Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky in regards to some questions I had for the book I’m writing on the origins of religion. Beforehand, my contact gave me a study guide entitled Judaism Decoded. Like every faith, Judaism has an argument for why their religion is chosen above the rest. In the guide I learned that while other belief systems began with the visions and experiences of just one to a few people, the Jews say that millions of people witnessed God at Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the commandments and instructions on how to live. Apparently, every eyewitness relayed all the same details and shared the same memories—blaring trumpets, bad weather and all. And yet, only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain and be in God’s presence. It made me wonder why one has to believe the unbelievable to subscribe to a religious way of life.
This brought me to a point that the writer Karen Armstrong makes in her lectures. She has a fascination with the many Jews and Orthodox Christians who do not put any emphasis on the act of belief. Rather, they find their spirituality through the expression of ritual. Faith is not the main goal, but rather it’s the ritual that transforms the individual. I wondered if the Rabbi felt the same.
Rabbi Bogomilsky is a very busy man. After a day of playing phone tag, he finally had some time to talk. I was glad that I had taken time to prepare. In response to a question on the continuity of Judaism, he spoke of the Torah and why the oral tradition is so important. Today, we can barely understand the ancient texts that tell us of the events surrounding Moses. In comparison, the oral tradition stays current to contemporary language. “The Torah never changes, but our application of it changes.”
I asked him if he agreed with Karen Armstrong’s summation of Judaism as not being belief-centric, but rather ritual-based. He strongly disagreed. “We are not commanded to believe in God, but we are commanded to know God… The world is mundane. God elevates it from mundanity. In Hebrew the term for the world is olam, which means concealment. Through God we are given the tools for how to take a mundane world and elevate it. It’s a mental act, not emotional.”
Of course, different sects of Jews believe different things. In regards to the majority of Jews in Seattle who are non-practicing, he chooses not to judge. He understands that it’s a big commitment. And then he made my favorite comment: “Most people don’t think about their mission or purpose, they think about their existence—what job to take, who to marry, etc.” Right then, I felt a kinship with the Rabbi. Though I do not subscribe to a faith, my study of religions through history, and the expression of that study through writing and art, is my purpose and mission. The main difference between religion and art is that faith teaches a person to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches a person to see the world through all points of view.
Even in the most routine of days, I have a hard time comprehending how anyone could see the world as mundane. In fact, it is often within the routine that I find my most elevated moments. Through the exercise of a discipline, there is either frustration or a breakthrough. Each offers a new lesson. In each moment we are growing. Perhaps “olam” features well into this daily discovery. There is always something hidden to discover.
In this same vein, I have reached a new phase in my research of religion. Mainly, I’m no longer angry, and I no longer care about my own personal story of escaping the grip of Fundamentalist Christianity. Rather, I am in love with my topic. All religions are connected to each other, whether adherents would like to admit that or not. It makes for an incredibly fascinating story. And though I can recount the horrific details of conquest, torture, and sublimation within religious history, there is also so much we can learn about ourselves through an understanding of what we have believed throughout time. It has become my key to understanding human nature.