Friday, March 20, 2009

Is religion "private" if your family sees you?

[ I have some big news, but I'm not ready to blog it just yet.]

One of the fun side-effects of blogging is that it makes periodic self-examination fairly easy; like a diary/journal, it allows me to go back to where I was a year ago and look at what I was thinking.

Technically, I can always do that - I have computer files with my derashot and shiurim going back to 1997 - but the blog makes it even easier. To see where I was last Pesach, I just click the sidebar Label, Pesach, and I'm there.

This morning I took a minute to re-read a derashah I delivered last year, on Pesach, regarding private (צנוע) religion and public religion. It was a reaction to the Inquisition of then-presidential candidates Clinton and Obama at Messiah College (a topic I also blogged here).

I talked about our preference for private religion, in terms of not making our religious practice a display for others, while acknowledging that Judaism finds both approaches to religious practice appropriate at different times. When it comes to teaching our children, though, we are instructed to be public, particularly at the Seder. "והגדת לבנך - You shall tell your children," as the Torah admonishes us repeatedly.

In a comment on that derashah, Tzipporah contends that addressing one's family is actually private, rather than public.

Her point is important: Should our spouses, children, siblings, parents, be a natural part of the religious lives we consider to be most private and personal?

I'd suggest not.

As Rav Soloveitchik noted so articulately in his 1964 essay, Confrontation, there is a natural gap between individual human beings, no matter how close we are, because no one can truly know the thoughts, emotions, feelings of another. Shared experiences are not the same as shared lives and shared DNA.

The logos, the language we employ to bridge that gap, to communicate agreement and disagreement, comparison and contrast, is an inherently flawed medium. Language is a product of our context, our life history, our interactions, and so our words are loaded with meaning which we cannot convey to others, no matter how hard we try.

This gap generates a deep-seated loneliness in ever-social Man, a loneliness which can be filled only by a Gd who is יודע מחשבות, One who knows our very thoughts. Religion provides a context for that relationship with Gd, a way to communicate with the Deity who knows us.

In this vision of Religion, any human being other than myself is not a partner in that one-to-One relationship, is not privy to the information conveyed between me and my Creator. And so, any other human being is public.

So to me, any religious action performed before another human being - including one's spouse, one's siblings, one's parents, one's children - is inherently public.

And so the deepest parts of our religious experience (outside of training our children, outside of the Seder and similar educational opportunities) really should be more concealed than revealed, even in the case of our families.

What do you think?


  1. In this vision of Religion, any human being other than myself is not a partner in that one-to-One relationship, is not privy to the information conveyed between me and my Creator.

    Interesting. I'd suggest that this view of religion stems less from anything inherent in Judaism and more from the Individual-State relationship ideal of the modern nation-state. (Wherein each individual is supposed to relate only on an individual basis to the state as a whole, not mediated by family or other group ties.)

    Would you still feel this way if you lived in a tribal society, in which your relations with Hashem were enacted through physical acts like sacrifice on behalf of your entire family?

    For those without a strong individual private prayer praxis, the nuclear family does become the "private" end of the religion spectrum. But I like your points.

  2. Very interesting...and kind of timely for me a bit. Religion to me is private, however, i have to make it public because i need to take time off work for holidays. So now i feel like i am a bit on public display ("what, she doesn't celebrate X-mas??")

    At the same time, the Jewish religion is different - now i am moving towards family - because there is a great deal to teach. How a person deals with it after they learn can be private, whether they choose to daven or do nothing etc...

    So now, is family private or public? Well, its kind of a bit of both - and it kind of depends on what part of the family - you will likely let your spouse into a different part of your spirtual realm than say a parent or a sibling. You may not share anything with your uncle or aunt, but your cousins may be like siblings...


  3. Tzipporah-
    I agree that this is not inherently Jewish - but sacrifice has not been lost just because we use words to communicate. We still employ sacrifice, such as through hiddur mitzvah (beautifying mitzvot).

    Glad to get you hmmming!