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The Spirit Leads to Religion

Rabbi Shapiro Sermon Erev Rosh Hashanah 5768

Sermon, Erev Rosh Hashanah 2007
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

September 13, 2001 - Two days after the World Trade Center. Who said these words: QUOTE “I believe that…pagans and…abortionists and …gays and…lesbians, who are…trying to make…an alternative lifestyle…all of them who try to secularize America…I point the finger in their face and say, You helped this happen.” UNQUOTE

Two days after 9/11 who could have so quickly divided the world into good guys and bad guys and known for sure that he was on the good side?

I’ve got a name for such a person. Several weeks ago CNN ran a mini-series called – God’s Warriors. And by that term, CNN meant someone who was imbued with so much religion that he or she was ready to “wage war for God.”

On September 13, 2001, the “warrior for God” who had 9/11 all figured out was Jerry Falwell. On September 11, other “warriors for God” who also knew God’s will were men like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Mohamed Atta.

And during these last six years it’s not been one episode of religious war but countless incidents of zealotry that have unfolded before our eyes. That’s got to be why the best seller lists have recently featured book titles that react so strongly against religion. Consider these books: FIRST - The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; SECOND - God is not Great: Religion as a Malignant Force in the World; THIRD - the book some of us read and discussed here at Sinai last spring The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins teaches at Oxford University and delights in presenting the intolerance of religion. He tells, for example, the story of a teacher in Pakistan who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2001. His crime? He told his students that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was not a Moslem before he invented Islam at the age of forty.

And who can forget the controversy that erupted two years ago when a Danish newspaper published several cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed critically. In addition to protests from Danish Moslems, the cartoons led to riots around the Moslem word. The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire. One leader of Hamas issued death threats against those who printed the cartoons. In the end, more than 100 people died.

It makes you wonder if religion isn’t more trouble than its worth. Especially on Rosh Hashanah, the very religious start of our very theological holiday season, you’ve got to admit that faith can be frightening. Absolute faith can be absolutely frightening.

Which is why the introduction to Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, is so fascinating. True, Dawkins is relentless throughout his book when he critiques the religion as he defines it, but before his critique begins, Dawkins quotes passages from no less than Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. And Dawkins is favorably impressed by the sentiments of these scientists.

First, let’s listen to Albert Einstein. Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but he did say, QUOTE “What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” UNQUOTE

Then comes the text from Charles Darwin. It’s the final paragraph of his book, The Origin of Species, in which he introduced his theory of evolution. At the end of that groundbreaking work, Darwin wrote,

“It is interesting to contemplate [the] tangled bank [of a river] clothed with…plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with…insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so complex…have all been produced by laws…around us…There is grandeur in this view of life…that…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been…evolved.”
Dawkins is writing a book about atheism and the troubles religion creates, but before he gets to his main arguments, how surprising that he gives us Einstein, Darwin, and their approach toward the world. He likes what they say because it partakes of an attitude he has toward the world. It’s an attitude of awe, humility, wonder, and delight. He says it’s not a matter of religion because, for him, religion only means a system of dogma, practices, and beliefs.

But here’s what happened in the conversation about Dawkins which we had last spring. Here at Sinai everyone was taken with the spirit of Einstein and Darwin. In fact, most of us didn’t have much difficulty imagining how we might write something about the grandeur of our own world. Just about all of us had felt something marvelous at Tanglewood or the Cape or a New Hampshire lake.

What Darwin was evoking and what Dawkins was describing were what we called moments of spirituality or moments of transcendence. As several people in our discussion group said, “There are times (sort of sunset, big nature times) when I do feel very spiritual. I may not be religious, but I think I can say I am spiritual.”

Hear it again: what several Sinai congregants said last spring. “I may not be religious, but I think I can say I am spiritual.”

That’s where I want to ask you tonight for your feelings. If you’re not a warrior for God a la CNN, then where are you on Rosh Hashanah? Are you spiritual, but not religious? And, if so, what does that mean as you sit here in a synagogue holding a prayer book? What is this feeling we call “spiritual” anyway?

This is tough. Especially in this post 9/11 world, when religion seems to be the source of terrible rifts among people, how do we define what we mean when we say we’re religious or not….we’re spiritual or not.

The best definition I’ve come across for these words “religious” and “spiritual” appeared in a short piece by Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles. I want to share some of it with you now, although I should warn you in advance that Rabbi Wolpe does not admire spirituality as he defines it. He even calls his small essay – Empty Spirituality.

The essay begins with the very same words we’ve already heard. Wolpe writes, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” Then he comments, “How many times have we heard that phrase? Let’s consider what it means.

“Spiritual” says Wolpe, “is what one feels. Religious,” he continues, “is what one does. So you can announce yourself as spiritual and never join a community, never visit a home for shiva, never contribute money to a synagogue school, Jewish center, or soup kitchen.

