Organized Religion- Good Or Bad?

Now that there’s a new Pope, I can’t help thinking about the positives and negatives of Organized or (Institutional) Religion. I think for the most part, when I’ve heard the term “Organized Religion” it has come from someone saying they don’t like it. In my experience, these negative feelings have come from people who consider themselves religious/spiritual, but do not wish to take part in the institutional aspects of whichever faith.

I think there are many reasons that people may feel this way, but I’ve basically come into contact with two main explanations. The first is that institutions restrict religion, making it too formal and ritualized, when it should be something that flows from the soul. The other claim is that the organized religions basically go after each other and create, if not war, then something less than a complete peace (if only by arguing).

Now, as a Halakhic Jew, I’m just about as organized and institution oriented as you can get, so you might reasonably assume that I support this type of religion. This is true, though from the perspective of Jewish law, even if you strongly disagree with the system, it is still binding. That is a good example of the possibly constricting nature of institutional Judaism.

On the other hand, I can’t help but think of the positive aspects of this kind of religion.

1. Organized Religion Can Be Shared. Spontaneous Spirituality Cannot Be: It seems to me that if we abolished the institutions involved in religion, and in Judaism I think this includes the law as institution, we would basically also abolish shared religion. Each person might have their own religious feelings and beliefs, but there would be no way to share it.

For the Jewish people, this basically means no more Jewish people, since this is what binds us. And lest you respond that a pure nationalism is possible, I will ask you how exactly you define the Jewish people? Even if you want to reject the Halakha, you must have some organized and formal definition which we might share and rally around.

So for the national religion, of which Judaism is the only example off the top of my head, it seems impossible to survive without at least some major organized points, just in order to keep us together. In fact, how can any group worship together, or how can a parent share a religious act with a child? It is true that they could both perhaps do some act which feels religious to each them, but to do it together requires a shared act and planning. Jewish law gives us the ability to share our religion together, whether it is by the Passover Seder or morning prayers.

There is a larger point here, I think. Spirituality in Judaism is born of a sense of community. Although the individual’s spiritual life is very important, in the bottom line we all go to Shul together, are responsible for each other, etc. A lone person’s spiritual life may be very full, but remains the worship of just that person.

Doesn’t his smile make you want to organize a religion?

2. Planning Is Good: Furthermore, organization of course comes with all of the obvious advantages that planning and preparation give to actions over those actions which are done spontaneously. Someone who plans may find out while there is still time that the charity they thought of donating to is tied to a terrorist organization (and this actually is not as rare as we might think) whereas the spontaneous gift giver may end up giving a few dollars to drug dealers, terrorists, or others who it is                                                                                          wrong to support.

 All of this is not to say that spontaneous religious feeling isn’t often very important (especially in prayer, say), but rather to defend what is sometimes put down unfairly in my opinion.

Additionally, I’d like to consider the arguments that religion creates. As we all know, religions tend to disagree with each other, and this may perhaps be multiplied within a religious group, where different factions argue for one opinion or another. This is, of course, especially true of Judaism, where arguing is basically our bread and butter.

Now, it is very understandable why many of us want to refrain from all the disagreement (and all of this is without even getting to the wars caused by religion), but I still think we might find many advantages in arguments, provided they are conducted in a respectful manner.

3. Arguing Is Good Too: First, arguing helps us test opinions and get closer to the truth1. If we are going to worship God together, then it is important to consider the way we do it, even though this requires disagreements.

Additionally, arguing is a sign that we are not complacent. We wish to move forward, analyze ourselves, our religion, our law, and our shared experiences. Through sifting through minute discussions, even those discussions which go on for thousands of years, we come closer together.

Relevant to this is the fact that Torah needs disagreement. Those of us who study Talmud know that each page is filled with machlokot, or arguments. Torah, which requires disagreement by its very nature, is considered to be equal to all of our other commandments and values (provided that we put it into practice).

4. Disagreeing Together: Additionally, arguing, while it seems to be something which highlights the gap between two parties, also highlights what is in fact shared by those two groups. A group of people arguing about how to serve God agree they must serve God, since the argument would be quite foolish and pointless otherwise. And so on and so forth.

