The Flavors of Faith

I believe that religions are like cuisines: they are sets of recipes for developing our relationship with God. The rituals, practices, scriptures, theologies – every element of each religion – is a component of a particular cuisine, something that gives it its unique style or flavor.

Like cuisines, no religion is better than any other, but each of us tends to prefer one or two. As for me, I believe we learn more about our own religion when we learn about others, just as I can appreciate one style of barbeque better when I have tasted many varieties.

Does one need a religion to have a spiritual experience? No, but eating is much more interesting with a cuisine in mind: it gives you ideas of new things to try, as well as tried-and-true comfort foods. Cuisines also help us avoid the tasteless "gruel" that can come from combining components willy-nilly in a single pot.

For me, Judaism is my religious "cuisine," so much so that I have become a Maggid: an ordained spiritual storyteller and preacher. As a Maggid I use stories to inspire people to experience a joyful, vital relationship with God and each other, and to continue the work of creation in partnership with the Divine.

So what are the elements of my Jewish "cuisine?" They can be heard in the stories I tell: a certain wry, clever humor, a dedication to making this world a better place, and a recognition of the importance of distinctions between people, rather than making everyone the same. You will find angels, dancing, flights of the soul and the ecstasy of prayer in my cuisine, but most of all you will find the notion that as a Jew I am called to wrestle with God – literally! – in my daily life. "For every two Jews there are three opinions" is not just humorous – it is at the heart of the Jewish experience.

In terms of distinctions, a lot of wrestling effort goes into managing boundaries: between day and night, holy and mundane, the Sabbath and the rest of the week, and so on. For me, one of the more unfortunate phrases is "Judeo-Christian," as that erases an important boundary between two vital and vibrant – and very different! – religions. It’s like saying that Taco Bell serves authentically Mexican food: you can see the cuisine’s roots, but there’s no real Mexican flavor to the decidedly American offering that chain offers.

For me, an important part of my Jewish cuisine is "tikkun olam," which means to heal, repair, and embellish the world. Confronted by a world in which so many are treated unjustly, where so many go without sufficient food, clothing or shelter, one is drawn to ask, "How can there be all this suffering in a God-created universe?" My Jewish answer is drawn from our Talmud: "It is not your responsibility to finish the job, but neither are you free to refrain from beginning it." In other words, don’t ask what God is doing, but get started on the work yourself! In this way, I believe we become God’s partners, bringing justice and mercy to a world in such need of both.

It is a big job, to be sure – beyond any one person’s ability to finish. Which brings me back to stories: stories are the best vehicle I know to inspire others to lead a holy, joyful, meaningful life filled with hope and purpose. The right story, told in the right way at the right moment, can be the vehicle through which God re-enters our lives and supports us as we support others, brings us joy as we bring joy to others, and helps fulfill the never-ending work of Creation.

Originally published on 10/10/09 in the Syracuse Post Standard as part of their "What I Believe" series.

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