Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Like Losing My Religion

That was just a dream . . .
That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spot. light. I’m l
osing my religion . . .
REM, Low(Bootleg) Album            

A few days ago, I awoke from a dream to find myself here at the ranch, sun pouring across the mesa outside my window and finch traffic at the birdbath. The dream was one of those weird ones that signal the changes of seasons and even deeper changes in me. And as I sat up in bed, feeling not quite awake yet, I thought: It must be Elul. I have these numinous dreams rarely, and when I do it is at this time and this season.

In this dream, there were no transitions, just sudden change of scenes, as if I had been dropped into the middle of filming an ongoing movie. There are two parts I remember quite vividly, and the rest is a blur of impressions that faded immediately upon my awakening.

First, I am suddenly inside our synagogue, in the social hall, floating among people, and I realize that I don’t know a single soul among them, and then I see that their faces are all the same.
Later, I am in the parking lot, down on the level of the pavement, and I  was looking at  two outdated jeeps parked against the wall, one listing away from the other, and both sitting on their frames, no tires. The plates are tagged with dates in the 5750’s. I reach out to touch the jeep on the right, and instead find myself placing my open hand on a pile of clothes. I know that I need to pick them up, take them inside, because somebody there has need of them. As I lift each article, I notice that one item belonged to me once, a red skirt I wore at my Bat Mitzvah, and I fold it up because it doesn’t fit me anymore. . .

That morning as we had our morning coffee in bed, I turned to the Engineering Geek and told him that it was the first of Elul and that we had to think seriously about the upcoming Holy Days, and make some decisions. He nodded. He knew. We’ve been putting it off for a long time. I said that there are two issues, and I think need to be considered separately. The easiest is the issue of dues. The hardest is whether we should end our membership altogether and what we should do for the Holy Days.

The EG nodded. He said that we cannot afford the dues we are expected to pay. This is a problem we had thought we resolved in March of last year, three months after the EG retired from Sandia. We made a personal visit with administrator there to put our dues in abeyance until we could see how long it would take us to begin bringing in money with our businesses, and what it would be like to live on the pension and our investments out here at Freedom Ridge. But despite the arrangement, the synagogue kept sending bills for the amount we paid before, and at membership renewal, they continued our membership at the old rate. They have a policy, I have been told, that if members do not renew and do not formally resign, we are continued at the previous rate. I don’t know what happened to our arrangements in labyrinthine depths of the computers where such transactions are preserved,  but I think it would be fairly easy to get this resolved.

Before we resolve it, though, we have to decide the hard question: should we continue membership? Even to consider this is almost like losing my religion, like relinquishing that which reconnects me again and again to my own past, our past and that of the people Israel who gather, learn and pray in that place.

All of my adult life I have been a member of this synagogue. My children had all of their life-cycle ceremonies there:  her naming, his brit milah,  their consecrations, bat and bar mitzvah, and confirmations. At that bimah, I was called to Torah for the first time as an adult bat mitzvah. Under the chuppah there, I was married to the Engineering Geek. From that sanctuary, I had expected to be taken to my final rest in the Congregation Albert Cemetery. There, I have celebrated the festivals, observed the fasts, heard the sound of the Shofar, welcomed the Sabbath Bride.

And yet, much of the connection has been slipping away of itself, as the Reform movement has become less about religion—the reconnection of people with the longings of their souls—and more about politics. When did Reform Judaism lose the prophetic voice of ethical monotheism for ritual without reason? When did it substitute “social justice” for G-d’s demand to choose life and reject death, made directly from the Mountain alive with smoke and fire, the Bat Kol resonating down through the centuries and into each of us, penetrating to our very bones? When did it replace the call of our Rabbis* to learn and understand and choose what is good with dictates from the Religious Action Center, replacing the majesty of Law with social-democratic political policy?
*The capital “R” denotes the Tanaim and Amoraim, the founders of Rabbinic Judaism whose discussions and arguments became the Talmud, the teaching and conversation across time that kept the flame alive throughout all the years and centuries of exile and pogrom, crusades and holocaust.

For a long while, beginning with our dissatisfaction with our last rabbi and his use of a Yom Kippur Sermon to stump for Obamacare, we have wondered if we were losing our religion. We also recognized that giving our hard-earned money to a Jewish institution that idolizes a president, and advocates spending our children’s inheritance to institute a collectivist utopia in place of our liberty is immoral, and is tantamount to funding our own destruction.

Part of the purpose of putting our dues in abeyance was also to wait and see. At the time, we had an interim rabbi whom we found to be a spiritual leader; one who respected the difference and the boundary between Jewish law and transient political policy, and who understood that his job was to provide guidance for walking the Jewish way to all of us. But we knew that we were getting a new rabbi and we had no idea how he would be.

