Every columnist has a few hobbyhorse causes he likes to ride. One favorite of mine is the idea that government shouldn’t promote any particular religion. I like it because, despite being so obvious — a diverse nation of many faiths, we can’t exist in harmony if the law backs just one — many folks still can’t seem to wrap their heads around it.
Raised in their own insular worlds, they lurch upon the national stage with their great idea — prayer into public schools! — never pausing to consider whose prayer will be put in school (theirs, naturally; is there any other kind?) It is satisfying to inform them that, yes, there are other people who believe other things, a half dozen faiths per classroom, and adding prayer to schools would make them more chaotic than they are now.
Such reasoning can’t be merely accepted — that would involve changing their minds, and most are hardwired to prevent that — so instead they accuse me of hating religion. People to whom fairness is unfamiliar still perceive, in a foggy general way, that fairness-based arguments can work, so they want to grab at that advantage themselves. They say: You’re disagreeing with me! You must hate me in a fashion similar to how I hate you! What about tolerance of my bigotries?
For the record: I think religion is swell. Life is a long time, you need help to get by, and faith is perfect for that. Religions tend to be old and are embraced by many, so there’s tradition and company, plus food and music.
OK, not always food. Yom Kippur was earlier this week — the holiest day of the Jewish year, a fast day. Not that I’m the sort who believes that God Almighty is peering down from heaven, quill pen poised over the Book of Life, waiting to see whether Neil Steinberg toddles off to synagogue or not. But my wife announced she was going to services at the Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook. That was different. The Lubavitch are a highly observant branch of Judaism — think beards, black hats, fringed garments. Typically not the corner of our faith that my wife and I would snuggle in. But unlike most synagogues, they don’t charge a fee to worship on the high holidays — typically most synagogues see it as a chance to make hay.
Our previous temple membership fell victim to the recession. So free helped. Though in my secret heart, I felt distant from the process, brooding as I put on my suit: Every year this stuff seems more ridiculous. I could be attending an animistic goat ritual performed by Ghanaians and couldn’t feel less affected.
I didn’t say that aloud. I’m trying not to complain so much, and when I had shared similar thoughts in previous years, my wife just smiled and replied, “You always say that, but you end up getting something out of it.”
I had never been to a Lubavitch Yom Kippur service; I expected it to be all in Hebrew, expected a scene from Vilnius in 1754, the low drone of ancient syllables uttered by men in prayer shawls. I would slink in, as out-of-place as a peacock among penguins, perch awkwardly in a corner for a few hours, and then flee unchanged, grateful to be gone. continue...