Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish followers! And just a happy Wednesday to everyone else reading my blog! Tonight I celebrated my first Hanukkah with my dad and it was a very interesting experience to say the least. My grandmother is Jewish, but my dad was raised by his Anglican father as a teen, so he never really grew up culturally or religiously Jewish. Point being, we wanted to explore our ancestry and Hanukkah seemed like a great place to start. I decided to make latkes while watching a documentary about the history of Hanukkah and dad made a popular chicken recipe. We even looked up the proper prayers to recite before eating our meal. Needless to say it was different than what we were used to, considering new food rituals, prayers, music, and settings for a religious holiday.
What really struck me was that for two ethnic Jews, we didn’t have a huge idea of the power of this religious ritual, yet we enjoyed it and were eager to try it. We read about the history, watched documentaries, looked up the proper cooking and recipes, and yet for me it was still so foreign. The fascinating thing for me was that the feeling that highly observant Jews must feel during Hanukkah is as powerful as my previous wonderful spiritual experiences during Christmas mass or during other times when I felt deeply connected to the world around me. How is it that one ritual can hold so much meaning for one person, and be so confusing, mind boggling, or foreign for someone else? Further, and what I really want to touch on, is the validity of religious experiences for a religious person of any faith.
What I truly believe is that all religions are like relative ways in which to understand a much larger transcendent reality. We’re all on a spiritual path seeking unity with something beyond us, seeking answers to the universe, and seeking meaning in our personal lives. It’s like religions are pieces of a full puzzle that provide different answers and different ways of viewing the deeper reality of our universe and purpose. I don’t believe any one religion has it all right, or that one must be devoid of some form of spiritual validity and value for the practitioner. That being said, my experience in synagogues, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and so forth has shown me that relative realities that mean little to one person can hold enormous power for another.
Thinking back to the documentary I watched about the history of Hanukkah I was reflecting on scholarly debate over whether the revolt of the Macabees ever actually happened. Then I thought about that recent public presentation by a self-proclaimed “biblical scholar” in London who believes he disproved the existence of Jesus. My question is: can we remove the validity of genuine religious experience even if we do disprove that a historical event or person did not actually exist on earth? If people still feel a divine connection, achieve what they believe to be enlightenment, find hope and meaning, and overcome great obstacles because of their faith, then does it even matter if we have disproved a literal existence of certain things in history? I really don’t believe so.
My own spiritual experiences do not need Jesus or any other figure to have literally existed in order for me to validate my feelings of oneness and connection with the world. Nor do I need any religious figure and event to have existed in order to search for the wisdom behind the scriptures, to dig deeper into their meaning, or to continue challenging and questioning myself spiritually. Even if we proved that the revolt never happened or that Jesus and Mohammed never literally existed, would it cancel out their teachings on compassion and justice? Would it mean that people still couldn’t look at them as role models or metaphorical examples of which to live their lives like? As someone who has Christian and Jewish family but is baptized in no faith, I can say that the first time I read the bible I was deeply inspired and moved by the words and teachings of Jesus. Much of what he said resonated with me, especially about poverty and compassion. If Jesus was invented by someone in history it would not destroy my inspiration, it would not remove the quotes I love about loving thy neighbour and fighting for justice. If most of the tales of Judaism never literally happened it wouldn’t stop me from being interested in the history and culture of the Jewish people. Nor would it take away the wisdom that the Torah, Talmud, Kabbala and many other sources have collected for over two thousand years.
To go back to the beginning of the post about the foreignness of my experience making a Hanukkah dinner, it really shows how one path can be comfortable for one person and strange for another. Just like culture and social groups, religious rituals and observances are something that “fit” or they don’t. It doesn’t make them wrong or weird just because it’s not something you were raised in, or is not something that really speaks to you on a spiritual level. I am fascinated by Judaism, partially because of my ethnicity but also because of the strength and enduring history of the people, the beauty of the language, and the folklore and food that have come from the Jewish people. It is foreign to me because I was raised predominantly in a Christian mentality and culture even though I was never baptized or brought to church. Judaism is something that could probably become familiar and part of my spiritual journey if I wanted to deeply explore it as my religious faith. I have friends in all of the six largest world religions. They are lovely people living in Canada and exploring their faith in very different ways. So what if their religious leaders and events did or did not happen? Does it remove their attempts to become better people? To know the divine? To live with a meaning that helps them maintain hope and get up each day ready to face this messed up world? I don’t think so.
We’re so quick to judge and to attempt to disprove literal interpretations and events, but what does it really mean for someone’s faith if we do? Isn’t the more important point to focus on showing how religion can be used to unite people, empower people, help us explore our personal path and challenge what it means to be human? Shouldn’t we be using history and scriptures to argue for social justice and equality rather than a proof for or against a particular faith? And just because one path is right for your exploration of life and the divine, does that discount the equal feeling of connection that someone of another faith has?