We have now met the new rabbi and we find him distant and not terribly interested in talking to us. Perhaps this is unfair, because with our move to Freedom Ridge, we aren’t there often, although we have made an effort to be present when we are in Albuquerque. I do not expect hugs or effusive greetings, but warmth and small talk would be nice. Even a friendly wave and greeting would be welcome. But the man seems cold toward us, and I cannot help but take it personally. I was hoping that the man who takes responsibility for our Jewish needs and ceremonies would be, well, at least a bit simpatico.

I thought perhaps I ought to make the first reach, so I “friended” him on Facebook. And there I discovered that we had gotten another “social action” rabbi. I have seen very slanted posts there, ones that demonstrated the less than tolerant and charitable “Vision of the Anointed”  of the left. The first one condemned the Susan G. Komen Foundation in lockstep with the leftist attack on that private charity because of an innocent decision about the best use of funds by its founder and board. The second accused the people of Colorado Springs of hypocrisy because many of them are conservative and support cutting the federal budget and taxes and yet their local and state governments requested federal disaster funds for them.

There are political arguments for why the good rabbi is wrong in both cases, but I did not use them. I  did make comments expressing my concern that these posts betrayed a one-sided view that was uncharitable in the extreme, and that placed ideology over individuals. I remain dismayed at this rabbi’s lack of discernment, jumping on two leftist propaganda bandwagons as he did, without apparent thought and with some malice. This makes me uncomfortable at the thought that this man is the one I am paying to be on call for me should we have a family tragedy or even a simcha, in order to provide us with the Jewish rites and comfort that accompany such events. It is not that we disagree with one another politically, so much as the way in which he has made blanket condemnations without much depth about people whom he does not even know, because of his attachment to his political ideology. I would be one of those people.

There are other issues and events, things that have happened very recently and over a longer period of time that make me feel that we may be formally members, but we really don’t belong at this synagogue. Ten years ago, I leyned Torah several times a year, something I love to do. I have not leyned once since Cantor Jacquie left, and we have not been honored with a call to Torah either, even this year, when we celebrated our 10th anniversary. Recently, my brother-in-law and my son’s uncle died suddenly and tragically, and although we informed the synagogue, and we drove almost two hundred miles to say kaddish, his name was omitted from the list.

I have written before about my discomfort with some of the ways in which our ways of thinking and being do not mesh with the prevailing climate of this synagogue, and I suppose that sooner or later it had to come to a decision point. And yet it is not an easy one, as obvious as the misfit of our square pegs and their round holes may be.

We have talked about it, the Engineering Geek and I, and although he feels it less deeply, he is much more vocal about the immorality of continuing to support a synagogue where he has to walk out of the political sermons year after year. He tends to joke about it, but as money becomes more scarce—like most ranchers our wealth is not liquid—he says he doesn’t want to throw away the good after the “socialist” bad money.

We have made no final decisions. But we have given ourselves two options for the Holy Days, neither of which will be to attend services at Congregation Albert. We may pray at home for one or both of the High Holy Days. We may visit a small, egalitarian synagogue in Flagstaff. Although it is affiliated with the Reform Movement, its size and location mean that it draws Jews from many different Jewish backgrounds. Also, the rabbi did not study at Hebrew Union College (the seminary of the Reform movement), and therefore may be less indoctrinated in the current political “religion” ideology that seems to emanate from it. We would like to find out. Although neither of us are particularly touchy-feely types, we can tolerate that so long as the focus is Judaism in all its history and grandeur, and is not wasted in the weeds of ephemeral political dogmas and doctrines.

I know that if I never belong to or never darken the doors of another synagogue, I will remain a Jew in culture and commitment. I will never bow down to idols, be they made of stone or ideology. I will always see the world through the Jewish eyes I developed through all these years at Congregation Albert. But even the small steps that we have made away from a congregation in which I have experienced all of the joys, sorrows and frustrations of being a Jew cause me to feel like I am losing my religion. 


Anonymous said...


I'm sorry that you relationship with your congregation is not optimal. I know (from your posts) that we probably disagree on political matters, but from years of reading your blog I know that you are a thoughtful and considerate person who works hard with others to find reasonable solutions to challenges, as when your son was in religious education classes. I hope you find a congregation that meets your spiritual needs.


Mama Squirrel said...

"We have now met the new rabbi and we find him distant and not terribly interested in talking to us."

I know we are of different faiths, but I understand this part perfectly because the same thing happened to us at a church we used to belong to.

I'm out of my depth in suggesting this, but is there any way you could form a home-based community of believers?