bit more just and a little bit more loving.
The fourth and final is interconnectedness. A few years ago, there was a man walking on the beach in Alaska, when he came across a soccer ball that had some Japanese letters written on it. He took a picture of it and posted it up on social media, and a Japanese teenager contacted him. He had lost everything in the tsunami that devastated his country, but he was able to retrieve that soccer ball after it had floated all the way across the Pacific. How small our world has become. It’s so hard for us to remember how interconnected we all are as human beings. And yet, we know that it is systems of oppression that benefit the most from the lie of radical individualism.
Let me tell you how this works. I’m not supposed to care when Black youth are harassed by police, because my white-looking Jewish kids probably won’t ever get pulled over for the crime of driving while Black. Well, not so, because this is also my problem. And guess what? Transphobia and Islamophobia and racism of all forms — those are also all of our problems. And so too is anti-Semitism all of our problems. Because Emma Lazarus was right.
Emma Lazarus was right when she said until all of us are free, we are none of us free. We are all in this together. And now somewhere at the intersection of these four trends — of wakefulness and hope and mightiness and interconnectedness — there is a burgeoning, multifaith justice movement in this country that is staking a claim on a countertrend, saying that religion can and must be a force for good in the world.
Our hearts hurt from the failed religion of extremism, and we deserve more than the failed religion of routine-ism. It is time for religious leaders and religious communities to take the lead in the spiritual and cultural shift that this country and the world so desperately need — a shift toward love, toward justice, toward equality and toward dignity for all. I believe that our children deserve no less than that.
SHARON BROUS is founder and senior rabbi at IKAR Los Angeles