Redefining Religious

By Talia Cooper

I’ve tried out many answers:

“Not really.”

“Kind of.”

“I guess, but it’s not what you’d think.”

“I suppose in my own kind of way, but I’m not strict or anything.”

I can’t remember if I’ve ever just said, “Yes.” But I’ve been thinking about it.

After all, when you tell people your mother is a cantor and your father is a rabbi, it’s probably a good idea to have an answer to the oft asked question: “So, are you religious?”

It would be easier if the question was as neutral as, “Are you an outdoors person?” or “Donuts or cupcakes?” But it’s not, no matter how casually the speaker shapes their tone.

“What are you really asking?” I should reply one day, “Am I a religious freak? Do I believe in a G-d that controls everything? Am I going to judge you and your heathen ways? Do I think I’m better than you? Do I have a superhuman spirit power that can help you with your crisis?” These are the questions I imagine floating behind the lips of my inquisitor.

I don’t really want to explain all the history. That my parents were hippies. That they ran away from orthodoxy. That their Judaism and Jewish leadership has more to do with community-building and political action than pure religion. Sometimes I’ll say, “Yeah, well, my dad’s a rabbi but he doesn’t believe in G-d,” because I’ve noticed that phrase often puts people at ease. On rare occasions I have completed that sentence, adding: “…but I do.”

I’ve always loved Judaism because it meant special things: holidays with singing and dancing, delicious meals with family and friends, celebrations, community protests, youth groups. My parents never shoved a judicious G-d down my throat, but instead let the idea of G-d be something I was free to explore. I asked my mom once why we didn’t eat bread during Passover and she said, “Because then we can have the experience of doing something at the same time as Jews all over the world.” I liked that. So I stuck with it. Even as I felt embarrassed chomping on matzah in middle school or missing events because of Jewish holidays. It felt worth it.

But religion got harder in college. The Hillel on campus was certainly nothing like my leftist synagogue back home. And in my activist circles, religion was decidedly not cool. So my focus shifted for a few years, and then shifted again when I returned home after college and re-engaged with the political Jewish community.

Re-engaging with Judaism felt good. But I noticed there weren’t many other college grads looking to join organized religion. And the ones who were preferred to identify as “spiritual not religious.” I understood where they were coming from. Organized religion has been responsible for lots of terrible things. But organized religion has also produced many movers and shakers and crowds of world-changing activists.

The phrase “spiritual not religious” felt weird to me, as if there was something wrong or shameful with being religious. As if the speaker were clarifying, “I’m the good kind of Jewish person, not the annoying kind.” It felt like another way to create divisions among our people.

But I also understood why it could feel almost off-limits to identify otherwise. I have long felt that the orthodox branches of Judaism have monopolized the term religious. Am I even allowed to call myself religious? After all, I text, drive, write and carry on Shabbos. I make up my own rules about kashrut and then only sometimes follow them. I don’t say all the blessings. Sometimes I forget to light Friday candles. I can never remember Torah to quote and don’t particularly enjoy text study. Plus my relationship to G-d has never been crystal clear. Do those things disqualify me for the term religious?

But I don’t feel “spiritual not religious.” I can tell that phrase just doesn’t describe me. I feel “spiritual AND religious.” Because you know what? Whatever I do on Shabbos, it feels holy and different from every other day of the week. My own kashrut rules feel special to me and being able to break them reminds me of my agency in my Jewish life. I often don’t say blessings, but I almost always say the Shehechyanu before doing things for the first time. Plus, a murky relationship to G-d is still a relationship.

It turns out my brother Lev has also struggled to define his Jewish identity. After college he began to say, “I’m religious, not spiritual,” with a hint of sass. When I asked him why he says this, he responded, “I don’t feel a strong sense of spirituality, whatever that means, but I feel a sense of attachment and connection to Jewish traditions and ritual.” We’re both working to figure something out our own way.

I am spiritual. AND I am religious. I dare anyone to tell me I’m not. It’s time for me to take back the word. The religious right no longer gets sole ownership. I love that I have chosen my own Jewish life, that it feels flexible and connected to community. I believe everyone has a right to define their own Jewish path, be that religious, spiritual, both or neither. We must embrace a more open understanding of what it means to be religious in our Jewish communities and institutions.

Maybe “religious” no longer has to mean following all the right rules, but rather a sense of commitment to one’s own religious exploration. If so, count me in.

For more on my Jewish experience, check out my piece in the just-released book “Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.” Join us in Manhattan on September 9th for a book release event.

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. Contact talia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.