I am often asked, especially by non-believers, whether religious practice can actually make us better human beings.
This is a real-life query. And often, it’s actually a deeper, far more personal question that each of us might ask of ourselves: what does religious practice mean to me? For one person, “Do not steal” can be guidance from within: theft is something that he despises and avoids at all costs. For another, “Do not steal” may mean: do not steal when there are witnesses, especially if the police are around.
In the best instance, one’s faith plays a central role in the way one acts in the world. For such a person, religion is not only the performance of a ritual; it is also a spiritual, moral structure. Avoiding sin and embracing positive acts can transform us into better people, both in behavior and in our emotional lives. Religious practice can change our behavior towards others and have a profound impact on our interior worlds.
But there is also the opposite case: that of the person who is very particular about religion, but sees it only as a form of ritual. For him, religious practice does not have any meaning — except for going through a routine in a particular way. While such people may be good or evil by nature, ritual life may become mechanical. Over time, they may be more and more involved with meticulous observance. They may measure others only by the way they, themselves, practice religion. They may see observance as an excuse for avoiding any good deeds that are not part of the ritual. And sometimes ritual practice even serves as atonement for very immoral behavior in other arenas, or for belittling or despising other religions. They see God as an idol that demands sacrifices — the sacrifice of other human beings.
Looking at this group, the difference between the ardent churchgoer and the person who hardly visits a house of worship is very small.
There is a very small defense of those of the second group — the careful religious practitioners who fail in loving kindness or high ideals. Had they not gotten religion, perhaps these same people would have behaved in a much worse way. So if religious people are not always models of high behavior, one can imagine how they would have been without any religious feeling.
Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. For them religion and its practice are only a part, a very small part, of their self-definition. In these cases, the results may be very diverse; sometimes, when there is a heightening of religious sentiment, it is followed by becoming, at least temporarily, a better person. There surely are people that on occasions of special holidays become more benevolent, forgiving or understanding of those around them.
All of the world’s religions deal, at least in part, with the inner life and the demands of the soul: even so, the effect of religious life on the adherent depends very much on how much it is internalized. Both wisdom and faith work much better when the worshipper identifies with them internally rather than being tamed to show them off externally.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications and the editor of “The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition.” Communities around the world will be studying Rabbi Steinsaltz’s insights into the Sh’ma, on Nov. 13, the second Global Day of Jewish Learning. See www.theglobalday.com.