I had perhaps the most clichéd last few minutes in Israel a Reform rabbinical student could have. As I sat and waited to board my flight home, a good-natured ultra-Orthodox man asked me about my ukulele case. Naturally, our conversation progressed politely from the fact that no, my case didn’t contain a violin, to what I was doing in Israel, to him asking why Reform Jews even call themselves Jewish, to a disagreement about whether the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
My Judaism is a form of religious liberalism, which means it rejects a fundamentalist understanding of sacred texts, it favors evolution over time and the full inclusion of people of different identities, and it is open to conceptions of God that aren’t the pernicious man-in-the-sky God concepts that are so pervasive in popular culture.
As I opened my bag for the last security check, I chuckled to myself about how a conversation could so genteelly explode into his dismissing everything I stand for as a Jew. It also occurred to me that if I accept that this man sincerely believes that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, he and I both based our religious outlook on belief.
In general, people associate belief much more with fundamentalism than with religious liberalism. Belief in God, belief in the sanctity of holy texts and belief in the value of prayer tend to be seen as attributes of orthodox belief and not liberal belief.
But as my flight took off, I found myself thinking that it doesn’t have to be that way. What separates liberal Jewish belief and this polite man’s belief system doesn’t have to be a question of whether to believe, rather it was a question of what we believe.
A belief that the consistency of science can lead liberally religious people to be pretty darn sure that revelation did not occur in the way that fundamentalists conceive of it. At the same time, beliefs that come out of personal experience can lead liberally religious people to believe that there is something in the world that is awesome and language-defying that we don’t understand completely, but that seems to amount to what is commonly known as God.
There are good reasons why liberal religion has so often distanced itself from belief. Religious liberalism grew out of Enlightenment rationalism, which was very skeptical of claims that couldn’t be scientifically proven. Thankfully since then Reform Judaism has moved beyond this and accepted that there is much in the world that we can’t understand through a hyper-rationalistic prism and that it’s important to embrace the mystery of religion.
Belief is also difficult for liberal religions because belief is so much more mysterious and complicated in a non-fundamentalist context. It’s more difficult to say you believe in God if you aren’t sure exactly what that God is. Prayer becomes more complicated when you don’t believe that God can intervene in the material world. And the place of our sacred texts in our religious experience becomes more challenging to understand if we don’t simply believe they come from God.
But, despite these complications, belief from the perspective of liberal religion is just as sincere and important as the belief of fundamentalists. We believe deeply in scientific findings like evolution and the non-existence of divine miracles; we believe deeply in God, even if we aren’t sure how to define God in human terms; and we believe deeply that prayer is meaningful for us within the context of complicated God concepts.
My conviction is that these liberal beliefs lead to a religious life that is more challenging than fundamentalist religion. I also find these liberal religious beliefs to be more true.
When I parted ways with the polite ultra-Orthodox man to board my flight, he told me that he hoped I found the truth. We should all be humble about what religious truths we can come to over the course of our evolving lives, but I think we liberal believers would be better off if we didn’t shy away from this man’s challenge.