Here's something I've been meaning to write about for months... years. I would like to reclaim the the word "religious." A recent article in The Forward got to the gist of the problem:
"... Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.
The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.
This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as 'more religious' or 'more observant,' we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism."
— Ben Dreyfus, "Reframing Liberal Judaism."
Occasionally I go on dates with nice Jewish guys of the liberal persuasion. (Yes, I haven't given up yet.) We generally have an awkward phone conversation beforehand, during which we attempt to be casual as well as deep. At some point we get to hobbies: "So, what do you like to do for fun?" He: [generally sports or travel or tropical fish, or something else macho but sensitive]. Me: "I love to sing." Oh, where? "I was in a chorus for many years, but these days I mostly sing at my synagogue." (Well, what should I do, lie? "I front a neo-punk band in the East Village." I'd be unmasked the minute we met and he saw I didn't have pink hair.)
"A synagogue? Wow, that's interesting." Sometimes the conversation is great after that; we discuss shared interests in Judaism and music, and agree to meet for a drink. More often, however, there's a big pause followed by admissions of guilt: "Are you a cantor? Because I'm not Orthodox." [Hello, if I were an Orthodox woman, I would not be a cantor.] Or, "I haven't gone to services in years, but am very pro-Israel." Or, "Do you eat meat out? I used to date someone who kept kosher, it wasn't a problem." Or, most frequently: "Oh... are you religious?"
I never use that minefield of a word to describe myself. "I observe holidays and love to go to services," I answer. "But I'm happy to meet someone who observes differently than I do." That usually doesn't satisfy the "religious" questioner, however, who applies this label to anyone who attends services on a regular basis and therefore must be a) a professional clergyperson, b) Orthodox, c) Republican, or d) weird. Prejudices vary, but rarely does someone who resembles me fit into his definition of the word. Those conversations usually do not end well. In one case the guy refused to believe I wasn't Orthodox; in another, I was treated to a long complaint about his traditionally observant ex-girlfriend.
Yes, it's for the best that I can weed out these potential disasters during the first phone call. Still, I wish I could use "religious" to mean what it really does, according to Webster's: "manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity." I do believe in God; I do manifest that devotion. My way of doing so is no better or worse, authentic or fake, than that of someone who identifies with any other stream of Judaism. There's no absolute scale of such things, like a credit score. I wish people would stop ascribing the word "religious" to the imaginary top of this non-existent hierarchy.