Friday, July 2, 2010

On the outside, looking in

Side note: I had an internal debate over whether the title should read "On the outside, looking in" or "On the outside looking in." I went with the comma, because I believe in commas (as long as they aren't overused) but I wasn't entirely sure. Anyway.

Organized religion is a strange beast. If you are acquainted with it, and practice it, it is familiar and thus, not odd to you. If organized religion is not germane to your life, it can seem cultish, weird, intolerant and closed-off.

I am a product of organized religion. I enjoy the stability it gives me, that my life has structure and meaning, and I derive comfort from my beliefs. So why did I think Jesus Camp was so disturbing?

Jesus Camp (the trailer is below) is a 2006 documentary about Pentecostal children who attend a summer Bible camp and the weeks leading up to it. The three children featured in the movie are fervent in their beliefs, and their Christianity shapes their entire lives - the music they listen to, the schooling they receive, their rituals before they eat, the people they associate with, what they do on the weekend... in short, exactly like Orthodox Jews.

My Orthodoxy affects the way I eat, what I eat, what I do on the weekends, the people I associate with, where I went to school. It affects my schedule during the week and the activities I'm willing to participate in. It affects where I've chosen to live and what I wear. My belief system shapes my attitude toward world events, toward events in my own life, how I perceive my actions, how I treat other people. My religion is everything to me.

These kids in the movie are exactly the same way. Their religion is everything to them. Their belief is everything to them. When one of the girls whispers a prayer before sending a bowling ball down the lane, she reminded me of the girls I went to school with who would roll their eyes upward and say "please, Hashem!" before an exam. Young children think about religion and God and the afterlife and can often feel deeply connected - in a less cynical and more innocent way than adults, sometimes - to spirituality. "Is Hashem above space?" a little girl asked our rabbi once. "Yes and no," he replied.

There are certainly seemingly bizarre practices in Judaism (circumcision, anyone?). We put a piece of parchment on our doorposts and think it will protect us. We build flimsy structures and eat in them for a week. We say that nine men don't have the same significance as ten men. We pray after eating and after using the bathroom. All this should have made me feel more in common with the people featured in Jesus camp, who also believe in ritual. So why didn't it? Why did I feel put off and disturbed?

The negativity in the attitude towards non-Christians worried me. Jews don't believe in proselytizing and we believe that non-Jews can achieve portions in the world to come. We don't preach that we should take back America and restore it to its rightful values. We certainly talk of morality, and a moral society, and of ourselves as a light unto the nations, but we don't aim to take control of America and change all policy to fit our values. Good educators make Judaism a religion of love and service, not a religion of fear and oppression.

Not so with the people in Jesus Camp. To be saved, you must be Christian. To have spiritual potential, it must be through Jesus. "There are two kinds of people in the world," says the mother of one of the children profiled in the movie. "People who love Jesus, and people who don't." As the children's pastor passionately preaches a call to repentance, tears flow down the children's faces and they crowd around her, seeking to be washed with holy water that she pours on their hands from a Nestle brand waterbottle. There is passion, and love -- and also tremendous fear.

But then I think -- what is the difference between these kids and the very religious kids I went to camp with? They also held wide-eyed beliefs that other religions -- and often, other streams of Orthodoxy -- were wrong. We also had camp skits and plays about people who lost religion and then found it -- to the audience's eternal relief. There was little nuance in the lives of many of these girls. For them, religion meant one thing, and it was everything to them.

I learned about repentance and the teshuvah process as a fifth grader. I wasn't being brainwashed, I was being taught an aspect of what it means to be religious and to fear God. I do believe in a God who exacts punishment, before Whom I am meant to tremble and stand in awe. So how do I explain my discomfort? Is it a matter of the familiar and the unfamiliar? Is it a matter of degrees? Or is it that I see more similarity than difference, and the shared intolerant passion scares me?