“In other words, all too often ‘spiritual’ asks nothing of us. [It can be] the narcissism of non-involvement….Spirituality allows one to feel good about oneself. I am in touch with the great forces of the world. I am a deep soul.

“Spirituality [in this regard] is sanctimony….Spirituality tied to action is [however] a truly beautiful thing. We have a word for it – religion.”

Wolpe concludes, “Spirituality is what one feels. Religion is what one does… Spirituality alone is sanctimony…Spirituality tied to action is… religion.”

Is Wolpe right?

I think he is. I think he is on to something significant when he points out that feeling good in the Berkshires or feeling at-one with the universe on the Cape Cod beach is all well and good, but is nevertheless not a serious approach toward life.

At least, it’s not a Jewishly serious approach.

I know this to be so because Judaism does have a powerful spiritual flow within it. It’s nothing less than the Kabbalah, which refers to the mystical tradition that has been a part of Jewish life for centuries. Students of such great mystical texts as the Zohar dedicated their lives to discerning the mysteries of the universe. They looked at forests, seascapes, and sunsets with wide open eyes of wonder, but they also never saw such spiritual events as ends in themselves.

Put it this way: Jewish mystics of the past, more than probably most of us, were humbled by their world and its grandeur and yearned for the spiritual, but they did so within the context of their religion.

They said the motsi before eating; they held Seders; they gave tzedakah and worried about tikkun olam.

They also joined generations of Jews in studying Torah.

The mystics used the troubled lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs to explore the everyday challenges of being spouses, parents, and children. The Joseph story became a template for thinking about the human emotions of jealousy, revenge, and forgiveness. The way our ancestors in the Sinai desert often doubted Moses and God gave the most spiritual Jew a chance to consider how real his own faith was.

As spiritual as they were, Jewish mystics were totally committed to classic Jewish religion.

And why? Why didn’t they find religion so narrow or barren that they would say, “We’re spiritual, but not religious?”

I think they kept the two options of spirituality and religion alive because they believed one had to lead to the other.

Once you opened yourself up to the magnificence of the universe, once you lifted your eyes all the way up to the billions of stars, you did feel humbled. You did discover something holy in the world.

“But so what,” said the mystics and sages of Judaism. What’s the point of being moved spiritually if the feelings just stay inside your heart and soul?

If the world is holy, shouldn’t you behave in a holy way? Shouldn’t you act in the world to make the world of family, community, and business holy, decent, and honest places?

Here’s my formulation:

To be spiritual, means to be moved by the mysteries of the world.

To be spiritual, means to cultivate a sense of awe.

BUT

To be religious means to take the next step.

It means searching for a way to preserve the spiritual feelings.

It means focusing the feelings into deeds.

For a Jew, being religious means living your life in the context of Jewish teachings and customs that can refine your soul and make you a better human being.

You start with the spiritual and then move on to the religious that sustains and roots you in this world.

Here’s a story that makes my point. In fact, I think this may be the central point of the Torah!

The story that I know you’ll recognize begins when Moses is alone in the Sinai wilderness. One day the silence of the desert is broken by the sound of flames. Moses looks around and finds himself staring at a bush that burns without being consumed. He is humbled. He senses something holy in the air. He feels the presence of God like a flame entering his soul and giving him a sense of wholeness.

What’s this story about?

I wouldn’t have said it before struggling with this notion of spirituality, but, when I thought about it, I realized that the burning bush story is really the story of Moses’ great spiritual moment.

It’s Moses - not in the Berkshires or at the Cape – but Moses nonetheless like you, me, or Darwin being moved by the grandeur of experience.

But here’s the fabulous aspect of what the Torah does.

Having presented this scene of Moses meeting God, the Torah immediately throws Moses into action. Moses does not camp at the burning bush. He doesn’t meditate there. He doesn’t bring others back to share God’s holiness.

Instead of that, Moses responds to the spiritual moment by heading back to Egypt, uniting the Jewish people, organizing them to achieve freedom, and giving them mitzvot. What starts out as a spiritual moment in Moses’ private life culminates in the living, breathing, down-to-earth commandments of Judaism:

Honor your father and mother.

Rise before the aged.

Never delay paying someone on time.

If you find your enemy’s property, return it to him.

When you harvest your field, leave the corners for the poor.

Do not be indifferent.

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And why do so much of this? The Torah teaches: Live this holy way because the world is holy, and we know that because way back when Moses had a spiritual experience which set it all in motion.

During these times when so much criticism is leveled against religion, the Torah’s story reminds me why religion works in my life. The Torah teaches me that what begins in the privacy of my heart and soul has a place to go. As a Jew, I am invited to experience the holy and then bring it alive in the real world.

I can be spiritual and religious.

I should be spiritual and religious.

I should take fleeting experiences of what’s holy and make them last through holy living.

That’s what a warrior for God needs to do if he or she is Jewish.

Link the spiritual to the religious and get ready for a New Year of seeking and living what is holy.

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