(I don't talk about religion often, so humor me...)
Since my boyfriend is more religious than I am, I have probably taken part in more religious activities in the last six months than I did in the past few years, combined. This is mainly because, with illness, came a crisis in faith. I questioned a lot about my religion, and I still do, but I am trying to remain open-minded and take part.
However, I do feel that being chronically puts me at odds with my religion.
For instance, I don’t usually fast given that I have to take my medication with food. And when you look beyond the major holidays, there are a lot of fast days in Judaism.
Another example was at a service I went to several months ago with my boyfriend. He had told me ahead of time that many people sit on the floor during a certain portion of the service as a sign of mourning. In my head, I figured that I would stay seated in a chair because of my hip. I knew that getting down would be okay, but getting back up would not be so easy.
Men and women sit separately from one another, separated by a cloth and wood barrier. Through the barrier, I could see that there were a few men, of various ages, still sitting in chairs. But as I looked around my section, all of the women were sitting on the floor. I followed suit because I did not really want to have to deal with the judgment that I know would ensue. And I don’t know any of these people well enough that I would give them details of my medical history to explain why I stayed in a seat.
While Judaism dictates that you shouldn’t follow ritual at the expense of your health, that doesn’t mean that the people around you won’t judge you because of a perceived lack of observance or religiosity.
So does my being sick go against my religion? Of course, not literally. But in the figurative sense, it seems to me that from a public standpoint, my being sick limits me in a way that makes me appear less observant. But it’s not even a fact of observance. I feel like it makes me seem like I don’t care, like I’m somehow anti-religion. Like I’m thumbing my nose at ritual and tradition.
And that is not the case. One of the reasons I had stopped attending religious services when I got sick was because I felt my heart wasn’t in it, that my observance was disingenuous, and I didn’t like that feeling. So now, when I go, I try and put as much as I can into it. But I don’t want to develop social anxiety, and worry every time I go to services that someone is judging me. I know that in reality, I am less religious than most of the people that attend this particular branch of services. But I always dress appropriately, and participate to the fullest extent possible. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m doing the best I can.
And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these people wouldn’t even have batted an eye if I would have stayed seated. But it put me in a very awkward position (no pun intended). I ended up sitting on the floor for about 45 minutes. And the next day, I was pretty stiff and in pain.
This situation has been eating at me, I think mainly because the judgment that I so worry about is really what goes against religion, rather than whether I stay seated or not. We are supposed to be able to be compassionate, not judgmental, and able to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. And yet, I can only imagine what that group of women must have thought, if I would have kept my butt firmly planted in my chair. I’m sure that they would never in a million years have considered that the reason is because I’m chronically ill and have a bad hip, amongst other things.
Maybe some people will say that the judgments of others don’t matter, regardless of what they are. And that as long as I’m doing my best, that’s what counts. But it’s hard to erase the possibilities from my mind.
And here’s another example, just to prove that this isn’t my personal problem with my religion. What about someone who has Celiac’s Disease (gluten intolerance)? What if they want to keep Kosher, but the products they have to buy, aren’t Kosher, as I suspect many of them aren’t? Certainly, from a religious point of view, I don’t think anyone would suggest that they should risk all kinds of medical complications by eating a regular diet, albeit a Kosher one. But I can imagine that they would get a lot of flack for this from the people around them.
I guess the issue really at play here is tolerance. No matter how together we try and make ourselves seem, there are always going to be people who see our illnesses as character flaws, making us seem less reliable, less together, and even less religious.
Personally, I try not to judge people based on their religious predilections, mainly because mine have been evolving. I went to Hebrew “Sunday” school from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. While I lived under my parents’ roof, I observed all major Jewish holidays. College was a time of questioning in that I didn’t feel like I fit in particularly well with any of the religious groups, although I was quite involved with culturally Jewish classes and activities. And in grad school, my health led me to a place that provided the opportunity for me to question a lot of the tenets of my life, not just religious ones.
I’m sure some people would say that I should let the judgers judge and look the other way, that if I’m observing the way my heart tells me to, that should be that.
At one point last year, I even enlisted the advice of the sister of one of my good friends, who is a Rabbi. I wanted to know what my religion said about young people getting sick, or all of the other bad things that can happen in life, that seem to defy explanation. We didn’t speak about the judgment of others, but we talked about the anger that I felt toward G-d and myself, and that maybe this source of conflict would be a way to re-engage with my religion.
And it’s interesting now to be at a place where I have begun to re-engage with religion, only to find that what I sought to get away from, is exactly what I am experiencing. Places of worship are not courts of law. I feel like they should be the one place where judgment takes a back seat. And I believe that spiritually, it does, but realistically, where there are human beings, there will always be judgment.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that rules are meant to be broken. But some of us have very real aspects of our lives that keep us from being “observant” in the traditional ways.
This year, our Rabbi, who is new, made an announcement, saying that he didn’t want there to be any heroes in the name of fasting. He said that if you have medical reasons for eating and not fasting, that you should by all means follow those. I’ve never actually heard a Rabbi say this before. I really appreciated it, even though I did end up fasting.
I guess maybe what I’m trying to say here is that what I love and most appreciate about my religion is the personal meaning that I get from it. And I guess I just wish that there weren’t core parts of me that make me feel like I can’t reconcile these differences.
Here are some questions to ponder: How do you view your religion in relation to chronic illness? How has your observance been impacted by being chronically ill?