Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz is not thrilled with religion — not his own, not anyone else’s, and especially not the ones that make the evening news.
“Religion is in peril because of the perversion of religion we see throughout our world and throughout our nation,” Gewirtz said.
Gewirtz is the leader of B’nai Jeshurun, the largest Jewish congregation in New Jersey, and one of the leaders of the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace. Speaking Wednesday from the Hall of Philosophy lectern, Gewirtz explained the growing dichotomy he sees in religion today.
“I want to make a purposeful distinction today, one that should have been made thousands of years ago.” Gewirtz said. “That’s a distinction between something that I’ll call healthy religion, and something that I’ll call unhealthy religion.”
On the former, Gewirtz categorized “unhealthy religion” as focusing too much on the original intent of the texts as opposed to reinterpreting to the text to fit to the modern era.
“Unhealthy religion is essentially revolt against modernity,” Gewirtz said. “Unhealthy religion is a defensive reaction based on fear of losing the faith. Unhealthy religion is about easy answers to complex questions. Unhealthy religion is about seeing everything in black and white. It’s about fear of change and fear of societal progression. Unhealthy religion is about a faith that seems steadfast but is actually simplex because there is no room for asking questions.”
As tangible examples of such displays of religion, Gewirtz cited the 55,000 abortion clinic workers who were threatened by Christian radicals in America, the thousands of people who died in the Middle East at the hands of Muslim extremists, or the three Palestinians burned alive by Jews during the 2014 conflict in the Gaza Strip.
On the other side of the coin, Gewirtz elucidated the concept of healthy religion. Speaking with a rhetoric reminiscent of spoken word poetry, Gewirtz rattled off the differences between the two.
“Healthy religion demands that we see each other made in the image of God, despite race, despite religion, despite sexual orientation,” Gewirtz said. “Healthy religion teaches that new beginnings are always possible. … It chooses paradox over myopia; dialectic over singularity; subtlety over simplicity; change over status quo; choice over indoctrination; vulnerability as opposed to insensitivity.”
He continued in poetic fashion: “Healthy religion allows us to question, to doubt. Healthy religion tells us to stop waiting for the Messiah because we are the ones that we have always been waiting for. It teaches us that life is complicated but our faith can guide us through the trial of life. Not by offering simple answers to the dizzying maze we live in, but by growing a metal that can help us stand the test of time.“
Despite the calamity and violence that religion causes today, Gewirtz urged the crowd to stay true to their religions, while at the same time not being afraid to question them. Key to faith, Gewirtz said, is doubt. It keeps religion in check and distinguishes religion from indoctrination.
“We are permitted, maybe encouraged, God forbid I say commanded, to argue, to struggle or to lay on the line with God, especially when we suffer,” Gewirtz said. “That’s the path to the beginning of a real attachment to what I would call a healthy sense of faith.“
Although his sense of religion’s status right now is not as favorable as he might like, Gewirtz still believes in religion’s ability to save, liberate and motivate its followers. Thus he urged compassion for dissenters from all religious peoples and pushed them to stay strong despite the seeming non-holiness of some of the loudest religious voices.
“We cannot give away the privilege of belief, faith, religion spirituality and connection to God because those on the fringe speak so much louder than we do,” Gewirtz said.