This was sparked in part by a discussion on marag's journal, in part by this article on the New Atheists. Still, it will be a more personal, less detached, post than those sparks might suggest. It may be kind of self-indulgent, but hey it's my journal :-). I figure people can read if they're interested and not if they aren't. All the personal stuff is behind the cut.
I never know how to answer the question "Are you religious?" When asked by Jews, that often means "Are you observant?" When asked by non-Jews I think it can mean a lot of different things. I'm very comfortable talking about religious practice (because it's easy to say what I do and what I don't do) and less so talking about religious belief, where I'm less clear on how to describe myself. In this post I'll try to talk about both.
I was not raised in a religiously observant family. My parents were Jews and strongly identified as such, but did not have much of a Jewish religious education (they did both go to a non-religious Jewish socialist cultural school as children). They could neither of them read Hebrew (although they both spoke and read Yiddish) and were pretty much secular Jews, in somewhere between the USAmerican sense and the Israeli hiloni one. They lit candles and ate chicken on Friday nights and considered both of those acts to be religious practices :-). They celebrated the High Holidays and had seders. They gave their kids Hanukah presents.
When I was born they were living in rural North Dakota and we were the only Jews in our town, or many towns around. My brother Joel and I (we were the eldest) really had no concept of what it meant to be a Jew other than it was something that we were and no one else was. We were shocked at age four (me) and five (him) to hear that our grandparents were Jewish.
That shook our parents up a bit and they figured we should have a Jewish education. The nearest place to accomplish that was Grand Forks, 40 miles away. There was a small Jewish community there. No religious school, but there was a rabbi. I think he might have been a chaplain at the Air Force base, but I don't know (one of the disadvantages of family estrangement is you can't get these family history lacunae filled in by asking parents). At any rate, our mother drove us every Sunday to Grand Forks and back to have lessons for the two of us with the rabbi. We called him "the Jewish rabbi" because we found out he was, too!
When I was seven, we moved to Connecticut and joined a Conservative shul. For those not familiar with the Jewish movements, "conservative" in the name of the movement has nothing to do with politics. Reform Judaism was founded in 19th Century Germany to be a modern, enlightened form of Judaism. Orthodox Judaism got its name to distinguish it from Reform. Conservative Judaism was founded in response to Reform Judaism, wanting to update traditional Judaism while believing that Reform had gone too far and that we needed to conserve what was of value in traditional Judaism. So Conservative Judaism is the middle-of-the-road approach, in a sense.
So I basically grew up in the Conservative Movement, attending services at a Conservative synagogue and attending three-times-a-week Hebrew School (which is religious school, not just a language school) through high school. When I came out at age 19 and married a non-Jewish woman I struggled with finding a place for myself within Jewish community. For years I did nothing - or next to nothing - to express my Yiddishkeit. Yet I always felt myself Jewish. Beyond that I found that I deeply, painfully missed being part of a Jewish community and the feeling of having lost a vital part of my identity and my life got worse over time. I slowly found my way back to Judaism in a way that works for me. All of my kids have been/are being raised Jewish.
Where am I now in terms of observance? I'm not an Orthodox Jew and although I belong to a shul (synagogue) affiliated with the Conservative movement, I don't subscribe to all the beliefs and practices of that movement. Still, being Jewish is a big part of my identity, with the big difference being that that is no longer a source of pain for me. A whole lot of how I "do Jewish" is within a shul community and both parts of that phrase - shul and community - are essential to me.
In terms of practice, I am not shomer shabbat (observant of the laws of the sabbath) and I do not keep kosher. I do not feel bound by all of halakha (Jewish law) and pick and choose which halakhot to follow. I actually think everybody does that, but some have a framework to do it within. I do celebrate Shabbat in my own fashion and celebrate all the major Jewish holidays and many of the minor ones. I attend religious services at my shul, generally twice a week. I participate in adult education activities and social action activities through my shul. In recent years I've taken up leyning (reading from the Torah scroll during services) and try to do that once a month. My kids all go to Hebrew School through seventh grade (that being what our shul provides) and go through bnai mitzvah preparation. I consider whether or not they actually have the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony to be their choice (as is the party) but not the education preparatory to it. They've all chosen the ceremony and party.
