What Is The Purpose of Religion?

Sermon Shemini Atzeret
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

What is the Purpose Of Religion?

This is probably a truism in the United States as well, but as a child in Europe I learned that there were three things that were considered impolite to discuss in polite society: politics, religion and matters pertaining to physical intimacy. Of course, when I studied cultural anthropology, these were exactly the questions I engaged with. Taboo is just another excuse for an anthropologist to get up, close and personal with the most hidden aspects of human nature. 

This unrelenting and uninhibited curiosity serves one well when studying Jewish sacred literature. As Pirke Avot states: one who is shy, the ‘bayshan’, cannot learn. The sacred Jewish literary tradition oscillates between the sublime and the crude. There are plenty of difficult texts, satiated with misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism as well as dismally inaccurate science. The ability to have a multilayered, intertextual reading of the text is often the only thing standing between oneself and the moral abyss. What one cannot bring to one’s ‘shtender’in the Beit Midrash is sensitivity towards politics, religion and intimate matters. 

At the heart of our awkwardness around this triad of taboo topics lies a moral question. 
The question is: what is the purpose of religion? (I hope you can accept that religion in this case is shorthand for a far more nuanced understanding). As we are coming to the end of the High Holiday cycle on this Shemini Atzeret, it is a worthwhile question to ask. 

Politics is a dangerous word, of course – the third rail of civic life. I am not interested in the politics of partisan posturing or positioning. What I mean by ‘politics’ is something far closer to its etymological root: the affairs of the polity, the city-states of Ancient Greece or to reframe it - the affairs of power. If anything, it is the sacred duty of religion to examine, question and confront power, irrespective where it comes from. 

Religion itself, of course, is a confusing word. While I am quite comfortable describing myself as a theologian – something that actually makes me a little quirky among rabbinic colleagues – I’d actually not interested in discussing the existence and nature of the Divine. Religion, too, has its etymology, linked to the idea of ‘connection’. What do we connect to? How do we connect? And what moral imperative comes out of that relationship?

Lastly, there is the matter of our physicality, of our ‘embodiedness’. How we inhabit our bodies and what we do with those bodies is highly significant. Part of the purpose of my Chol haMoed Sukkot sermon was to illustrate the importance and holiness of being ‘embodied beings’. 
How we perceive our bodies is crucial for understanding the larger moral questions of life. Can we honor ourselves and others through our bodies? Can we grant dignity and respect, care and kindness through our bodies? 

Judaism cares about all three aspects of the ethical life: questions of power, connection and physical sanctification. Sukkot forces us to reckon with all three aspects and we find this in our Torah reading for Shemini Atzeret, part of Parashat Re’eh. 

Among the first chapters of Re’eh, which we skip on Yom Tov, is the charge of keeping kosher. Assigning cultic taboos to the foods we eat, the Torah brings us an object lesson in the discipline of sanctification. However, this is not the only manifestation of the physical. In the laws of servitude, we read how the slave who wishes to remain with his master must have his ear pierced to the doorpost with an awl. At that point, the physical becomes a representation of the metaphysical: what are the spiritual consequences of the surrendering of one’s agency? How the desire for security circumscribes and even mutilates the very organ that hears ‘Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad’, ‘Hear O Israel, the Eternal is your God, the Eternal is One’, the very organ that received Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Torah tells us that there are consequences to how we choose to inhabit our bodies and how we navigate our relationships, including power differentials. 

Likewise, our reading deals with the political. The Torah knows no shame and harbors no taboo, and this is equally true when it comes to assigning a universe of moral obligation. We read that power needs to be both preserved and renegotiated in a system of ethical calibration through the remission of debt. We are not to turn away the needy for ‘v’kara aleicha el Adonai v’hayah becha chet’ (Deut. 15:9), ‘for he will cry out against you to the Eternal and you will incur guilt.’ This is not just the complaint of the aggrieved, but the existential heartrending cry, the ‘tza’akah g’dolah’ that brought our ancestors out of the House of Bondage. 

The religious is apparent too. We are commanded to establish a central location for the sacrificial cult; what we later would call the Beit haMikdash, the Temple. The purpose of this is echoed in the Haftarah were King Solomon prays for the inauguration of the Temple: ‘May the Eternal our God be with us… May He incline our hearts to Him, that we may walk in all His ways… to the end that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Eternal alone is God, there is no other.’ – ‘ki Adonai Hu ha’Elohim ein Od’. In this prayer, the purpose of religion is made crystal clear: a covenantal community bound by sacred, ethical obligation, where a connection is made between each individual and the Ultimate and ‘v’hayah levav’chem shalom im Adonai’ – ‘may you be whole-hearted with the Eternal’ - a deep sense of personal peace and inviolable integrity. (1 Kings 8:58-61).

What is the purpose of religion? This is the purpose of religion. 

With the continued passing of time, we are finding ourselves trapped in an ever more partisan and polarized discourse. The point of religion is not to inflame or to provide unyielding certitude. The purpose of religion is to be a vanguard for justice, ethics and deep questioning. To train us in the sanctification of our bodies, to prompt us in the constant calibration of our generosity on which a just society depends. To impose upon our wills a sense of order and process. And to embrace the Ultimate Mystery and to choose through that great consciousness, the gift of life. 

When we are confronted with the cry of a world fraying at the edges, the purpose of religion is not for us to turn away from what is difficult, embarrassing and complex. On the contrary: we must turn to these matters not with certitude but with fortitude, and resolve to be the nechemta, the comfort, that our times so need. 


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