So I might just be naive, but this whole organized religion thing doesn’t seem too bad to me! But what do you think?


This article is really a bit of a sequel to my earlier post Is Judaism Too Dry?. If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.


1As is well known, the Common Law system, which operates in such countries as Britain, the US, and Israel, relies on this point. It is called the Adversarial System for this reason.




Filed under Miscellaneous

7 responses to “Organized Religion- Good Or Bad?

  1. RJZ

    You’re points about all the benefits of organized religion are all fine and great. The only problem is that organized religions (Halachik Judaism included, at least for all Jews) generally don’t offer themselves as religous institutions that help individuals on their path to religious meaning and fulfillment, but consider being apart of ‘their organization’ the only legitimate option

    • Le Newyorkais

      Organized religion is mostly BAD! not only does it tell me what to do, it tells me what to THINK! Sounds like North Korea. Maimonides claims that if I do not BELIEVE in HIS 13 Principles, I am damned for eternity (or something like that).
      Scare me all u like, dear Rabbis, I am gonna continue to believe what makes sense to me! Dictators!

      • Yitzchak Sprung

        Le! As always, welcome back!

        First, it’s important to remember R Y Albo’s opinion that there is no punishment for heretical thoughts, since we can’t help but think what we think.

        Many, many great rabbis before and after Rambam disagreed with different elements of his principles, so definitely check out Marc B Shapiro’s book on the Limits of Orthodox Theology for more on that.

        Additionally, Rambam wasn’t trying to scare you, his opinion is simply that someone who lacks any intellectual perfection whatsoever will not receive what we typically call “heaven”. That person simply dies, and that’s it. No hell in Rambam’s opinion.

        It is true (according to Kelner) that all you need to get to heaven in Rambam’s opinion is to believe his principles, which basically give you the ability to receive a portion in the world to come, since it seems to serve as your intellectual perfection. (See his Must a Jew Believe Anything)

        But don’t be so scared!

        It’s also good to remember that the 13 principles are somewhat unique in this respect, or perhaps that this point about intellectual perfection should be read in a certain context. Judaism, like all other legal systems, has rules. The emphasis is basically on keeping those rules, whether or not we like them. See the very last chapter of Guide for the Perplexed.

        In regards to forcing you to act a certain way: All legal systems have rules we don’t like. It’s not a bad thing for people to make rules though. As I argued above, I think it’s especially necessary in a religious setting, but obviously rules also allow us to live as a society, etc.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Hey RJZ!
      I completely understand your point as well as why we might find that off-putting.
      I think basically we agree in this case. Religion offers religion. It may or may not give meaning.
      I think most of us agree that religion is likely to give meaning and fulfillment (at least as a byproduct), but that doesn’t mean these things are the purpose of a religious life. In Judaism, we’ll probably say the goals are the service of God, a relationship with God, the love of God, etc. We may hope for meaning and fulfillment, but it’s just not always there. The question is what to do when that happens.
      I definitely wouldn’t want to say meaning and fulfillment are the purposes of religion, for Leibowitzian reasoning.

  2. Le Newyorkais

    hi, Yitz—
    why does everything in Judaism not mean what it says? eye for eye REALLY means compensatory damages; go to hell for masturbation does not REALLY mean go to hell; women r “impure” during menstruation r not REALLY impure; yada yada yada.
    the answer is obvious—Judaism is full of thousands of years of pagan baggage that even the talmudic Rabbis could not stand, so they had to explain it away.
    “mi camocha ba’elim yahweh! none among the gods is so great as Thee, Yahweh!” still recited today, is a leftover from polytheistic days when Yahweh was the greatest, but by no means the ONLY, God.
    and this Roman-like law system! tie a string around something forbidden, and it becomes permitted for Sabbath. (do not hold me to details—u know what I mean.)
    C’mon Yitz. Modern man turns to religion for spiritual meaning, not for more ways to go to heaven and hell.
    Judaism, the religion, is a dinosaur—the sooner we Jews drop it, the better. and u know I do not mean this anti-Semitically.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Hey Le,
      Shavua tov!

