October 21, 2013

I Don't Believe In Gita

Jen KehlIt's mix tape Tuesday again! Today's theme? Spiritual Songs.

I have an odd sense of spirituality. Well, that's not exactly true. I'm very much an American Jew. It's a breed of spirituality that can be very hard to explain to Christians.

Christianity is very much connected to a sense of afterlife. A belief in at least Heaven, if not Hell. Jews... don't have that.

We believe that when you die, your body goes into the ground to wait for the messiah. And when the messiah comes, you take a nice hike to Jerusalem.

...that's an oversimplification, but it's the basic gist of it.

Yes, there is talk of Heaven and Hell, but not as places that you go. Hell is the sort of place reserved for the occasional demon or really really really really really really really bad person. I mean, you've got to work at it if you want to go there. You've got to be REALLY evil.

And as for Heaven, well, if you're really really really really really really really good...

See, we don't care too much about the afterlife, as Christians see it. We care VERY much about our day to day, and we care about when the messiah comes.

And you only get to take that nice long walk to the Holy Land if a)you're Jewish, b)you're buried according to Jewish law, and c)the messiah has arrived.

Many modern Jews are skeptical of this idea. That long, long, long after you're dead, you and every other dead Jew there ever was will cram into Jerusalem... well... it's going to be very crowded, isn't it?

And if you don't really believe in Heaven or Hell, or even an abstract description of a delayed afterlife, it's hard to describe yourself in America as "religious." Recently a report came out on the status of Jews in America, and a lot of people were surprised or upset at the results. Many Jews didn't describe themselves as religious, in fact most of them are pretty explicitly atheists. But for us, that's not really a contradiction.

Of course, there are TONS of Jewish people who, if called by a stranger and asked, "So, are you REALLY Jewish? I mean, REALLY Jewish? We're making a list..." Those Jewish people would say, "Oh no, I'm not, don't mind me, just another harmless atheist..."

The fact is, you can be Jewish without believing in God. And you can be Jewish without believing in Heaven or Hell. But it makes Jewish spirituality hard to define.

Jewish spirituality is based in a connection with history, first and foremost. The admonition for Yom Ha'shoah, "Never Forget," doesn't just refer to the Holocaust. It's all of Jewish history. You know that scene in "The Big Lebowski" where Walter explains being Jewish? (1:19)

Ah, the zeal of the convert. But he's right- we're all living in the past. And most varieties of spirituality are about the future. About the afterlife. About the next astral plane.

So is there a point to a religion that doesn't tell you, "Be good and you'll be rewarded. Be bad and you'll be punished," in the real world? I've been asked many times, how does that provide a moral compass? What stops you from killing and stealing and coveting all you want?

Well, there is morality to a spiritual doctrine that doesn't include punishment and reward. And it's one that tells you you are better than any of those urges. (Yes, Judaism is very much about Jewish exceptionalism. I mean, we call ourselves "The Chosen People.")

And the result? I do kill and steal and covet as much as I want. And as much as I want is essentially zero. No fear of eternal damnation required.

At any rate, this list is about spiritual songs. Songs that I find spiritual, for some reason or other. Songs that move me, in a spiritual way. And here they are:

Just as I was saying... I am responsible for my own actions. I am responsible for my own fate. My parents and spiritual upbringing helped instill in me a moral compass that guides me, as Nina Simone says, and if I have no capacity to use those tools, it is my own fault. This is the only song on the list you might generally be able to call a "spiritual."

Spirituality is something difficult to put into words, so I have no trouble including a completely wordless song in my collection of spiritual music. There is something about this that simply moves me. I have waxed rhapsodic about this particular piece of music before... but this clip is THE BEST. Why? Because that conductor IS Stravinsky. That's him, conducting what might be the most transcendent piece of music ever written.

When it comes to the end, you can see in his face... the emotions... the emotions that have brought me to tears every time I hear this music (particularly the start of the last movement- starting about 4:30), since the first time, when I was seventeen and had to pull my car to the side of the road because I was weeping at the wheel. And there is nothing more spiritual for me than the wealth of human emotion, and our ability to share it.

Spirituality is, to me, what connects you with a deeper sense of purpose, or meaning. And this song is that for me. It's not about life and death, it's just about life. And this song kind of saved my life. I know, that sounds melodramatic. But it's true. It pulled me from a depression as deep as any I've ever known. And that's enough to make a convert of most people. Me? I was just born again an Ani fan.

"God is a concept by which we measure our pain." Do I believe this? Sometimes. Sometimes I believe in God as a single entity. Sometimes I believe in God as the unifying benevolent nature of existence. Sometimes I believe in God as the name we give to fate. And sometimes I don't believe in God at all. But the real message of this song isn't that there is no God, it's that life, all of existence, only has the meaning that you give it. And for John, as for me, the deepest meaning that you can give your life is to dedicate it to love.

Kol Nidre is one of the most important prayers in Judaism. As the Torah was originally an oral tradition, when it was transcribed, thousands of years ago, it was transcribed the way it was told... in song. The entire of the Torah (the Old Testament) is written in song. And Kol Nidre isn't in there, it's a separate prayer. It's the prayer you say before reading the Torah on the eve of Yom Kippur. The music has always moved me, and its meaning moves me still more. "With God's permission and the permission of those around us, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners."

Every word is an acknowledgement that we are flawed, and that our flaws are our own responsibility. And the prayer continues as an acknowledgement that we will continue to be flawed. That despite the knowledge we have of our own faults, we will repeat them. It's humbling to say those words. To say, "I am flawed, and I am sorry, and I will try to change and I will fail. And next year, I will be here again." And I do believe that humility is a fundamental property of spirituality.

