Given the singular exemption that entitles Australians not to answer the “religion” question in our upcoming national census, Prof Gary Bouma and others (The Melbourne Age 20/7/21) note that data assembled from the volunteered answers provide, “a measure of religious identification, an important cultural marker, which in sociological research has been shown to be a very powerful predictor of many other attributes and behaviours.” He and the other signatories disclose their professional interest as scholars in the field.
For some, the outward association with Jewish cultural and religious organizations is a vehicle that nourishes their identity and social need. Synagogue membership forms don’t ask whether intending members believe in God. We mark the breakdown of marriages just as we preside over the first kiddusinto sanctify them, but don’t ask how the God we invoke in those processes is real for the couple. We don’t ask parents touring our schools or adults with elders who are short-listing age care facilities whether they have a theology and if so whether they would care to disclose it.
But the question lurks very close by. We support new parents after the loss of a much-anticipated pregnancy or neonatal death. We are there after watching their child battle terminal illness, or in the face of death in the fulness of vigorous midlife. How individuals and families understand God at those moments can provide “the ultimate holding”, as they pass through the events of loss and transition towards acceptance. For many, the joy of shared rituals, uplifting music and togetherness online and in person, provide unique validation and delight, even in tough times.
Our individual and collective identities and potential predictability rests on the core of our inner understanding. Elul reminds us that the cycle of personal census-taking is about auditing that Jewish self vis a vis our many understandings of what God is and isn’t. In Covid times, when some seek to quantify how God is working, the month to reflect on what God is not, provides the reciprocal opportunity to try and understand what God is. That is not the job of statisticians or census takers. For those who are making spiritual preparation for however they understand the Heavenly Judgment of Tishrei, questions of identity and behaviour are not optional: they are the mandate that keeps us focussed on the process of reflection in this month of Elul.
-- Rabbi Aviva Kipen