What is Religion?

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk





Marcus Tullius Cicero(106 BCE – 43 BCE), the great Roman writer, tells us in De Natura Deorum, or The Nature of the Gods, that the word religion comes from re legere or “to read again”. Cicero had observed that religious folks read the same texts again and again. Late in that same book, Cicero uses the word as derived from Res Ligare or The Thing that Binds. No doubt, religion binds people together, although it can also do the opposite.

Sociology teaches that there is only one religion, in that all religions celebrate the life cycle, celebrate the cycle of nature, divide the secular from the sacred, institute religious organizations, support the membership in times of crises and collect money.

Religions may be understood to include totemism, fetishism, anthropomorphism, polytheism, monotheism and deism.

If we apply these forms to Judaism we can see that totemism, or the worship or elevation of ancestors, is found with us. We pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We call upon our ancestors and their merits and we say the “kaddish” in memory of our departed.

Fetishism refers to the view that an object has sacred qualities. With us, the Torah scroll, the mezuzah on the doorpost of our house, the Menorah or candelabrum, the prayer shawl, the prayer book and the synagogue building itself are all sacred objects.

Anthropus means man in Greek. Morphus means structure. Hence anthropomorphism refers to the belief that the deity is structured like a man. We hold no such beliefs. However, our Christian brethren believe that God became man and man became God. In our tradition we do find in the Torah, in Genesis, Chapter I verse 27 that “God created man in his own image; in his own image created He him.”

Polytheism, as the word implies, means many gods. Our Hindu brethren include many gods in their religious rituals, although Hindus also hold that there is only one god. The view here is that god appears in nature in many forms so that a tree or a cow, a monkey or a human are all manifestations of god. 

Monotheism is altogether Jewish. “Hear Israel, the Lord our God is One."  That sentence is found in Exodus 8:10 and constitutes the essence of Judaism. That sentence is said at all Jewish services, both weekdays and on Sabbaths, and on Holy Days. It is also pronounced by a dying Jew as the last thing he says in this life.

Deism is a common American religion. Thomas Jefferson, our third President, was a deist. Deists believe that there is a god, but that, like  a watchmaker, he constructed the universe but has not given it any attention since. Jefferson objected to organized religion but nevertheless read religious literature.

There is one more orientation towards “the great questions” in life. That is humanism, as founded by John Dewey (1859-1953), who taught his followers that the universe is self created and that there is no god. Read: The Humanist Manifesto by Dewey; find any book on Jefferson describing his religion; read Religion within the Limits of Reason by Immanuel Kant; read at least part of Sir James George Frazier’s The Golden Bough and read The Age  of Faith  by Will Durant. If you can manage it, take a look at Titus Lucretius Carus, who once said: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum or “To how much misery has religion persuaded us.”

If religion is of any interest to you, attend one of our synagogues or temples this weekend and see what it is all about.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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