Tag Archives: belief

Country Club Judaism

29 Apr

Yesterday, I was talking about what I call “transactional religion,” the pay-for-play deal that you make with your local priest so that you get your lifecycle event. If that’s important to you, then you’ll pay. Now let’s take it to the nth degree.

I mentioned that my wife’s home congregation wouldn’t let us have our wedding at the synagogue. At first blush, that sounds fine. I’m a member of a veteran’s organization that runs it’s own bar. If you’re not a member there, you can’t drink there. Perfectly understandable. However, you can rent out the meeting space, because they’re bringing in money.

In our case, our son should have been bar mitzvah’d last year, but a little disease came through… maybe you heard about it. Despite being members of our current congregation for six months, they refuse to let him have the ceremony unless our son goes through another year of Sunday school, do a project, and vow to be a member for the next three years. Just like everyone else.

Now in fairness, we understand this, because traditionally American Jews only show up for the High Holidays, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals… the lifecycle events. So you want those people who come through to actually be willing to support the congregation and be good Jews. So there are tickets sold to attend the High Holidays, because people will actually buy them. They want to make sure the bar mitzvah has actually had the training before they get up in front of God and everyone.

But that’s not the case here. They didn’t take our attendance in consideration. They didn’t take the fact that he’s a year late in doing the ceremony due to COVID into play. They didn’t care that he’s been working with a cantor for TWICE the normal time. All they cared about was that “this is how we do things.” They didn’t trust us to attend after my son’s bar mitzvah, they wanted it in writing that we would. They didn’t think, “gee, they have a daughter who will need this same thing in three years.” Nope. Pay the money or leave us alone.

So… screw ’em. This is what is known (not just me) as Country Club Judaism–sign the membership fee and you get to play. We have never been rich; in our lives, we’ve hovered between paycheck to paycheck to comfortably middle class. We’ve gone down a little since I stopped travelling for consulting, but still not worrying how we’re going to pay the bills. We also live below our means. We can pay the money.

But at this point, it’s not the money–it’s that lack of trust. They don’t think enough of us to be flexible. They’ve been burned too many times to even give us consideration. Because all we are to them is faces on a Zoom meeting; we’re not real. And that’s the most damning thing of all. We’re not part of this congregation, and the truth is, unless we’re bringing in enough money, we never will.

That’s what hurts the most; they don’t want to know us. They want our numbers, they want our money, but they could care less what we want back from the congregation. And that’s an organization I don’t want to be part of. So we’ll find another spiritual home. I doubt we’ll find anywhere willing to let us perform the bar mitzvah, it’s less than three months now. But we’ve got plenty of time to prepare for Eliza’s bat mitzvah, but are we willing to go through their half-ass preparation? Go through the hoops for her somewhere else? I might… but I doubt my wife will.

We’ve been burned before, too, and unfortunately, we’re running out of options. Apart from simply doing the ceremony ourselves, I don’t think there’s anywhere we can go where we can get what we want. So we’ll probably attend somewhere… and then just never bother getting our daughter bat mitzvah’d in a shul. Or ever have a funeral or anything… just paying month-to-month to support things, but never voting, because this pay-for-play system is not what we believe. But what do you think? Are we too up our own butts? Are we absolutely right? Let me know in the comments below! Then, if you feel like this congregation is worth supporting, buy one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. We want you here, money or not… and if you read up to this point, I love you, reader. May we have many years together.

Transactional Religion

28 Apr

I believe in God. I’m also changing congregations for the second time in a year because my wife and I are not willing to pay the price their board has demanded. No negotiation, no understanding, just… this our policy. This is why believers stop going.

This is what we have decided to call “transactional religion.” I accept the fact that when you join a congregation, someone needs to pay for the building, someone needs to pay the priest, and all the little things that people don’t take on credit. That’s fine. However, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Congregations wants people to show up; after all, if two or three don’t appear in His name, why did I bother showing up? Services are free; you are donating your time and activity to better the congregation. (Now I’m using the generic term “congregation” to apply it to all American religions.) However, when you want something back from the congregation, they want you to pay.

Now most of the time, you can accept that transaction. You ask the priest to come out for a wedding or a funeral, they usually get a donation or an honorarium… which means money. You ask a group of Buddhist monks to come out and purify your house, you’re going to provide food, drink, and cigarettes. (The monks who came to our neighbor’s house smoked like chimneys.) You got to a temple, you leave a donation.

