Meaningful Life author discusses whether religion is good for the world

Is religion good for the world? It’s a question that could receive many answers. To Rabbi Simon Jacobson the answer is as simple as it is complex.

Jacobson leads the Meaningful Life Center in Brooklyn, New York, and edits the Algemeiner Journal, a Jewish newspaper also based in Brooklyn, as well as touring the world delivering lectures on Chabad philosophy. His Aug. 22 appearance before about 40 people at the ElieO Vineyards in Windsor was hosted by the Sonoma County Jewish Chabad Center.

Yes, he answered, religion is good for the world when it is soulful and leads individuals to commit compassionate and selfless acts of love and kindness. But some religion as practiced today can wreak havoc on societies, he said, including acts of violence by followers of radical groups.

“Obviously, that’s not good for the world, and it’s being done in the name of God,” he said. “They are using God for the reason and excuse for killing people. I don’t think anyone here or there would argue that is good for anybody, because it’s clearly defying all the norms.”

Rabbi Simon Jacobson at ElieO Vineyards photo/shoshana hebshi

The rabbi’s lecture, sprinkled with anecdotes from his life, jokes and quotes from cultural icons including John Lennon and Ernest Hemingway, made his point that the practice of religion must be soulful.

Jacobson said religion ultimately is good because its true essence is about leading people to be “the most human you can be, the most divine, the most special you can be, the most kind and the most refined.”

Jacobson spoke about a time when he was preparing to be interviewed on a morning TV show during a tour for his 1995 book “Toward A Meaningful Life,” which sold more than 300,000 copies. The anchor said she loved reading his book and expressed shock at Jacobson’s appearance. The rabbi has a long gray beard, wears a suit and a kippah, and has thick glasses.

“I said, ‘What’d you expect?’ She said, ‘I expected a different type of sexy, clean-shaven guy.’ I said, ‘I thought I was sexy!’ Anyway, she said your book was so universal, so all encompassing, I would have never imagined a person dressed the way you’re dressed to write such a book.”

That led to an on-air conversation about stereotypes and the way we judge people based on their looks rather than what’s inside.

Jacobson told audience members that “words can be loaded,” and terms such as religion and faith can be “problematic.” The word God, for instance — though just three letters, he said, it’s not a simple word.

“How many people agree about the definition of God?” he asked. “The word God is fraught with all sorts of misconceptions and stereotypes.”

Jacobson said he is a skeptic, and that questioning has led him to discover the deeper parts of Judaism that go beyond ritual and automatic worship — to the “soul” of Judaism.

“That’s the part most of us are not aware of,” he said. “That’s the place where you really connect.”

And, Jacobson added, it’s about understanding yourself as a unique individual with a particular mission in life.

“That means that you matter,” he said. “That idea that we are indispensible agents of God, that we’ve come to this world to contribute something that you and only you can accomplish, that to me is the essence of what I would call ‘religion.’ ”

It is incumbent upon Jews to reclaim their faith in this light, Jacobson concluded.

“If you were hurt by it or you see it being distorted, why should we resign ourselves to surrender to those who hijack it?” he asked. “We have to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we are the children of great people who thousands of years ago paid prices, and our grandparents paid prices,’ for what? To make this world a better place. To realize that selfishness and greed and narcissism is not the center of existence, that the center of existence is a higher purpose, and that each one of us has an indispensable role in fulfilling that destiny.”

Altie Wolvovsky, who runs the Sonoma County Jewish Chabad Center with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky, said she hoped people who attended the talk would gain “a clearer perspective of their role in this world.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.