In this age, it could be said that Religion is met with a great deal of cynicism. Some of the reasons are not that surprising: when religious people back leaders like Donald Trump, a skeptic might ask, “If these people are supposed to speak for God, who is good, why do they support a man whom is obviously lacking in character?” Then, with COVID-19 causing death still nation why, the same skeptic might ask, “Where is God amongst all this suffering?” These are difficult questions, and sometime I will try to answer them. However, right now I want to answer two seemingly shallower questions which I have heard asked.
The first is, “With all that it costs to truly practice a religion, why should I practice it? If I must keep special diets or certain rules regarding chastity, why is it worth it to be a religious person.” Now, I know the heart of this question. As a Jew I keep Kosher, and as a Jew I keep strict laws about sex. Then there are other laws regarding Shabbat and prayers. I admit that I have never mastered the laws saying that an Orthodox person must pray three times daily. Nonetheless, when I am not sick I go to shul once a week and on Holidays. Yet what skeptics miss in all of this is “the Joy of the Law.” A person who keeps the mitzvoth they receive from their Lord achieves purity of body, spirit, and mind.
Of course, different traditions address the Joy of the Law differently. A lay Catholic may eat fish on Friday and fast during lent. A Muslim keeps Halal and fasts during the month of Ramadan. Hindus and Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarians and meditate. And of course, the clergy–even in Judaism–is called on to do more than the laity. Though Orthodox rabbis are required to be married, many faith traditions expect the opposite extreme: celibacy on the part of the priest, monk or nun. All of this is a way of giving back to God–the giver of all things. This is the “cost” of religion.
Now we come to the rewards. I recall reading a book of Jewish folktales where it describes a Jew searching for Miriam. When the Jew finds Miriam, it turns out that on Shabbat she plays her tambourine and God’s sweet music spreads throughout the world, so that wherever Jews keep Shabbat, the music overcomes them with Joy. This is God’s love for the Jewish people… In a similar story, God’s feminine part, the Shekinah, leaves God to join herself with the Jews welcoming her in as “My Bride, my Queen” every Shabbat.
The point is that by constant prayers and rigorously keeping the strictures of faith, a Jew–really, anyone–can experience the Love of God. And the Jew who experiences such in this world, will find it again in the next world. When God breathes His breath into a baby, it is constituted to love God. And if during life it does so, in the Afterlife it will be rejoined with God. It is my own personal believe that the Soul will live with God in Heaven–that this will be its’ chief reward–but in this world the person who opens their heart to God will find it filled with His love and presence.
I know that even among the devout there are nay-sayers. Martin Buber said that once he turned a friend away from his doorstep to meditate, only for that friend to commit suicide. This spiritual narcissism is possible. Yet to say that the meditation is wrong is to throw the baby out with the bath water. A person could equally claim that keeping Shabbat makes people lazy because on the day a person is forbidden to work except under dire circumstances. Yet there is no harder worker than the Jew! Traditional Jews are known both for their commitment to their prayers on Shabbat and their commitment to their work on weekdays. Just so, prayers and meditation when appropriate–when other work is done and all of a person’s social obligations met–relieve the Spirit of a heavy burden. Ironically, it is the Shabbat which teaches us the real usefulness of our faith.