When opening William Faulkner’s landmark novel “As I Lay Dying,” I never thought it would provoke new personal questions about my Judaism. The novel, a gem of the American Southern Gothic literary tradition, details one family’s quest to bury their deceased matriarch in a nearby town. The family faces numerous obstacles, and various characters utilize their faith in different ways to deal with the death and their arduous circumstances.
In an essay on the novel, I analyzed one character, a local Christian minister named Whitfield, whose use of religion is remarkably self-centered. The man continually likens himself to a prophetic figure, claiming to wield G-d’s judgement and forgiveness; he prays only to seek justification of his own personal misconduct. He even claims, “forgiveness was mine,” when thinking about his wrongdoings, clearly using his faith to ease his guilt. In studying this character and his words, I saw that egocentric applications of religion quickly become artificial and self-centered.
The preacher’s self-centered outlook on religion prompted me to question my own take on faith: to what extent do I use Judaism to justify my own actions or seek personal comfort?
I see Judaism as a religion of connection: connection with family, with friends, with history and with the Divine. Yet, sometimes my Jewish experience becomes self-centered. Shabbat occasionally becomes a time solely of self-reflection and meditation, instead of a time of family, community and tradition (the elements which impart it with inestimable value). Though it is important to rest and recharge one’s mind on Shabbat, it is also important to recognize that the Sabbath and other Jewish traditions extend beyond the self.
It is important to make the effort to extend faith from merely self-reflection to include interpersonal action. Whether through holding the door for an elderly congregant at synagogue, preparing a dish for my family to eat at the Passover Seder or organizing Jewish events at my secular school, dozens of opportunities are available to employ my Jewish faith as an agent for positivity and connection in my communities.
Thus, I have made it a personal goal to continue and seek out in Judaism what connects us, instead of focusing only on myself. In the future, this could mean joining Hillel and other Jewish groups in college, building positive Jewish communities in the spaces I inhabit, or simply spending more time with family over holidays or Shabbat. On a global scale, it could mean volunteering more, going on a service trip in Israel or visiting important Jewish conferences like AIPAC.
In a time filled with uncertainty and rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad, it is critical to explore Judaism as it connects us to each other, and even to those who are not Jewish. An essential component of Jewish life is focus on personal and spiritual well-being, but it cannot and should not stop there.
In keeping with the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, I believe it is critical to employ faith as an agent for wider connection and positive change.