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Yom Kippur, the Pope and My Reluctant Secularism

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LONDON -- Sometimes the easiest questions are the hardest ones to answer. Like: What religion are you?

I had reason to think about this issue the other day during a routine doctor's appointment at a local London hospital. As we were winding up, the doctor turned to me and asked: "Oh, yes, and what religion are you? It could be relevant to your treatment." He was holding a clipboard and a pen, ready to tick the appropriate box on his chart.

I paused, as if he'd asked me the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem. "Umm . . . well . . . I used to be Catholic." I heard myself say. "But my husband's Jewish . . . so I guess . . . um . . ."

The doctor raised his eyebrows. As polite as the Brits tend to be, you can tell when you've tried their patience. And I could see that this kind gentleman was thinking: "Honey, just answer the question. I've got loads of patients to see in the waiting room and I really don't need an American confessional right now."

"I guess I'm nothing," I told him finally. "Yeah, that's right. Just tick 'nothing.' " But what I really wanted to say was: "Do you have a box for 'formerly Christian'? Or perhaps for 'wanna-be Jewish'?"

As it happened, the very next day was Yom Kippur -- probably the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. This year, my husband and I had decided to attend services at a self-described "Alternative Liberal Jewish synagogue" in London. Although this synagogue primarily serves the LGBT community, the website made clear that it was open to all sorts of "alternative" members, including: a) atheist Jews (like my husband); b) patrilineal Jews (like my kids, who aren't technically Jewish because their mother isn't); and c) all those who don't feel like they fit in anywhere else.

In short: they welcomed misfits. Like myself. And since we, as a family, periodically revisit the question of whether or not to join a synagogue, this seemed as good a place as any to hang our hats (or rather, don our skull caps) for Kol Nidre, the first night of Yom Kippur.

In retrospect, it's clear to me that I was expecting way too much out of this service. Don't get me wrong. I liked the rabbi. With her insistence that we use gender-neutral pronouns when reciting prayers, her comfy-jeans-and-black-fleece-beneath-the-prayer-shawl look, and her sermon peppered with references to Derrida and Ayn Rand, this lady was right up my alley.

But I think that I was expecting the clouds to part . . . shock and awe . . . or some other rock-my-world type experience that would convince me, for once and for all, that -- to coin a phrase -- I'd found religion.

Instead, despite using the Reform prayer book, the service reminded me of all the Conservative Jewish services I've attended with my husband back in the States. Which is to say that I spent the evening following a book backwards in a language I don't speak or read while everyone around me -- including my husband -- chanted, sang and stood up (and boy, is there lot of standing on Kol Nidre!) with a comfortable familiarity that I lacked. At one point, I gazed down at my 9-year-old-son, who had a copy of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories" tucked within his prayer book, and wondered whether I, too, might just as well be reading that.

I know what it feels like to participate in a set of ancient rituals with a room full of people who know them cold just like you do. I grew up in an observant Catholic family. I can still recite all the prayers in a standard Mass by heart and I know when to sit, stand and kneel in lockstep with the congregation. There's something deeply comforting about that process.

But somehow, as I stood there on Friday night, trying desperately to latch on to whatever thread of a Jewish melody I could recognize and mumble along with, I felt that the magic was gone. It just wasn't working for me.

To make matters worse, just as I was standing there contemplating my religious moorings (or lack thereof), the pope had arrived in the U.K. for the first papal visit to this country in nearly 30 years. As Pope Benedict took to the pulpit to warn against the dangers of "aggressive secularism" in British society, I couldn't help but feel implicated.

For as much as I'm quite certain that I could never return to Catholicism with its present hierarchy and social policies, I do wonder whether I'll ever embrace organized religion again . . . at all. And if I don't do so, whether that's a problem.

