Orenstein: ‘Religion is a holy process that requires patience and practice’


Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Rabbi Debra Orenstein speaks at the afternoon Interfaith Lecture Series on Wednesday at the Hall of Philosophy.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s Wednesday Interfaith Lecture was for people both old and young; when it came to the uncertain future of Judaism, she did not leave either off the hook.

The spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J., Orenstein believes that religion should be a vehicle for spirituality. If young people today see religion as an outmoded expression or an impediment to spirituality, religious leaders and organizations have failed.

“We have failed, at least in the way we communicate our mission in the world,” Orenstein said, “and perhaps we’ve even failed in the way that we try to realize our mission.”

Every religious tradition needs to consider the ways in which young people may be right in their critiques, Orenstein said. Those following each tradition need to consider how it can be improved. Orenstein shared the ways in which her own tradition of Judaism could improve.

Her first point: “We need to remove barriers to education.”

The high cost of Jewish education is a barrier for many people, and people do not always feel welcome in Jewish houses of study. Adults often feel infantilized if they do not know Hebrew, Orenstein said. This barrier has led to a very small number of Jews today being educated in Jewish studies.

“Secondly, we need to build relationships between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews so the community can stay whole,” Orenstein said.

Even if there are things that Jews within different movements do not or never will agree on, she said, this makes it all the more important for there to be a dialogue.

“Third, we need to encourage spiritual conversations that take Torah personally,” she said.

It troubles Orenstein that so few Jewish people share their personal and spiritual concerns with one another when they go to synagogue.

“Judaism, or any faith, is meant to touch every part of your life and especially those parts that are dearest and most sensitive for you,” she said.

Orenstein also suggested that Jews must overcome their sense of victimization.

“Jews have been victims; that is a fact,” Orenstein said. “But I believe we need to overcome the tendency to be hypervigilant. We have to risk being vulnerable again, especially with Christians and Muslims and others who want to forge a new and better relationship with us.”

Though Jews around the world are still threatened, they also possess significant power, she said. Jews need to work on using that power wisely in their communities and especially in Israel.

Then Orenstein directed her critiques to the younger generation. She noted that a phrase like, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” could be taken as a serious critique of religion. However, the phrase might also reveal that the deficiency lies not in religion but in the young people themselves.

“Sometimes it just means, ‘I don’t want to be beholden to anyone or anything,’ Orenstein said. “ ‘I don’t want to be responsible to a community,’ ‘I don’t want my relationship with God to cost me anything,’ ‘I want to serve, but on my own terms.’

Orenstein said such statements, which all began with the word “I,” show that today’s youth are overly concerned with their own happiness and feel entitled to immediate self-gratification.

“I want religion to make people’s lives better, but it will not always make our lives easier,” Orenstein said. “Religion is not a consumer product; it’s a holy process that requires patience and practice.”

Though they may seem unusual in today’s consumer culture, the religious demands and values of self-sacrifice are precisely what should be maintained and celebrated by religious communities, Orenstein said.

Improved religious education is her solution to this difference in attitude between the younger and older generations.

“There’s one consistent finding across all the sociological studies of the American Jewish community: When Jews are educated in their tradition, they affiliate more, they observe more, they attend synagogue more and they support the Jewish community more,” she said. “Education is key.”

Orenstein did not want to dwell too much on problems and blame. She said she also wanted to articulate where Judaism stands and where it ought to go. She used five words to denote the points she would make: paradigm shift, polity, planet, population and purpose.

One of the most important paradigm shifts in Jewish history, she claimed, began in 1781 with the emancipation of French Jewry. Jews were given the freedom of full citizenship, and being Jewish became a choice rather than a state-enforced identity.

What is special about today’s generations is that everything they do for churches, synagogues or mosques is done freely, not out of fear or guilt, Orenstein said.

“They simply choose,” she said. “The paradigm shift toward choice is our reality, and it can also be our opportunity.”

Orenstein used “polity” to mean “organized community.”

“Among the younger generations in the Jewish community, there’s a lot of disappointment that elders didn’t engage in serious God-talk or questions of meaning,” Orenstein said.

Though this is certainly a concern for young people today, it would be a mistake for them not to recognize the achievements of their forebears, such as living through the Holocaust and building strong and safe communities afterward from which to start over, Orenstein said.

The planet should be a principal concern of religious communities today, she argued.

“Elephants are in crisis, we learned in lecture,” Orenstein said, referencing the morning lecture by Paula Kahumbu. “And if you believe in the Bible, then that is your problem because God has given us an assignment to be responsible for the earth and all life on it.”

All world religions share culpability in the state of the planet, Orenstein said. They have not lived up to their teaching of stewardship. If religions are worried about becoming irrelevant in today’s world, they will certainly become irrelevant if they are not at the forefront of protecting the earth.

Orenstein used the word “population” to denote the diminishing number of practicing Jews. Many things need to be done to remedy this, but one in particular is a rethinking of religion’s purpose.

“Yes, we want to draw on the wisdom of the past and yes, we seek to create a brighter future, but the Holy Spirit lives in the eternal present,” Orenstein said. “We have to enter into the sacred sanctuary of the present moment and continually challenge ourselves to discern and to act on our highest purpose. What does God want from me now? What does God want from us, collectively?”

Near the end of her lecture, Orenstein said that although she was invited to represent the younger generations, she really is not that radical. To prove it, she stated what she thinks the future of religion really needs: the Sabbath.

The Sabbath promotes harmony, peace, freedom and the importance of giving thanks.

“The Sabbath was born after creation,” Orenstein said. “It’s the crown of creation and it’s the celebration of the planet. It gives us a day when we live in harmony with nature, rather than trying to manage or control it.”

And not only nature. Orenstein said that the Sabbath also promotes harmony with one another. Whether enslaved or free, every person deserves a day of rest, a day to spend time with friends, family and God. No petitionary prayers are given during the Sabbath, rather only thanks for what there already is.

“Sabbath moves us from commodity time — from the world of work and commerce where time is money and all the hours are billable — into organic time, the world of the human body and of nature, where we sleep and eat and read and visit at our leisure,” Orenstein said.

“So maybe I’m more radical than I thought, because Shabbat is pretty countercultural,” she concluded. “It insists on ‘24/6’ in a ‘24/7’ world.”