Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Culture & Religion

Can Religion Be Cultured? Can Culture Be Religious?

Religion, the word itself scares most people silly. It is a word that speaks of irrational belief, naïve commitment and pathetic escapism. Religion is associated with boring, stale routine, where human creativity gives way to divine intervention. Religion, for many, is the euphemism for inadequacy, mediocrity and complacency.

Culture, on the other hand, is a word that embraces the finer things in life. It is a word that speaks of artistic accomplishment, literary genius and mind cultivation. Culture is associated with exciting, pulsating wantonness, where the human condition is tuned to perfection and the human consciousness is perfected to a tune.

As the universe’s DNA would have it, the paths of religion and culture do not often cross – and when they do, they usually stare at each other crossly. Therefore, rare indeed is the possibility of jumping the fence dividing the polar opposites – never mind straddling it.

Last week, I had the opportunity of shuttling between the creativity of Yiddish culture and the commitment of Yiddish religion. One day I’m in a shtetl called Kerhonkson (Yiddish in phonetics but English in genetics), the next I’m in place called Crown Heights (English in phonetics but Yiddish in genetics). The dichotomy between the two cannot be lost even on one who speaks no Yiddish:

In Kerhonkson, I was at a Yiddish cultural and folk arts program. It was secularism at its best – or, as the religious would have it, at its worst: choir boys were bowing to the notes of music, fanatics were worshipping the letters of literature, devotees were praying to the strokes of visual arts.

In Crown Heights, I was in a Chassidishe Shul. It was religion at its best – or, as the secular would have it, at its worst: old men in white flowing beards were swaying to and fro, their prayer shawls soaked in tears; people were yelling at each other, a farbengen reaching its zenith; children were pulling on their fathers’ kapotes, begging to go home for kiddush.

Both Kerhonkson and Crown Heights spoke the same language, Yiddish, and played the same songs, Chasidic niggunim, but there was something very different about the two.


Culture is a body; language – music, literature, art – its limbs. A body is a beautiful thing, to be cherished, cultivated, and challenged. However it is not an end in itself: Culture, like the body it represents, must have a message, a reason, a purpose with which to perpetuate. You don’t think so? Well, just ask the Greeks and Egyptians. (What, they’re nowhere to be found?!)

Have you ever walked in a forest and seen, among the evergreens, a tree whose branches bare (!) no leaves and whose skin has turned a cold gray? That is a body without a soul, a culture without a purpose, a life without meaning.

Of course, the cultured would argue that culture is for culture’s sake alone and does not need a “higher purpose” (higher, that is, than man) with which to make it come alive. But then what happens once the song stops, once the sentence ends, once the art fades, will culture then still continue to live?

It is a beautiful thing words – but even more beautiful is what they say. It is a beautiful thing music – but even more beautiful is what it sings. It is a beautiful thing art – but even more beautiful is what it paints. That’s where religion comes into the picture (or photo if you’re cultured – a la movie vis-à-vis film). If Culture is the messenger then Religion is the message: religion does not replace culture, just like culture shouldn’t replace religion – they should walk hand in hand, one complimenting the other.

A healthy relationship between body and soul is when the body communicates the soul’s message and the soul energizes the body’s communication. So should the relationship between culture and religion be, with culture communicating religion’s message and religion energizing culture’s communication.

The problem of course lies in when one or the other is misused and, thus, abused. When one worships culture as if it were religion or when one treats religion as if it were culture, then both culture and religion become distorted.

This is why many people are “scared silly” (to quote the first paragraph) by religion – the religion they’ve come across is less religion and more culture, that is, less soul and more body. And, this is also why many people see culture as false – the culture they know is devoid of any soul and spirit.

So, yeah, religion ought to be cultured and culture ought to be religious. However, don’t confuse the two words – after all, we wouldn’t want to wear a pair of jeans called “true culture” and go to the doctor for a “throat religion.”


Blogger ponys are people too said...

that's a really solid, comprehensive piece. and i agree, one of the biggest problems concerning jewish america is that it its culture (bagels, philip roth) which is celebrated and not the religion itself. but i always wonder about that frequently made comment concerning the romans and egyptians. those were mighty empires that were indeed defeated, but their leftovers (language, art, architecture, science, philosophy, ideology) are still being scrupulously picked over by most people in the world, to some degree, fill many of the worlds greatest museums and still influence much more than most realize.
brilliance can be g-dless, but it's brilliance nonetheless.
p.s. cute argyle sweater.

1/10/2007 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the point was, that those lost cultures were bodies without souls. The body still exists but the culture is dead, it's lack of soul is the reason it is gone. No one is saying that the body is gone.

A body without a life is still a body.

If your parents never had children chances are you won't either

Writage of random comments on other peoples blogs shows lack of readers on own blog.

1/11/2007 1:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

retrospection - a deep philisophical understanding of bellbottoms and rollerskates


1/12/2007 12:42 PM  
Blogger Chaya said...

nice. really deep, yet straightforward. u should get it published.

1/25/2007 10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't believe Judaism in of itself has any room for culture. The cultural aspects we find are just by-products of the rituals and dogmas of the religion. To illustrate this the Channukiah is not a cultural item despite it being a warm, family oriented time and such a symbol of victory so very different to the cultural holiday of Chrismas. The religious liturgy may be beautiful examples of literature and poetry however they were written as a purely religious expression.
The sudden advent of Jewish culture;music, foods, literature ect. is a modern phenomena which has no religious significance. Never before was there a 'jewish food' we ate matzah on Pesach, cholent on Shabbos and cheesecake on Shavuot for religious/historical reasons.
Perhaps these expressions of the religion may fall into common cultural categories but they must be treated with religious awe.

1/27/2007 9:46 PM  
Blogger jakeyology said...

so let us defy the definitions.

1/28/2007 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By all means, however make it clear that you are not using conventional definitions or others may gey confused.
What is jewish culture that goes hand in hand with religion?

1/29/2007 6:54 AM  

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