Everyone traverses a unique faith journey throughout his or her life.
I once attended a workshop on how our faith develops throughout our lives. It was led by Kenneth Stokes, author of Faith is a Verb: Dynamics of Adult Faith Development.
Stokes defined faith as “finding meaning and purpose in life” within our accumulated experiences. Through learning, joining, exploring, and developing/owning our own perspectives, our personal faith takes shape.
Finding our own sense of purpose can occur within the context of one or more religions or outside congregational life. We may undergo changes in what we believe as we search for greater meaning through rituals, experimentation, and performing acts of kindness and service for others.
My own family’s faith history is like that of many Jews who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. My grandparents belonged to Orthodox congregations in Kansas City. Orthodox Judaism follows Jewish law and tradition as it has been passed down for generations, with some reinterpretation by rabbis that might modify specific practices at home and in the community. My grandparents kept Jewish dietary laws in their homes (only kosher meat, separation of meat and dairy foods and utensils, no pork or shellfish). They likely did not work on the Sabbath (Saturday). Boys became Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and men held the main leadership roles in the community.
When my brother Steve and I were young, my parents were members of a Conservative congregation. The Conservative movement views Jewish law and tradition as an obligation for its members to follow. Conservative Judaism teaches the importance of Sabbath observance and keeping dietary laws. This movement has, at times, decided on major changes in practice, such as opening to women the possibility of becoming rabbis, cantors (singers), and leaders in all aspects of congregational life.
When I was four years old, my parents joined a new Reform Jewish congregation in Kansas City, and, several years later, they became members of a larger Reform Temple, where they were active for forty years. Reform Judaism views Jewish law as a guideline that can direct personal practice and inspire creativity. Early on, Reform Jewish leaders emphasized moral laws and prophetic teachings over and above preserving traditional forms of ritual (such as the dietary laws). Women took on roles of leadership gradually, with the first woman rabbi being ordained in 1972. As early as the 1880s, Religious School graduation ceremonies (Confirmation) at age 15 were for both boys and girls, with Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations being added over the last 60 years. Worship featured choirs, musical accompaniment, and creative readings and translations of time-honored prayers (as distinguished from Orthodox practice).
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan founded the Reconstructionist movement, which takes both a rational and a spiritual approach to Judaism, keeping many long-standing rituals while adding many innovations along the way. Rabbi Kaplan’s daughter, Judith, was, in 1922, the first young woman to become Bat Mitzvah by leading part of a Sabbath service.
Over the years, I adopted traditional practices such as wearing a kippah/yarmulke and tallit/prayer shawl during worship and observing the Jewish dietary laws. I made those decisions to further my own feeling of connection to my heritage and to God.
Each of us has the possibility of pursuing a quest for meaning and purpose in life. It is not only about what we believe, but about what we do to express those beliefs by ourselves or with a community. May we all find peace and hope along whatever road we choose.