Religious and Secular Commitment

For as long as I can remember I’d always complained about the way people seem to identify themselves with one group or another and only then decide how they will behave based on their imitation of the group they belong to.

One place where this comes up is when people identify themselves as secular or religious. Once they identify themselves they say to themselves, “This is what I do, because I am secular.” or “This is what I do because I am religious.” My complaint was “Why do this?” Why can’t they instead say “This is what I do because this is what I’ve chosen to do. And I’ve chosen to do this because I believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s my obligation and responsibility, regardless of whichever group I belong to and what they are doing.”

It bothered me because it seemed as if some extraneous factor was dictating people’s behavior. They weren’t thinking about the meaning of the issue or practice and making their own aware choices.

I’m slowly starting to understand that identifying with one group as opposed to another is not the main factor causing them to behave religiously or otherwise.

For someone who calls himself secular, fulfilling religious obligations is a commitment they are not prepared to make. Commitment means love of God as well as trust in rabbinic interpretations of the law (That’s a big one), a sense of responsibility as well as accepting what you don’t understand. It means performing certain rituals through thick and thin, through hardship and through sacrifice.

It is not group identification but commitment that people have trouble with nowadays.

I don’t know how strong my commitment is. If I lived at the time of the inquisition would I stand under the pressure? I don’t know. I have withstood some pretty hard tests but maybe it was only because I knew I could not live with the guilt if I had transgressed the religious law.

Religious commitment is in a class by itself, absolutely distinct from any other kind of commitment. No matter how strongly one feels the commitment of personal responsibility to do what I have to do in the world because of who I am as an individual and what I am called upon to do in a particular situation because of the meaning of the moment, there is always a doubt thrown into the mix. Maybe I’m really not supposed to be doing this. Maybe it’s somebody elses responsibility, not mine. If it’s too hard maybe I should drop it right now. Maybe I’m trying too hard. Maybe now is not the time…

As important as that doubt is – because it forces you to trust yourself – when it comes to religious imperatives there is never a doubt. I have to take that statement partially back. There can be a doubt as to which religious imperative takes precedence. But that there is something incumbent upon me to do and that this “something” is very often not determined by any meaning I can hear through my own conscience but rather a meaning and obligation I need to be told about because there is no way I can determine the answer by myself is certain. – This is the challenge in religious commitment.

On the other hand what we might call “secular commitment” or commitment to one’s own discovery of meaning has its own challenges. To the religious mindset there is often only one kind of commitment in their lexicon – the religious one. Yet we have statements such as the one by Rebbe Nachman that making one’s own choices based on one’s own ability to discern one’s responsibilities as an individual is the “main work” in divine service.

In other words devout religiosity doesn’t let you off the hook. Not only do you still need to think for yourself but it makes life still more complicated. What are you called upon to do in this unique situation and what are you called upon to use to make the decision? Should you consult a religious authority or should you use your own common sense?

Going back to the issue of what we’ll call “secular commitment” (for want of a better term), nothing is accomplished in the world without commitment. If you start learning to play a musical instrument you won’t make tremendous progress if you don’t make a commitment to practice every day. (Take it from me as someone who has trouble making this commitment.)

A whole other issue which is for a different discussion is the difference between commitment to a moral or an immoral system.

These are just a few thoughts I want to put out there and hear your thoughts. I wanted it to be from a personal experiential perspective and I’m afraid I ended up being theoretical again. As one of my friends would say “Oh, Batya…!” Oh well, for whatever it’s worth…

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One Response to Religious and Secular Commitment

  1. Panny says:

    I am so grateful for what you have shared here! What can I add to it other than my own testimony of “knowing” what you have shared to be true. And knowing this sure does make life more complicated, because one so often has to choose against the norm when listening and responding responsibly to their own conscience. Before even making such a decision, one might be aware of inevitable and extremely painful losses to come… yet… there is NO option but the right and responsible choice in the uniqueness of the situation according to the dictates of one’s conscience… (not the dictates of one’s religion or the world). There are so many religions and so many sheep… but there is only one G-d and one humanity… and each of us individually are uniquely created… beautifully endowed with our own consciousness which is a wonderful gift for truth and goodness… a personal gift as well as a gift for all humanity.

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