What’s the Role of Religion?
Thoughts on Parasha Vayachel.
In this week’s Torah portion Moses assembles the Israelites and reminds them of the commandment to observe Shabbat. Then he announces the instructions which he received from God regarding the construction of the Mishkan. The people donate the required materials in abundance, bringing gold, silver and copper; blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool; goat hair, linen yarn, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones…. At a certain moment Moses orders the Israelites to stop bringing their gifts.
The issue we face here is one which not only Judaism, but all religions as such always wrestle with: the materials and resources necessary to build and maintain religious institutions. And since all these resources are the fruit of human work, sometimes hard work, we have the right to ask the following question: since we are offering the results of our hard work to our religion and its institutions (one could say that these are gifts for God Himself; but this makes sense only as a metaphor, since God does not actually need any material resources, since He actually possesses nothing and everything at the same time), then what does religion actually offer us in return?
This seems to be a very broad issue, but it can be summarized in quite a concise way. In order to do this I will make use of the concept created by the Polish psychologist of religion and professor of social sciences Adam Zych, who claims that religions fulfill various functions in our lives, such as for example a compensatory function, which entails some form of compensation for human helplessness or weakness. Religious beliefs compensate for the individual’s unfortunate fate, they help them overcome numerous difficulties and resolve their internal conflicts. Another function fulfilled by religion is the worldview function – which essentially means that religions create their own worldviews. In addition, religion as a form of social awareness tries to interpret and explain phenomena and processes taking place in the universe, in nature and in the society, as well as in human beings themselves. It is exactly with regards to this role that a conflict between religion and science often emerges; however, this conflict is not universal – not all religions are subject to it. Some religions (and their denominations) are more flexible, whereas others are less flexible in this regard.
We can point to several other equally important functions fulfilled by religion, such as the pedagogical-regulatory function – which means that by announcing specific orders and prohibitions religions try to shape the personality of individuals and the life of entire societies; they provide humans with moral support and stable rules of conduct. Another example is its therapeutic function – while people pray specific emotional processes take place, such us the replacement of negative feelings with positive ones or the increase of emotional tension followed by its relief. Another important function fulfilled by religion is its existential function – the American psychologist of religion J.M. Yinger described religion as “a system of beliefs and actions by means of which the community tries to resolve the most important problems of human life”, and also its social and pro-integration function, which can be viewed as a series of processes (dependent on all the above mentioned functions) which promote and strengthen unity between people.
In view of all the above, before we answer the question “what can religion and its institutions offer us in exchange?” (assuming that we ourselves are “investing” in them), it would be useful to analyze our religion from the standpoint of the above mentioned functions, which describe the roles it should be fulfilling. May the result of such an analysis always turn out to be satisfactory and favorable to us; but if this isn’t quite the case, then let’s discuss this in our synagogues and let’s not hesitate to express our innermost expectations towards religion, our leaders or even God Himself.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka