I apologize in advance if anyone in particular is offended by my feelings here. It is not my intent to hurt, only to vent.
Tonight begins the Jewish fast of the Ninth of Av. It is a 25 hour fast coupled with prayer and introspection as we mourn the loss of the temples in Jerusalem, and with them, the national identity and cohesion which held sway to one degree or another, while they stood. By forcing ourselves to suffer a little (through not eating, drinking, bathing, or sitting in regular seats) we share in a tiny fraction of the suffering the people of that time went through and we remind ourselves that we are missing something in our lives. For years, I have tried to get myself to feel sad for the loss of a building, and the concomitant way of life. But even though in my prayers I look forward to a third temple and the return of a theocracy and a priestly system, I can't really feel bad. I live the good life in a great country; I practice my religion freely. I don't feel the loss and void that I am supposed to.
But today, I heard someone say something which made me feel very alone, and very sad. During prayers, we read the phrase "the four corners of the earth." The person sitting next to me, a respected community member and someone I am happy to call a friend, mumbled "I wonder what they said when they realized that the earth doesn't have corners...this is all BS." Then he continued to pray, out loud, in a lovely voice, with what looked like fervor and intent. He wasn't making a joke and if he was lashing out at his religion because of troubles in his personal life, it still hurt me to hear it. He knows as well as I that the use of that phrase need not be seen as a relic of a flat-earth world view. It can be seen as reflective of the four cardinal directions, the historical necessity and convenience of using a 2-D map representation of the world, or a literary construction not intended to present a realistic vision of the world. Instead, he looked at it as literal and let his anger show, and then kept up with what was now clear to me as a charade of practice. And he isn't alone. I am surrounded by people who practice the rituals of Orthodox Judaism because they are the accepted social conventions or comfortable vestiges of an upbringing which didn't really sink in, but who lack any actual faith. They don't seriously believe in any of it, and what they do accept is so compromised and watered down by their shame at being believers that it is a shell of what the religion could be.
Now, please, don't assume that I am a zealot. I am a child of my age, and one who embraces the world around me. I watch movies and TV, listen to decadent rock and roll music, value secular knowledge, and have a reasonably wide awareness of the world and its cultures. I am neither a luddite, nor an isolationist. But it seems that all the people who are equally comfortable with the modern world, have not compartmentalized their approaches and have let that modern rationalism destroy any deep seated faith in perfect and mysterious divinity and (for example) textual infallibility. I work hard to straddle the line between the two often opposing understandings of the world and the more I listen to those around me, the more alone I feel. I am a believer often even in the face of rational argument. And I value rational argument, because it can help bolster my belief. I am happy with the contradictions it creates and comfortable with the reconciliations of those contradictions which have, to my mind, stood the test of time for centuries and which are being expanded every day by leaders who stand on the shoulders of giants and make religious law relevant and consistent even today.
On this Tisha B'av, I mourn the widespread loss of traditional acceptance of faith and belief as bedrocks of my religion. I mourn the loss of the sense of solidarity and unity which comes from being able to share a love of religion with others who are equally idealistic about it (especially when they can be idealistic while not sequestering themselves in a ghetto). I mourn the loss of a temple for what it represented -- a central authority which was respected and which worked hard to maintain that respect. I sit on a low chair, I deprive myself and I do feel tears well up because I see that we, though numerous and economically powerful, and politically positioned, are dying spiritually and the only alternative for many is to swing to the right and deny the utility of anything not explicitly within the religious realm. The notion of "Modern Orthodox" as a group which sees value in both the religious and secular world, is not working out. People are either adopting stringencies and freezing out any innovation and evolution of the religion, or are pushing boundaries with such force because they are willing to give up central faith-based tenets which are supposed to provide limits and structure. And I feel like I am alone, stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate a middle path on my own and having to apologize and justify myself to those on either side of me.
I mourn because I see the daily destruction of the land and nation of Israel even if not physically and only metaphorically. I see the constant loss of the temple through the loss of interest in what the temple stood for. I weep for the loss of kindness and compassion which should be a natural consequence of a strong faith. I mourn a religion which will end up with as many sects as we have people because each person will decide to pick and choose and rationalize in a unique and personal way, making his vision of Judaism distinct from and even incompatible with that of others around him. I mourn because it seems that every day, more and more, we are not just "Jews" any more. We are so busy crafting our own particular paths that we fail to stick together as a people, and that's sad to me. The external threats which didn't care what we believed and just oppressed us for the label "Jew" failed. But we are succeeding because we are destroying that label from the inside. For this, I cry.