      We definitely have some strong disagreements on how to interpret our tradition, and we come to very different conclusions as well.

      In regards to “say what you mean”, like any text, interpretation, legal traditions, religious histories, personal and national experiences, etc., all have a role to play. The Torah is the quintessential book to show us this is the case, but it is also true of a non religious text such as the constitution. The Torah is a book that is readable, even for children, but if as adults we read it in the same way that children do, we are guilty of a great many things. Certainly, we are not doing the Torah or ourselves justice.

      The books in the Bible invite the reader to dig further and further, with layered readings and understandings, and the Oral law, for rabbinic Jews, is the guide and compendium of how we do this.

      Perhaps check out Sarna specifically in regards to Pagan traditions (or Y Kaufman), and maybe read E Berkovitz’s Essential Essays to get a good idea in regards to some other points your raised here.

      In regard to your last point, we again disagree. Perhaps many people do turn to religion for comfort, but I think they are in for an unpleasant surprise when Judaism gives them more responsibilities than they bargained for. Judaism challenges us to live up to these responsibilities, and we are not promised an easy life.

      I think in general you will find a much better response (though far from the only one) in Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s ‘Halakhic Man’. Don’t forget to read the 4th footnote!

      Shavua tov Le!

  3. Tuvia

    I like this essay because it tries to get to the “there” that’s under the “there” we always hear about. WHY are people religious? What deep need does it fulfill?

    I think you go a good way to answering it when you say it lets us do things TOGETHER. This is absolutely true. And all people eventually recognize that some PLANNING is beneficial to life. And to argue is to STRIVE for a better understanding, or a better tomorrow.

    I think Judaism is amazing at accomplishing these things. But what about when the arguments reach their natural or artificial limits – imposed by the religion? What about once you have the planning thing down pat – and it doesn’t feel all that helpful anymore – in fact, you feel it is leading to complacency and robotic actions? And, I guess, it is GREAT to do things TOGETHER occasionally – but what about when three times a day minyans, shiereem, study, Shabbos, etc. starts to feel like a NOOSE around your neck?

    My latest observation about Judaism is that it has a very POWERFUL effect on certain kinds of secular folks – who go on to becoming the HAPPIEST people in the world as BTs.

    But what about the rest of us? We don’t all enjoy playing “let’s pretend…or whatever” all the time. We aren’t all that in to our Judaism.

    I tell people to drink from it by the cupful, don’t drink from a firehose. If they are lucky, they will never have to feel inadequate for being tepid in their Jewishness. If they are like me and got involved with Aish, etc. for a long period of time – they may find themselves conflicted and upset for a long time. And I don’t think Judaism really cares about people feelng that way. Guys with my kind of outlook are just ignored (perhaps we must be.)

    I still try to believe in G-d – despite my feeling that Jews are full of it in their closed process of convincing themselves (which is why the walls are so high, and having dialogue with the outside world so forbidden.)

    I do think that a person’s safest bet is to find an easier religion – like Episcopaleanism. You don’t have to believe the Torah is word for word from G-d because halacha has no meaning for you. It can just be “inspirational” (whatever that means to you.) So whether the mabul happened or not – not your concern.

    You don’t have to believe in a long actual history of mizrayim, exodus, canaan – it is all just inspirational.

    And you get to be a “fully fledged” member in good standing by just accepting some stuff, and you don’t live it all day, every day.

    But you go to church and are reminded to be a good person. You are told that sex in marriage is beautiful, but the rest is fornication and not a great idea. And you get the community of man feeling – the feeling we are all in this together.

    And again, if you go to the weaker, more embracing ones (like Episcopaleanism) you can really feel: there is a G-d, and he cares, and we are in it together. And the church is pretty and makes me think He may really be up there….

    I’m a Jew and always will be – but I understand why there is so much intermarriage, and why we are such a small crowd, and how much difficulty being Jewish can bring us in our souls. Universalism can’t be all bad, can it? But we are stuck in STRICTLY particular, and it hurts.


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