I consider myself an agnostic. I usually say I don't have enough faith to be an atheist :-). I don't have such certainty. I'm not a particularly spiritual person, but I've certainly had spiritual experiences and moments of transcendental ecstasy. In the past few years I've looked on fostering what spiritual capabilities I have as something worthwhile. My most recent ex (whom I still miss something awful) was a huge factor in helping me - through example - tap into my spiritual self. I think I often assumed that one could take a spiritual or intellectual approach to religion, but not both. I see now that becoming more spiritual does not mean a diminution of the intellectual content of religion. I've also read and thought more in recent years about the biological basis of spirituality (even took a class at shul on it :-)) and have come to feel that there's a real strong biological function provided by spiritual experience.
I feel a deep and spiritual connection to many of my people's traditions and derive sustenance from them. One doesn't have to believe in a personal G-d to believe in compassion and love and protection and all the other attributes associated with G-d. My shul - very different from the one I grew up in - is very participative, lay led, with congregants performing almost all ritual tasks taking turns. It also includes in its liturgy many rituals that were considered too "ghetto" or "old-fashioned" in the shul I grew up in. Over time I've done more of them and felt often that they connected me to Jews throughout the world and throughout history in a deeply satisfying way. At the same time, the community is fully committed to complete inclusion of women and of lesbians and gay men, and tends towards the progressive side in politics. I love the combo of traditional ritual and progressive political philosophy. I totally get why it was important (it happened before I joined) to change our liturgy to one that doesn't presuppose a male G-d, even for those like me who do not believe in G-d per se.
In addition I am still very drawn to the intellectual content of Judaism and derive a lot of satisfaction out of Torah study and other intellectual pursuits. I rarely go through a service without having a question - historical, linguistic, ritual practice - and always ask a rabbi/congregant in the middle of services or afterwards. I take adult education classes regularly and read books of Jewish interest as well. I generally feel intellectually challenged by the dvar (sermon) that the rabbi or a congregant gives, and learn a lot (except when it's a bar/bat mitzvah kid and then the lack of intellectual challenge is made up for by how adorable they are and how challenging it is for them intellectually if not for someone over the age of 13). I've taken on for myself new intellectual challenges, like learning to leyn Torah (my current challenge is getting to the point where I can leyn torah without panicking the night before and tearing my hair out, saying "Why did I say I'd do this?" Like Dorothy Parker and writing, I hate leyning but love having leyned.)
In addition to attending services most Saturday mornings, I also generally go on Wednesday mornings, when our congregation has a morning minyan (we don't have enough people who would come daily to have a daily minyan). I started going when my brother Hart died, so as to say kaddish for him. I continued for a while afterwards, because I wanted to provide what others had for me - i.e. I needed a minyan to say kaddish for Hart, and others might need me there to make a minyan for their relatives. But after a while I got hooked. I'm continually surprised and gratified at how that short service makes for such a great start to my day - leaves me feeling more able to take on whatever happens.
Another factor for me - and this has become more important over time - is that our congregation is a "covenantal community" with obligations to support and help one another in times of sickness and loss as well as times of joy. I was able to derive sustenance out of giving in that aspect before I was comfortable with receiving, and have loved being there for shiva minyans (particularly since I grew up in an environment where women were not counted in a minyan - there's nothing to tell you you don't count like literally not being counted) and baby namings and bnai mitzvah and visiting and helping the sick and welcoming people without places to go to our holiday tables. Over time I've grown into accepting help and comfort and kindness from the community as well and it has made a huge difference to me. I told my rabbi I did not want a shiva minyan or visiting when my brother died last fall (mostly because I didn't know what to say about the estrangement, but also feeling uncomfortable with receiving that kind of support for the death of someone with whom I'd had no adult relationship) and I ended up feeling deprived of something that could have helped, so I reconsidered when my father died. And it was enormously comforting to me to have the congregation support me in that way.
So I see my religious life as very important to me, very individual, and still evolving. I wish that more of the discussion of religion (on lj and irl) were of the "This is what my religious life - or lack thereof - means for me and does for me" variety and less of the "This is what you should or should not believe" variety. I find the former really interesting, no matter what the person's religious beliefs or non-beliefs! I find the latter approach at best annoying and at worst downright dangerous.