I'm Not Religious

on Saturday, 12 June 2010. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

"I'm not religious."

I have heard this disclaimer from fellow Jews more than any other phrase. I hear it before sitting down to Shabbat dinner with congregants.
I hear it when people learn I am a rabbi.
I hear it at onegs before someone shares a recent Jewish experience.

Why has this become a refrain for today's Jews?
Why this compulsion to excuse one's behavior, or apologize for lack of observance? Is Judaism only about performing a very specific set of rituals at exact times on exact days?

And what does being "religious" even mean?

Can't religiosity also include your weekly yoga class,

devoting your time to the Housing Hope organization, or even committing to compost your garbage?
I would surmise that many Jews equate religiosity with halakha, or Jewish law -­‐-­‐ our set of ethical and ritual commandments. The problem is that halakha is often defined respective of Orthodoxy which uses the Shulhan Arukh, a 16th century law code, as its authoritative source. Why not define halakhah as the binding religious obligations we retain as Reform Jews // -­‐-­‐ even the Reform convention in 1885, which declared that the ritual commandments in the Torah do not apply in our time, still affirmed the Torah's ethical commandments as obligatory. Must we lump ethical and ritual mitzvot, ethical and ritual commandments, together? Might we distinguish between hukkim, our ritual commandments, and mishpatim, our ethical commandments?

Hukkim, the ritual laws, are often harder to accept because the reasons for them are hidden and may seem arbitrary. Obeying these ritual laws signifies the human surrender of the believer to Divine will. Many argue that hukkim remind us of the divine ethical imperative. Laws against mixing milk and meat, for instance, imply a stance against animal cruelty, and laws about wearing a tallit, fringes on the corners of our garments, indicate the 613 mitzvot.

Mishpatim, on the other hand govern our inter-­‐human relationships. The reasons for them are more clear. They are laws which could be derived by human reason, such as not taking revenge and leaving the unharvested corner of one's field for the poor.

Reform Judaism has placed more emphasis on mishpatim, but still holds that interpreting and wrestling with our Torah and its laws are paramount. As part of our developing tradition, we hold the responsibility of interpreting Torah to determine meaningful halakhic observance. We are obligated to make educated decisions.

Problems arise when we feel dependent on others to tell us what to do. A Reform Jew recently remarked that informed autonomy hasn't been implemented, because most Reform Jews are neither informed nor autonomous. He adds that the Reform model of halakha should be our Talmud (a conversation, where Rabbi X says this and Rabbi Y says that and they discuss their reasons.
Sometimes one rabbi's opinion prevails, but most important is the dialogue).

Reform halakha is fascinating in itself, and I want to save that discussion for another day, but now I want to challenge us to move beyond the idea that we're either religious or we're not. Just because we choose which mitzvot to observe does not make us "bad Jews." Just because we find a deep connection to something higher when we work in the garden and pause to say a blessing of thanksgiving, does not make us worse or better than someone who prays 3 times a day. BUT, we must continue to educate ourselves so that our actions are based on thoughtful dialogue.


Judaism has always been composed of various sects each with different definitions of Jewish law and practice. During the 8th century, for example, a group called the Karaites arose in opposition to the Talmudic rabbis. Karaites emphasized the Written Law (the Torah) and criticized the rabbi's use of Oral Law (the Talmud). The Karaites, for instance would say eating a cheeseburger is perfectly acceptable because one is not boiling a kid in its mother's milk. It was only later rabbinic authorities that extended this law against boiling to include mixing.

Orthodoxy is not the default. And we need not apologize for non-­‐Orthodox observance if our practices are grounded in education and thoughtful dialogue.

Mordecai Kaplan declared that the most important personal function of religion is to answer the question, "What shall [humans] believe and do, in order to experience that life, despite the evil and suffering that mar it, is extremely worthwhile?"

Religion is this pursuit of salvation, and may we each find our own meaningful path to the Eternal, to repairing our world, to connecting with others, and to finding wholeness within ourselves in our own religious way.

Ken y'hi ratzon, so may it be God's will.

Rabbi Jessica Kessler