Of course, none of this would weigh on me at all if -- like most of my British and American friends -- I could easily shrug religion off. But I'm no Richard Dawkins. I'm not militantly secular. I'm more in the Woody Allen school of thought on this matter. When asked about his faith in a recent interview with The New York Times, the famous Jewish filmmaker said that although he ends up being very scientific about these things, "I wish I could get with it. It would be a big help on those dark nights."

I hear you, Woody. Because I think -- reluctantly -- that's where I've ended up as well: as a well-meaning, wanna-be religious but ultimately secular gal, with a dash of agnosticism tossed in for good measure. (It's always best to hedge your bets.)

Perhaps I'm writing religion off too soon. Maybe I should keep searching for that magical synagogue in the sky. Or maybe I should go the route of my sister, who -- after years of attending first Catholic, then Methodist churches -- has ended up a Unitarian. And happily so. Maybe that's where we misfits who want to be spiritual but ultimately just can't get with the religious program really belong.

Or maybe, to return to the doctor's question, I should just accept that I'm "nothing" and get on with it. Yom Kippur is, after all, a holiday of atonement. It's a day set aside to atone for the sins of the past year -- to others and to God. But it's also about forgiveness.

I get that. As an ex-Catholic, I'm all about sins and forgiveness. But maybe it's time to forgive myself for being secular. And let up on the guilt.

So in conclusion I say, "Shalom."

Which means "hello . . . goodbye . . . peace."

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its a clever have answered.."i'm not religious" and left it at that :)

September 20 2010 at 9:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I believe being a member of an organized religion is much better than going it alone. Sure, there are some apostates, hypocrites and false leaders to be found; however, you must recognize we are all on a spiritual quest and everyone is at a different place in that journey. The church is a hosptial for sinners, not an exclusive club for saints. So, being a member of a church you make allowances, take the best from it as you find it, make progress on your personal journey and give back to others just as Christ did.

September 20 2010 at 8:47 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Yes, many "real" Christians feel like misfits too....the "church" in general has never been totally the way Jesus/God intended I'm afraid & I've found it difficult to find one that is not somewhat messed up & I don't agree 100% with them. They warned about going astray from the pure teachings and make man made traditions, misinterpretations, perversions. Catholics did that from "day 1" with their huge man made traditions that aren't biblical when you compare their doctrines to a non-Catholic Bible. But they became the most popular and grew to be the largest in Europe. I'm not Catholic but still find that "organized" religion is in an all-time mess & apostasy like Jesus said would happen. Jesus is upset too!!! However, there are many out there striving to do & live simply as the Scriptures teach mostly in "nondenominational" churches. Don't depend on any person to tell you what it says. God expects us all to research for ourselves. It's easy to know the basics: repent, believe & be baptized (Acts 2:38). "Come as you are". The Holy Spirit will then enter and help you grow/learn & even helps you want to do what the Lord wants b/c we don't by ourselves. You don't have to go to a building for church-church is "you" & you can just have "house churches" with a couple of friends. Just go by the New Testament - it's simple. I can testify of many real miracles in my life, one being a broken foot instantly healed. Man has made it complicated & messed up, not God. If interested, some good sites for proofs Bible is true, etc.: ** ** God/Jesus/Holy Spirit is waiting for you.........

September 20 2010 at 8:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You are what you say you are. That's it. That's the meaning of life. There is no deep dark eternal secret. The day you die, your components eventually end up in the great soup to be reconstituted. You can thank Einstein [an athiest but "Jewish"] who proved that matter is indestrucible. We are not important...our children aren't adorable [in the secular] sense...decent behavior is defined by the society you live in....

September 20 2010 at 2:11 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Religion, or anti-religion takes work, conviction and participation with other beleivers. It does not just drop on you from the sky. Delia, you appear unwilling to embrace atheism with your husband and Dawkins; but when the doctor asked you denied both God and Christ. So ask yourself, what are your true beliefs about the nature of our existence? It matters not what others do, but, as Christ asked, Who do you say that I am?

September 20 2010 at 2:00 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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