However, that’s an accepted transaction. It’s also based on the willingness and ability of the person to pay. If two poor people want to get married, but they can only offer $100 instead of $300 to the priest, the priest might show up anyway. But they won’t get married in a church, because they can’t afford the site fee. My wife and I wanted to get married in her “home” synagogue, the one she grew up in, before she left for Nebraska and India. So she hadn’t been members for a while. We were poor but we were willing to pay the site fee. But because we weren’t members, the board refused. So we got married in a park, the rabbi came to us, and we paid the honorarium.

That was 15 years ago. It’s not like there was a monster truck rally at the shul we were interrupting, or trying to bump off another wedding, or even interfering with a regular meeting. The shul was empty, they were open on a Thursday, but because we weren’t members… screw you. You don’t get to use our building.

I fear my kvetching is going to take longer than a single post, so I’ll finish this tomorrow, but have you run into this before? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below! Then since we’re talking transactions, the post is free, but the reason is not, so buy one of my books. 🙂 However, I want you to be a member of this congregation, so if $1.99 is too pricey, go ahead and download one of my stories for free.

Religious Existentialism

28 Mar

I am not a fundamentalist of any stripe, but I believe in God. At various points in my life, I wanted to serve God in an official capacity, but my life changed. So how do you believe strongly in something without gripping rock-hard principles?

I was mentioning existentialism in an earlier post, but I found myself getting away from my point about conspiracy theories, and realized that it had to be its own post. I like existentialism but I don’t completely buy it, partly because it starts with the initial concept that God doesn’t exist. So I have breakdown the philosophy to its fundamental components. But instead of me boring you with that, let’s have Joss Whedon (my “icon of existentialism,” but what others call, “the patron saint of mediocrity”) explain it:

Jubal Early : Where’s your sister?
Dr. Simon Tam : I don’t know. Who do you work for?
Jubal Early : This is her room.
Dr. Simon Tam : Yes.
Jubal Early : It’s empty.
Dr. Simon Tam : I know.
Jubal Early : So is it still a room when it’s empty? Does the room, the thing, have purpose? Or do we – what’s the word?
Dr. Simon Tam : I really can’t help you.
Jubal Early : The plan’s to take your sister; get the reward, which is substantial – “imbue”, that’s the word.
Dr. Simon Tam : So you’re a bounty hunter.
Jubal Early : No, that ain’t it at all.
Dr. Simon Tam : Then what are you?
Jubal Early : I’m a bounty hunter.

Firefly, Objects in Space (2002)

I love that episode, especially the philosophical bounty hunter, and Joss will bore you to death with the commentary to that episode explaining it. But let’s hit the fundamental question–does life have purpose or do we imbue it with purpose? If you’re atheist, your answer is “we imbue it with purpose.” If you’re a theist, the answer is “God gives life purpose.” To quote the Westminster Catechism of Faith, “The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever.” Considering that’s all I know about that seminal work of Protestantism, it made quite an impression on a 12-year-old in confirmation class. The focus was always on the word “enjoy.” It’s not an error in translation, it’s the key. God wants us to be happy.

In existentialism, the point… is there is no point to life, and it’s up to us to make it have meaning for ourselves. Or to quote another great TV show:

Kryten : Monsieur Jean-Paul Sartre, sir.
Rimmer : Who?
Kryten : He’s a philosopher, sir. He’s an existentialist.
Rimmer : Well, Sartre! We don’t like existentialists around here. And we certainly don’t like French philosophers poncing around in their black polo-necks filling everyone’s heads with their theories about the bleakness of existence and the absurdity of the cosmos! Clear?

Red Dwarf, Meltdown (1991)

So here’s where I keep things simple. If God exists and he wants us to enjoy Him, then he intercedes in our lives, because we often find ourselves down the wrong path. That’s a pretty big jump, but my own experience is one of divine intercession. Now Seth McFarlane would say, “We’re just coincidence whores,” seeing intercession in everything. He speaks as someone who missed one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. You could say that God destined him for greatness, but he interpreted that as, “Shit happens, get over it.”

Or to put it nicer, “Life is chaos, be kind.” That was Michelle McNamara’s mantra; she was the writer of true crime novels and married to comedian Patton Oswald. “Was” as in one night she went to bed and never woke up again.

