At a recent TV interview in Westborough, MA, I was asked: “What is the future of religion”? I do not know what prompted this question but, I guess, the interviewer thought that, as a Rabbi, I would have a special insight on this subject at a time when religion is under attack in many quarters: Attendance at religious services is down, many religious leaders have been accused of sexual misconduct, and quite a few synagogues and churches in the Boston area have either closed or have recently combined their activities with others. On the other hand, religious fundamentalism keeps getting stronger and more rigid. Recently, I was looking for a particular channel on TV when I came across a Christian program during which the minister was making assumptions about Judaism that were totally biased and factually wrong. I was about to call the station but then I changed my mind knowing that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation with a religious fanatic.
Not too long ago, I came across a list of statistics which shows that, in America today, 20% of the population is not affiliated, but 68% still believe in God and 37% call themselves simply spiritual, whatever that means.
I maintain that religion will survive, simply because it deals with ultimate values that we need them in our daily life. However, I would urge that it be based on reason and rationality. Being a Jew, I would argue that the Judaism of the present and of the future has to be 1) based on the best scientific information we have; 2) that it must be progressive, answering the existential questions of our time, and, 3) that it needs to be inclusive, reflecting the different experiences of Jews around the world, in particular remembering that there are a variety of valid Jewish concepts of God, and different religious traditions and rituals (e.g., Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic).
Religion has to be believable, and not based on unproven assumptions, for, if it is, people will not take it seriously and simply ignore it. I take religion seriously but not literally, and am comfortable to say that, for example, many of our classical religious texts (like the Hebrew Bible or the New-Testament, and, less so, the Quran), were completed much later, and that most of these texts were “attributed” to, and not “written by” their “authors.” I also maintain that these texts represent the thinking of their own time, and that new ideas were developed by Jews throughout history. For example, Maimonides was an Aristotelian; Kabbalah mysticism formally originated in the 13th cent. Southern France, and Erich Fromm was a humanist. Today, religion must struggle with our present existential questions using new perspectives.
I am a religious naturalist, following the teachings of Kaplan, Gittelsohn, and Spinoza. I am convinced that Scriptures emerged after a long period of oral transmission, and reflect the thinking of their own time; that miracles do not exist, and if something unusual occurs, it is because we still do not know how the world really operates; that prayers are not answered but reflect our expectations and hopes; that Mitzvot (commanded deeds) must be carried out, not because of the presumed reward in the world-to-come that does not exist, but because it is the right thing to do now; and that after death the only thing that remains of us are our name and actions.
I can live with these assertions and am comfortable with them. What about you?
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA.