Thursday, February 23, 2012

On Faith and Religion

Dear Mackenzie,

Your mom and I are not particularly religious in a conventional sense, and we’ve been grappling with how best to give you a proper religious education.

Faith, prayer and invocation are crucial elements of the human experience and we understand their importance. But how to best inculcate faith and religion into your life? Is it through organized religion? We certainly want you to learn the Jewish customs and traditions with which we grew up, and will try to teach them to you. But is that the only path to God?

Your aunt Viv and I grew up in a very (and I mean very) non-religious household. Yes, we went to temple and I went to Hebrew school, but in hindsight that seemed more geared towards community and tradition than towards communion with God.

Once when I was about your age your grandma baked a cake during Passover. When she brought it to the dinner table I was horrified. I told her she was not supposed to cook with anything leaven during Passover and accused her of “not being Jewish”.

Your grandma was nonplussed. She replied that though she had no idea it was Passover she was indeed Jewish to the core. Being the headstrong kid that I was, I didn’t believe her at the time and I demanded she throw the cake away. Now that I no longer attend Sunday School, I can’t keep track of a single Jewish holiday either, yet still consider myself profoundly Jewish. It’s just one of the many apologies I owe your grandma!

By the way Mackenzie, your grandma almost shut down my Bar Mitzvah. A week or two before the ceremony your aunt Viv and I got in a big fight (as young siblings sometimes do) and apparently I called her some very nasty names. Your grandma was quite upset with me. She said if that’s how I interacted with others when I was angry I was not ready to be a man, either under Jewish law or any other. I don’t remember how I got it all back on track, but I sure remember the lesson.

While I was in college I studied comparative religions and came away confused and conflicted, not only about Judaism but also about all organized religion. How could so many religions have such conflicting narratives? And which one was right?

The God I knew and trusted was that of the Old Testament. Yet the God I studied when I read the New Testament struck me as kinder and more loving (Corinthians 13 is a good example) than the God I had studied as a kid in Sunday School (the complete destruction of Jericho, of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of the Amalekites come to mind). 

The New Testament confused me too. It teaches that Jesus is the Son of God and part of the Holy Trinity, and that He died for our sins. But the New Testament also teaches that unless one accepts both that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for our sins, one cannot be absolved and enter the kingdom of heaven. How can that be? If Jesus is God, would He demand (or even allow) that we must believe Him to be God in order to be saved? I inadvertently started quite a heated discussion when I suggested that the notion seemed more like the human foible of vanity than anything particularly holy.

Then there’s the Book of Mormon (no, not the Broadway musical), which if I remember correctly teaches that there may be multiple gods, and that God the Father has a wife.  I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I do remember being taught that in order to embrace Buddhism as a religion one must deny Christ, and the bible too.  Hmmn.

Hinduism is often described as a conglomeration of distinct philosophical views rather than a rigid common set of beliefs. That, of course is completely inapposite to the teachings of both Judaism and Christianity. And though I don’t know very much about Islam, or the Bahai faith, or the Swedenborgian church, or some of the various other religions around the world, I know enough to be aware that many of their teachings don’t line up with those of other religions.

Is one of these right and all the others wrong? Does an invocation by a Sikh address a different higher power than that of a Christian? Does an invocation by a Jain address a different higher power than that of a Jew? I find that hard to fathom. And it seems improbable that any one religious belief system is more or less valid than any other.

Which brings us to faith. Faith is belief that is not based on proof. Faith is knowing that the hand of God (however we choose to define it) is there to help guide us and keep us from harm even if we can’t see it.

I was never able to visualize or articulate what the hand of God meant until you started to walk. You were just a toddler, and you would walk for a bit and then fall down. Then you’d get yourself back up and try again. Walk. Fall down. Get up. Repeat.

Your mom and I started to follow you around the house with our arms outstretched, ready to step in if terrible harm seemed imminent. We didn’t want you to know we were doing that, though. If you turned around to look at us we’d pretend to be doing something else. Yet we kept a watchful eye and our arms ready on your behalf. On a larger scale, that is how I now envision the hand of God in all of our lives.

So which organized religion got it right?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that faith and religion are important, that we’ll guide you as best we can, and that ultimately you’ll have to determine for yourself what makes most sense for you. The good news is that stripped of their different narratives virtually all religions boil down to the same basic precepts, designed to make our lives richer and to move the human race forward:

Have a kind heart.

Treat others the way you would want them to treat you (the Golden Rule).

Be charitable to those less fortunate.

Take care of your family and your neighbor.

Love learning.

Have faith in a higher power.

If you follow those basic tenets in your life you won’t go wrong, no matter what religion ultimately speaks to your heart, mind and soul.

And that, my sweet daughter, is the gospel according to Norman.

All my everlasting love in this kingdom and beyond,



  1. Very nice piece. I've been enjoying your blog postings. It seems like a lot of guy I know are "Dad Blogging" these days. I've been blogging on for over a year and it's a nice way to document what's going on with the kids. Grella has a site as well - check out

  2. I'm an apostate to Judaism and I think faith in the enemy of reason. Faith in some kind of supernatural higher power is also problematic. Please teach your daughter how to think critically and then let her figure it all out. I'm pretty confident that if you teach her how to think instead of what to think, she will reject all superstitious beliefs.

  3. Interesting exploration on your part. I think the comment previous to mine is extremely mentally limited. Reason and faith are by no means mutually exclusive. While I have not come to the same religious conclusions, our religious histories are similar enough that I can relate easily enough to your process. I think that among Judeo-Christian groups, there is much that can be shared for mutual benefit. Christian denominations themselves have great variations in belief systems. They teach that the others are "not real" or are "joyless" which is completely unnecessary. I particularly appreciate the discussion about the irreconcilability of the narratives. My own opinion on that is inconsistent with itself, not fleshed out enough to commit to English, and would not please anyone... but no, no Fireworks. Sometimes one's religious path is set before one serendipitously. Good luck, sorry comment is so long. It is nice to see religious discussion in a non-judgmental forum.

  4. Love your analysis, hastycon (and your faith). Look forwrd to reading your internally inconsistent opinion. :)