The problem with believing in intercession is that you have to ask, “Why does God intercede in my life, but not to save my mom?” This was a hard one for a while, and since I don’t believe in predestination anymore (God having a plan for our lives), then I’m left with the answer Van Halen put on their video, Right Now: “Right now, God is killing moms and dogs… because he has to.”

God created a universe governed by certain rules. My mom had a curable disease that she chose not to be cured by; so she died. Could God have cured her? Of course, but he didn’t… because that would violate free will. In order to give the choice to love Him, He has to give us the choice to do the opposite. This is why I believe that the Jewish tradition is the closest to how I believe God exists. It’s a contractual arrangement, not a contract between equals, but not a master-servant relationship either. It’s the deal is very simple: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” If you break the terms of the agreement, then there will be consequences. In my belief, God is not a vengeful father, he’s a disappointed landlord.

A subtle difference, but an important one. God wants us to be happy; the commandments are there to help us be happy, not as arbitrary rules (although no one can explain the red heifer). When we break those rules, we feel guilty (some call it “sin”), so we need to atone for our sin, but since we can’t sacrifice a goat anymore, we need to do acts of lovingkindness. And that’s the purpose of life: Love God, Love Your Fellow Man, Be Happy. Sounds easy, but in the end, the hardest thing to do.

Am I too up my own butt for this one? What massive philosophical step did I jump over? Let me know in the comments below! After that, why not pick up one of my books! It’s full of characters who have difficulty relating to the absurdity of the cosmos. Or if you’re not ready to read between the lines of a fun story, try a shorter story for free. You’ll be glad you did.

Getting Out of My Own Way

20 Mar

My middle school counselor once told me, “You’re like a man driving a car with your feet on the gas and the brake pedal. If you can take your foot off the brake, you’ll go faster.” In so many ways, we are our worst enemy, and constantly get in the way of what we seek.

Now I could blame a lot of that on my ADD, but everyone has some reason why they can’t succeed, and the truth is that it doesn’t come easy to anybody. In school, I was frequently bored, and if I didn’t see the point of an assignment, I didn’t apply myself. So my grades suffered. For example, we were required to do a project for driver’s education where we had to cut out fifty traffic accidents out of the newspaper (yes, I’m dating myself) and indicate how this could have been avoided. I thought this was stupid and didn’t do it. So I didn’t get to the driving part of the course and didn’t get my license until I was 21.

It was only when I went to grad school–much later in life–that I was able to focus… although that probably had more to do with me paying for it directly.

This affects all parts of your life. For example, I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 25. I was brought up with a firm belief in “love can wait,” but the schpiel went something like this: “When you’re ready, God will find someone who is also ready for you, and you won’t be alone any more.” No one explained that you actually have to ask women out. Now that sounds silly, but to a socially awkward boy like myself, this was an important step that was left out. So I had crushes, and the few times I actually got the gumption to do it, I got shot down a lot.

“Oh, boo-hoo, Marcus, me too.” Let me explain–when I asked someone out, it was because I was convinced I wanted to marry them. I was already committed at that point. I didn’t understand the idea of just dating to have fun–or get laid–or just to not go alone to a movie. Everything was at a higher level because the dumbasses who came up with a abstinence problem thought kids knew the basics. It was only have therapy, and lots of rejections after, that I could actually get my first girlfriend.

Work is like that too. I always remember the phrase “high school never ends.” In a way, my boredom has always been a determining factor in my career. I liked being on stage, but because I was always taught “you need to be paid for work,” I never even considered being an actor or musician. When I went into teaching, I think it was because I enjoyed being an actor, but had a captive audience. It was a natural fit. But when I got my teaching certificate, it never occurred to me to “volunteer” in the place I wanted to travel to… and being a history teacher, I wasn’t exactly in demand. So as I joke, “I wanted to go overseas in the worst way, so I went overseas in the worst way.” I took a job as a dorm parent, because at least it was in an overseas school. I insisted on teaching a class in an addition to working a full job, not thinking that I really needed the time off instead. Nope. So in a role that I wasn’t ready to handle, I burned out pretty hard.

It worked out in the end, but man, if I could just get out of my own way, I figured I could have gotten there a lot faster. I’m sure I’m not alone in this–what obstacles did you put in your own way? Let me know in the comments below!

And if you like my writing, why not pick up one of books? Or if the $1.99 threshold is too much of an “obstacle,” download one of my free stories instead!

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