Spirituality must dictate that you are less than the other, than the unseen, than the holy, than the unknowable. You are a speck of dust in the universe. You are one of billions of people on the earth. You are one of countless creatures in existence. You are less than this creation, or anything that might have been instrumental in creating it.

And there you have it. My spirituality, in five songs.

A note to my Jewish readers who would like to disagree with me on my interpretation of our faith... I welcome all your comments! Just keep in mind our rich heritage of philosophical and theological disagreements- remember the ten plagues! I mean fifty! I mean a hundred and fifty!


  1. I think I love everything about this post - the raw honestly about religion (and the Coles notes to the differences between Christianity and Judaism - aside from the whole "Jesus/Son of God" part) mostly. As for song choices - loved the Nina Simone choice. And I listened to the Ani Difranco one twice. A) Lovely and B) I'm a Dan Bern fan and he talks about her in his songs and I never bothered to look her up - so thanks for posting one of her songs and satisfying that curiosity! The last video post was beautiful - a great way to end your post. Well done all round!

  2. Am listening to God by John Lennon. And I'd have to agree with him!

  3. very well presented MT (mix tape) on a interestingly challenging theme. (I'm captivated by your 'Live Chat' thing over -> on the right... can't stay but (am thinking) 'hey, pretty cool!'

  4. Re: John Lennon and "God". Yes. Great picks. Love Nina Simone.

  5. It's my first time hearing a Nina Simone song. I like the line: "Nobody's fault but mine." I'll go check more of her songs... :)

    1. Oooh! She's WONDERFUL! You should start out with "Feeling Good" and "Pour A Little Sugar In My Bowl." :)

  6. Thanks for explaining your beliefs as an American Jew. I find it interesting.

  7. You had me at Nina Simone and hooked me forever with John Lennon.

    Shalom, supermommy. Nice to meet you.

  8. Fascinating post - love it. Such a comprehensive introduction - thank you. And I'm LOVING the Perry Como track you included :)

  9. I loved this post, Lea. I'm Jewish, and I almost included Kol Nidre in my mix. I think you did a wonderful job of explaining Judaism and spirituality; I even learned a few things myself. I don't disagree with your interpretations - I've actually never thought about whether you could be a Jew and not believe in God. That's one to ponder for me!

    1. Thank you! It's interesting. I've actually had discussions with atheist Jews who cite the first commandment- "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." But it doesn't explicitly say that you have to believe in God at the same time. Truly interesting debates about religion and atheism, and how there doesn't have to be a binary. :)

  10. Someday I would love to have a philosophical conversation with you. I am a Mesianic Jew, or Jewish believer, and so of course am fascinated by a post like this. Another day, another time my friend.
    Meanwhile, LOVE Firebird, so much. So much that I read the Russian Fairytale and eventually even bought the Little Einstein Firebird so my son could enjoy it. This is a great list, thank you so much for not only participating each week but writing such great posts!

  11. I think I enjoyed the opening more than the music!

  12. What a great reflection on Judaism in your life - I loved reading this.
    And Firebird is the best. Really. :)

  13. I used Nina Simone today, too, although in a much way crappier post than yours. My step mom is Jewish and I've learned so much about it during the last 15 years but she (and my step siblings) never simplified it to me the way you did when it comes to being buried and waiting for the Messiah. Which makes me wonder - do they all just think they're going to Jerusalem and we're not so it doesn't matter? As far as blended families go, we're a great one. I'm much closer to my step mom than my own mom (my dad raised us) but well. Huh. Anyway, I really loved this and, of course, you obviously have most excellent taste. Nina is one of my all time forever favorites.

    1. An excellent question. And I have no idea what the answer is. Personally, I don't believe that when you die you wait for the messiah to come- I believe that the soul exists on a cellular level... even a molecular level. So that when you die your soul ceases to exist as a whole. It breaks down into its original components as your body does, rejoining the other forces in the universe. The same forces that created it from the beginning. I know, it's very Carl Sagan "stardust" stuff. But I find a lot of comfort in it. Sometimes, I wonder if the "messiah" isn't a metaphor for the recreation of the universe, and the Holy Land isn't really a metaphor for the state of cellular union in a pre-big bang environment. But now I'm getting way more philosophical than we started out. ;)

  14. This post was amazing! Like a window to your soul. Thank you for opening that window for us!

  15. I'm an Orthodox Jew who was raised Traditional/Conservative, and my Judaism is very different from yours. It's amazing how many ways there are to interpret the same basic traditions! My Rabbis speak of how the reward for mitzvot (commandments) is at least mostly saved for "the world to come," as an explanation for why bad things happen to good people. I've always thought that was heaven, not the time of the messiah. And I know Judaism does have a concept of reincarnation as a way for a soul to perfect itself. Not sure how that's supposed to work with the whole resurrection of the dead thing.

    I don't think I'd heard any of this music (save Kol Nidre) before, so thank you for introducing me to them.

  16. but which one is it??? I just happened to stumble upon this post as I was googlng "I don't believe in gita". I love this song and when you put it under this context and those wise and insightful words of yours brought me to tears. I totally agree with your view about spirituality and just recently (this Hannukkah) I had a converstion with a friend about the difference betweeen Judaism and Christianity in this aspect of afterlife. The only thing that missing is the 3rd song (betweeen stravinski and lennon). It's unavilable and Im so curious to knw. Cheers and shalom from Israel!

    1. And hope you and all your family is well



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