"I'm Jewish, but I'm not religious."
As a congregational rabbi, I must hear someone say something like this at least once a week. The funny thing is, it usually comes from someone who is a member of a congregation, who keeps his or her kids in religious school, who observes holidays like Chanukah and Passover, and attends synagogue services on the High Holy Days and a few other times each year. Often, it is a person who gives money to Jewish causes, or even volunteers for the congregation.
Obviously, part of the problem is that most American Jews have been trained to believe that it's bad to be "too religious." They have an image of a chasidic Jew wearing a black coat, tzitzit, a shtreimel fur hat, and payos sidelocks. They have an image of a Jew who observes Shabbat and Kashrut in ways that they reject. They know they don't want to be that, and that is what "religious" means to them.
Even committed Reform Jews, who understand the principles of equality and autonomy that are the foundation of Reform Judaism, still don't believe that they can be religious because they attend a shul where men and women sit together and because they drive to the mall after services on Saturdays. They believe that they cannot be religious, despite the fact that their rabbi tells them they have the right to make their own choices.
Do they think that it is impossible to be a religious Reform Jew? If so, it is a terrible indictment of Reform Judaism if not even its own adherents believe that their Judaism is "real" Judaism.
This week's Torah portion comes to remind us just before Rosh Hashanah that being "religious" is not a matter of donning the Judaism of your grandparents or your grandparents' grandparents. Being a religious Jew is much more a matter of listening to what is already in your heart.
Surely, this commandment which I command you this day is not too wondrous for you, nor is too distant from you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who shall go up to the heavens and get it for us that we may understand it and do it?” It is not across the sea, that you should say, “Who shall cross the sea and get it for us that we may understand and do it?" Rather, it is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
Real Judaism is not some distant and alien land where no self-respecting modern Jew should ever go. Real Torah, as the Torah says, is found in the very ideals of your heart. It is found in the very words that come to your mouth when you talk about your deepest values and your most profound connection to your Creator. It is not somebody else's version of what you are "supposed to do." It is the truth that you already know; the truth of your Jewish identity that is most dear to you.
Your Judaism is as real and as powerful as any Judaism could be, as long as it is what is in your heart. Listen up, Reform Jews! Being religious is not a matter of being the kind of Jew somebody else wants you to be. It is about being the kind of Jew you want to be.
So, the next time you hear the word "religious" and you instinctively think, "That's not me; that's somebody else," think instead about what you believe "religious" should mean, according to the dictates of your own heart and mouth. If you can be that, you can be religious.