By Niles Elliot Goldstein

The attacks of September 11, 2001 represented absolutist religion at its worst—an institution defined by and devoted to the radical negation of the self. In those instances, that negation took physical form through the exploding bodies of the suicide bombers. But there is a countercurrent that is alive and well in our own culture, a focus not on the denigration of the self, but on its deification. This is often found in the various and popular manifestations of the New Age movement.

Both impulses approach religion and spirituality in ways that are neat, clean, and problematic. The path to God is a murky and difficult one, and the more honest we are about that fact, the better. The Kabbalists call God Ein Sof, the Boundless One. Kierkegaard calls God the Absolute Frontier. Any system or strategy that ignores the essential mystery and unfathomability of a transcendent God will ultimately fail. Or lead its adherents onto roads of violence or narcissism.

God is not a cosmic Pez dispenser, mechanically bestowing (or withholding) rewards based on our behavior. And God is not a warm and fuzzy teddy bear, constantly reassuring us that whatever we do is okay. God is God, the creator and sustainer of life. And religion is the residue of our ancestors’ relationship with God, their attempt to guide future generations of Jews—through rites, rituals, and holy days—about how to live in ways that are noble and sacred. At its best, religion comforts us when we are in pain and agitates us when we become complacent and arrogant.

But before we can reap religion’s benefits, we need to grow up and get over our baggage about it. As children, lots of us had lousy personal experiences at services or at Hebrew school. Yet to write off Judaism as a whole based on one or two bad examples of its expression is like completely dismissing representative democracy based on what the Belgians did in the Congo or what the British did in India. It’s absurd and unfair. Certainly, many of our Jewish institutional models need to be revitalized or changed, sometimes in dramatic ways. But so do our own attitudes about Judaism itself.

Though a lot of today’s Jewish leaders are worried about our future as a community, our own history seems to imply that we’ll be just fine. It’s not about numbers, and it never has been. In recent years, the heads of some of the Jewish denominations debated in the press about which movement could claim more affiliated members. Who gives a damn? Two thousand years ago, a small group of Palestinian rabbis boldly transformed the biblical religion they had inherited. In the sixteenth century, an even smaller number of mystics in the Galilee (most of them in their twenties and thirties) reshaped the Sabbath liturgy into the form that is familiar to us now, irrespective of whether we live in Fargo or in Fez. Size doesn’t matter. What matters is commitment and creativity.

Urging our youth to become active Jews through the use of guilt, sending out alarming fundraising letters that imply there’s a skinhead hovering at our street corners, building Holocaust memorials in nearly every major city around the country—none of these things are going to make Jews—particularly young Jews—want to embrace their Jewish identities or spiritual traditions. What we need is a Jewish community rooted in affirmation, joy, and celebration, not guilt, sentimentality, and fear. Yet how do we honor our heritage without having it oppress or exclude us? How do we affirm our individual lives without glorifying them? These are the difficult questions that our generation of Jews must try to answer—even if it means going against the prevailing trends of our time.