I cannot recall how many times over the years I’ve heard the words: “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person.” I am sure we have all heard different versions of this statement, and it probably gave us pause. As a young rabbi, it sounded to me like a copout. After all, we all are expected to strive to be good people. Religion, as I understood it and still do, has as its main goal to make us good people. Certainly, religion can be easily misused or misapplied. But the founders of the great religions taught kindness and compassion and inveighed against evil. We Jews are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” What binds the community together are our shared beliefs, customs, and traditions. Being part of the community teaches us we are all responsible for one another, and provides the opportunity to help others rather than look out only for ourselves.
Looking back, however, it has become clear to me I had been too judgmental in considered this statement a copout. Instead of dismissing it as a convenient way to “separate oneself from the community,” I should have focused on the words “a good person.” No one should be scorned for wishing to be a good person. Imagine, if everyone were a good person, there would be peace in the world. I should have said to the makers of that statement, “I applaud you for striving to be a good person. This is the worthiest cause of all.” I could have then gone on to say, “You need to find the best way for you to be such a person. I, personally, find religion to be helpful for me to achieve this goal, but everyone is different.” In other words, I shouldn’t have taken it as a rebuke or a criticism of me as someone who represents religion, and let the conversation end at that.
Life, one learns over time, is an ongoing search. We all search for something, and our search takes us in many different directions. For some, interacting with a spiritual leader may be a positive experience, and for others it may be the opposite. Most difficult of all is one’s experience of God. As children we are taught to believe in a good God who cares for you and who is interested in your well-being. But our faith is constantly being put to the test. Life, even under the best of circumstances, is the school of hard knocks. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, bad things do happen to good people, leaving that person with the unanswerable question, why is God doing this to me? Losing faith in not uncommon, and it is often painful. We Jews who have experienced the greatest tragedy of our long existence in our own lifetime, have every reason to lose faith in a good and caring God. But many of us have made a conscious decision not to give up faith. “In spite of everything I continue to believe.” I believe that in the end good will prevail, no matter how difficult it may be.
I will remember next time someone says to me, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person,” I will look kindly at that person in the eyes and utter the words I should have uttered long ago. This will definitely make me a better person.
Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber is celebrating fifty years as a Reform Rabbi.