Gordis: Religion based in absolutes distances from human experience



Jessica White | Staff Writer

Rabbi David Gordis is a committed Jewish leader, but he said religion must leave the confines of the synagogue — as well as the church and the mosque.

Gordis, a professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and president emeritus of Hebrew College, considered himself a religious conservative for most of his life, taking comfort in the synagogue as a place of doctrinal culture and tradition. But during the past 20 years, he said he has transitioned to a more radical faith that fits modern science and culture.

“Some people believe their faith or religious tradition trumps everything else,” he said. “I argue that position dooms religion to become increasingly irrelevant and distant from the human experience.”

Gordis will open this week’s Interfaith Lecture theme — “Radicalism: Burden or Blessing?” — by discussing different kinds of radicalism in the three Abrahamic religions. He will focus on and give examples from Judaism, and he will also explain his own radical faith.

Each of the Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — navigates between conservative and radical inclinations, Gordis said.

That means each has doctrinal traditions and rituals, but also speaks of radical change in both society and individuals. Each religion anticipates the world being transformed into something better than it is now, as well as people being transformed by salvation or redemption.

In one way or another, religion actually calls for radical change to create a better world, Gordis said, so why wait for a perfect, peaceful, harmonious world when we can create it ourselves?

“Religion that does not contain that passion to try to transform the world into something better I think is worth very little,” he said.

Judaism often stresses that kind of action over belief, but Gordis said his Christian friends have taught him belief can be just as strong and important. He realized many of the things he accepted about nature and the modern world were ignored when he walked into the synagogue, and he began to reflect on what he believed about his own religion.

Cooperation among religions is also key, which is where Gordis said his own beliefs become radical. To create a better world where religion enhances — rather than hurts — human experience, he said, people must let go and redefine some of their religious truths. Different traditions’ explicit claims to exclusive access to truth have contributed to human suffering throughout history.

“We all struggle to make sense of this strange mystery about being alive,” he said. “Different traditions, different cultures and different religions all have their own formulations, they all have something to contribute, but none of us has the absolute truth or access to absolute truth.”