The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion

It was the notice of an online meeting of a local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace that made me think of my long and troubled relationship with organized religion.

I grew up during a time in the 1950s and 1960s when membership in a temple or synagogue was a given for most Jews. And there were advantages in belonging to organized religion then. There was the sense of community and there was the sense of duty to some theological premises that seem to me like believing in the tooth fairy now. Community was the big issue then and everyone knew each other in my small Rhode Island community and it seemed as if people came through for one another in troubled times like during economic downturns or seismic life changes. Had it not been for that community, my father would have remained unemployed during an economic downturn in the late 1950s when he lost a business.

It was when I reached young adulthood that I realized all of that had changed along with the society. First, there was the Vietnam antiwar movement that espoused a critical stand vis-à-vis Israel that often got carried away in what I sometimes consider a garden variety of anti-Semitism. The positive result of that critical analysis of US/Israel relations was that it cast a bright light on the war policies of both countries and the gross injustices that came from those policies. There were other injustices in the larger world, but they would require a long alphabetized list.

But, it was joining a temple as a young adult that was the first major wake-up call for my dabbling in the waters of faith. At a ceremony for the naming of our first child, I asked the rabbi in charge of the temple we belonged to if he could give me the name of someone in the community and temple who could provide childcare for our daughter when my wife Jan returned to work (sexism is implicit here). Although that rabbi had an enviable history in the civil rights movement, he castigated me outside of the temple before the ceremony for thinking there would be someone of the social milieu that childcare providers come from who would also be a temple member. The obvious message was that childcare was beneath the dignity of temple members.

My next interaction with organized religion came when a member from a temple in our new community (we did not belong to this temple) asked me to speak to the membership about homelessness. When I finished my presentation… I was the grant writer and volunteer at a recently formed homeless shelter in the community… a representative of the group questioned me and expressed his belief that some homeless people were using the shelter to avoid meeting their life responsibilities such as working. I really didn’t know how to answer that kind of nonsensical and thoughtless inquiry. Choosing homelessness seems, in most cases, the course of last resort. I found this person’s opinion toward homeless people not representative of the progressive view of the majority of Jews in the US about social issues.

Because I stand out in a community for left ideas and left causes, I needed to speak with a person who could advise me about harassment that I suffered in the community in which I now live. I chose a rabbi at a local synagogue, and while he agreed that the harassment that I documented had the earmarks of anti-Semitism attached to it, he was about as interested in spending time with me on these issues as Donald Trump is in becoming anti-racist.

My last foray into organized religion, and I hope this will be the last (I am admittedly a slow learner), was joining a temple in upstate New York following the horrific massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The temple seemed like a welcoming place based on my experience at a memorial service for victims of the massacre, but that sense of community was soon spent.

A few months following our joining that temple, the rabbi gave a benediction at a ceremony at the Vietnam moving wall, a replica of the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. I’m absolutely not against memorializing the dead from that horrific and immoral war (which war is not?), but the rabbi’s words were so full of national chauvinism and militaristic statements that I had to catch my breath after reading them in the temple’s newsletter. Forget the atrocities of Vietnam perpetrated in hundreds of documented incidents; forget the massive bombing; the napalm; the use of Agent Orange; the murder of innocent women, children, and older people; and the expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia. The US had absolutely no business in Vietnam’s civil war, and especially because the US was an enormous superpower at the time and fought against a militarily weak opponent. The rabbi’s celebration of war stunned me, especially since I was both a resister to that war and a veteran of that era. I thought enough is enough at that point.

The rabbi’s call: I wrote a long goodbye letter to the final temple to which we belonged. The rabbi called me and we had a long conversation about her benediction at the moving wall. She stated that it was her responsibility to honor those whose names were on the wall. I countered that there were those who committed mass atrocities whose names are on that wall. I find it exhausting to revisit the immorality of that war again and again and again. Making it a “noble cause” by Ronald Reagan in the minds of some for the purpose of justifying future wars does not cleanse the guilt of the murder of the innocent. The Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Conventions say differently, but past immoral wars have to be sanitized for new wars. The 2003 war in Iraq would have never taken place if lessons had been learned from the mass atrocities of the Vietnam War and the gross immorality of that war. If the US gave a damn about the veterans of that war, then they would have been taken care of properly following the end of the war, but they were not.

As a Jew, I look to the ethics and brilliance of scholar Norman Finklestein (“Is Israel a racist and criminal endeavor?” The SwissBox Conversation, May 18, 2020), and not the phenomenon of the so-called “tough Jew” that coincidentally arose during the belligerent Reagan administration and the continued growth of the far right in Israel. Even the horror of the Holocaust was weaponized by the far right against critics of Israeli policies and they, the critics, immediately and falsely became anti-Semites.

The sense of community attached to religious affiliation is long gone for me. Believing in fairy tales is not for me, especially if they are accompanied by the celebration of war. A person can hold strong secular beliefs about freedom for the Palestinian people (“Nettanyahu Plans To Annex Parts Of The West Bank. Many Israeli Settlers Want It All,” NPR, June 18, 2020), fair play for the little person, a commitment to learning, and the hope and intent to act for a better world without kneeling to illusions in the sky.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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