Piety Porn

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2015-03-22 – I grew up in a Conservative Jewish family. Conservative, not Orthodox. We had a kosher home, we observed all the holidays, we went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and had the proper celebratory meals. But we drove to the synagogue on these occasions, an act that is forbidden to Orthodox Jews and, if we really needed something, we would buy it, an act that is even forbidden to Conservative Jews. We didn’t make a regular practice of doing so; we did it if there was a need.

I lived in Dayton, Ohio where, when I was young, there were only three synagogues: one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform. By modern standards, the Orthodox synagogue would not be considered Orthodox because men and women were not physically separated. When I was in high school, a fourth synagogue opened in a house next door to my aunt’s house. That synagogue kept men and women separate, but was attractive because of the informality of praying in a house rather than a solemn sanctuary. At the time, I was thinking of becoming a rabbi.

I had two models for my aspiration. There were pious Jews who were visible sticklers for every stricture of the law. And there were pious Jews who were quiet in their piety but were kind and did good works for the community. I hoped to be the second kind.

That was forty years ago.

In that time, I dropped my aspiration to become a rabbinate. I stopped attending services. I’m not sure that I ever prayed in a believing sort of way, which was part of the problem. Ultimately I married a woman outside the faith and we celebrate holidays from both our traditions. I’d say I am an atheist or, at least an agnostic, but I don’t feel hostility like some atheists do. I rather admire those who are religious and keep their traditions and do good works for the community—the same people I admired when I was part of the community.

Too bad there are so few of them.

I left Dayton just as the forth synagogue was beginning, so I don’t know what happened there. In my new city of Chicago, I find a rather ostentatious kind of Orthodoxy. Men wear black hats and coats. Women wear long dresses and wigs or scarfs to cover their hair. I live in the neighborhood. On Sabbath and holidays, they are out in mass walking to and from their synagogues. In the shops, I find references to strictures in the laws of kosher food that were simply unknown to me as a child. (Here is an example.)

Now, it could be that I came from a small town to the big town and these practices were always in place here. To some degree that is probably true. But I think that, in the forty years, there has been a steady escalation of religiosity. My religious brothers probe the holy text to find new ways of expressing their piety.

Somehow they never seem to find new ways of doing good works for the community. Or maybe those people are just modest. Maybe they do their good works and keep quiet about it.

Jews are not the only ones who have seen an escalation of piety. This is just my experience. But we see the same trends with Evangelical Christians and with the more distant Muslims. Yet I know that both Christians and Muslims have those who quietly do good work for their communities and just keep quiet about it.

Do these pious practitioners of whatever faith have something in common? It was once called “holier than thou,” a kind of striving to stand out as sacred and revered. Is that what it is? A striving for reputation?

Or could it be a kind of fetishism. Too much of a good thing. A kind of addiction to what one Jewish folksinger called a religious “high.” A kind of pornography of piety?

It would be an interesting psychological study. I’m just asking questions. I’d like to understand the difference between those who put their faiths to good works and those who revel in the intensity of their obedience to strange and (often newly discovered) ancient practices.

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One response to “Piety Porn

  1. Pingback: I’m Jewish, She’s Not | Eightoh9·

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