After a few days spent basking in the Olympic fervor of Sydney, Australia, I can't help but marvel at the phenomenon of the Games. On Monday night, I witnessed Michael Johnson win the 400-meter race to earn his third gold medal and become the first man ever to win consecutive 400-meter Olympic titles. We watched Stacy Dragila take the first-ever Olympic gold in the women's pole vault. And we cheered Kathy Freeman, the stunning Australian Aboriginal sprinter, to a victory that earned her not only a medal but also the adoration of a nation.
It occurs to me that the elation and inspiration I felt as I witnessed these events have stayed with me for days. I'm sure that everyone who was sitting in that stadium feels much the same. In contrast, how many of us can say that, hours after leaving church or temple, we still feel inspired?
The Olympics end on the day that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins. With the juxtaposition of these two events, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps religion has something to learn from the Olympics.
There seem to be two kinds of crowds at the Olympics. The first type is there merely as an observer, admiring the sport and skill of the game, but uncommitted to either team.
On the other hand, when the crowd has a darling among the competitors, or when there was a national following for one or the other team, the audience was an entirely different animal. This was the case when I witnessed the United States men's beach volleyball team defeat their Brazilian competitors for the gold medal. Everybody knows that the Brazilians are the most passionate people on earth. But the Americans showed considerable verve themselves, with myself not least among them. The stadium absolutely rocked with the enthusiasm of the fans; we all felt intensely alive, transported to a higher dimension.
A few days earlier, I watched the Australian men's volleyball team play a match that they ultimately lost. I sat in the stadium and literally felt the stands shake. The Australian fans shouted their trademark cheer: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie--Oi! Oi! Oi!" (which has a curious Jewish feel to it). They were completely invested--shouting, risking loss of voice and injury of limb as they leapt from their seats to cheer each volley, each spike, each valiant save.
Religion needs this same sense of a personal relationship between observer and G-d. For without that connection, we will simply be polite followers rather than passionate participants.
The death of religion occurs when the individual's personal relationship with G-d is supplanted with empty rituals and lifeless forms. Long ago, as each respective faith made the transition from a small band of believers to an institutionalized movement, they risked replacing G-d with church, spirituality with tradition, personal commitment with communal involvement. At the start of each religion, followers actually knew what and who they were following; they experienced G-d in their midst.
Abraham and the children of Israel, Jesus and his apostles, Muhammad and his disciples--in each instance, early believers maintained a personal, individual relationship with G-d through their prophet. But time distorted what had once been personal, and made it institutional. Spirituality became less about relating to G-d and more about preserving a tradition. It was no longer about drinking from the fountain of faith but maintaining a custom; no longer about renewing each generation's personal involvement with G-d but rather passing on a lifeless heirloom.
Far from being an enemy of institutionalized religion, I am a passionate advocate. I am a proud and committed Jew who lives by Jewish law and ritual, and I beseech and encourage my Christian and Islamic brethren to do the same within their faiths. But having said this, we have to go back to the days when religions were about relating to G-d rather than being part of a denomination. We must go to synagogue not in order to boost attendance but to speak with our Creator on a daily basis. We must sit in church not in order to strengthen the faith but to commune with the Holy. And we must all observe the Sabbath not in order to escape from the material world but to meet with G-d in his appointed time and place.
We must remember that religions have one purpose and one purpose only: to educate man as to how he might relate with G-d and to serve as the conduit for that relationship. If Judaism puts all of its energy into winning over its young people, preventing intermarriage, and encouraging observance, then the actual Jewish practices will likely survive. But if all efforts and energy are focused merely on survival, then what's the point? What we will end up with is a corpse of Judaic thought and practice totally lacking in spirit and passion.