Once upon a time, I was devoutly religious. One of the most important injunctions to which I hewed was in the New Testament Book of James, in which it is written:
What good is it, my brethren, when someone claims to have faith, but he has no works? Is such a faith really able to save him? If a brother or sister has no coat and they are lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go with peace, be warmed and fed,” but you don’t give to them the basic needs of the body, what good is it? So this kind of faith by itself, when not having works, is dead. Someone will indeed say, “You have faith, and I have works. Show me that faith of yours apart from works, and I will show you my faith by means of my works.”
I took this very seriously.
I had a friend who owned a hair salon, above which was an apartment. In the apartment lived a woman who was looking after her brother, who was dying of AIDS. One afternoon, when I was visiting my friend, there came a knock at the front door of the salon. This was odd, as people usually just walked in, as customers. We answered the door, and the woman asked for help getting her brother down the stairs. She was trying to get him to the hospital. Through the front bay window, we could see a cab waiting in the street next to the building, its motor running.
I went outside with the woman, and wend around the side of the salon to the apartment entrance.
The salon was on the corner of a small side street on East Passyunk Avenue, across from Mara’s. On that side street, next to the salon, was the entrance to the upstairs apartments. The door was open, and a dark, narrow stairway went straight up for two flights. At the top of the stairs, a man lay, clad in running shorts and a tee-shirt.
I ascended the stairs to the top landing and bent to lift the man to his feet. He groaned in pain, his limbs utterly without strength. I gather him up in my arms, and stood, cradling him like a child. He was skeletal, and hot to the touch. He weighed almost nothing. He groaned again as I carried him down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, his sister helped me get him into the taxi as comfortably as we could. Ruth and I then watched as the car sped off.
We never saw him again.
In those days, there was a lot of fear about AIDS, and how you could or couldn’t catch it. Nevertheless, the man was in need, and I was there in that place, at that time. As Hillel taught: In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. And so I did. Because it was the right thing to do.
I would do the same thing today, too; after all, it was simply the right thing to do. Human decency does not require religious faith. Even the Talmud teaches us not to perform good works with expectations of reward.
I also used to hold fairly iconoclastic doctrinal views on numerous issues championed by Evangelical Christians in the United States. For example, I may have been convinced in the rightness of my beliefs, but I also understood them to be my beliefs. Part of our sect’s beliefs. So, unlike many others of my religious community, I believed that our rules applied only to us and to no one else. I was always very uneasy about demonstrations aimed at getting others to play by our rules — or worse, to get secular government to enforce them.
I used to openly criticize the treatment of LGBTQ people. “Fine,” I would say, “I understand that the Bible says that this is an ‘abomination,’ but then, so is wearing shatnez and eating trayfe; how is what two consenting adults do in private going to affect us?”
I was also very worried about the apparent desire I saw to influence the laws of the land. I would make the argument that as a secular society, we had freedom to believe and worship as we do; but if one group could write and enforce the laws regarding acceptable behavior, who’s to stop another group from writing in laws that would criminalize our own group? Oddly, this was an argument that many around me seemed unable to grasp.
I was harshly criticized for this attitude on those occasions I dared express them. But my questions never left my mind. Perhaps, even as a Christian, I still retained my Jewish core. After all, do we expect the world at large to abide by the laws of kashrut? To follow halacha? No; but we keep those regulations and precepts ourselves, because that is our choice. We don’t force our obligations “before God” on others. It’s for the individual to decide whether or not to join the community.
Even the New Testament declares that believers were “in the world, but not of it,” that Christians were merely pilgrims in this world, looking for a better Kingdom in the World to Come. I was always very uncomfortable with the Dominionist wing of the Evangelicals.
Similarly, I never understood the general Christian attitude toward Environmentalism. They seem to believe humans should have the right to exploit the planet and rape its resources, seeing the Green movement as a cult. They say that God granted Man dominion over the Earth. On the other hand, I always read that God put Man in Gan Eden to dress it and to keep it. I always assumed God meant for us to be caretakers of a world he left in trust with us. But this was not an idea I found anyone sharing in my religious group.
The obscene wealth of so many famous evangelists was also troubling to me. I saw many places in the New Testament wherein the wealthy were condemned— “For I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” But of course, those Christians had their own drash explaining why that passage attributed to Jesus did not actually mean what it said. I was uneasy with the idea that material wealth was a sign of God’s favor; I was sure that’s not what was meant by the idea that God “wants the best” for his children.
Even in a group I had willingly joined, a group that accepted me (to a certain extent), I still did not belong. I belonged to them no more than I ever belonged to my peer groups in grammar school, high school, or university. I learned, as I had in my childhood, to keep my most heartfelt opinions to myself. I suppose that this was another reason I eventually drifted away from fundamentalist Christianity.
But to this day, I still wonder– how could people see others in need, dying because of whom they loved, simply stop their ears, cover their eyes, and walk by as if nothing was required of us for simple human compassion’s sake.