Study Guide

This Is Where I Leave You Religion

By Jonathan Tropper

Religion

The one tattered remnant of Jewish observance that my parents had maintained was having the family stay over for Rosh Hashanah (7.35)

For the Foxman family, Judaism acts more as a cultural touchstone than a religion. Of course, in true Foxman fashion, tension between family members takes focus over the holiday itself. Well, tbh, isn't that true of all families?

When your vision of God is America's horniest senior citizen in his pajamas, it's probably fair to say that you're not the kind of guy who sees miracles in the mundane coincidence fate lobs at your unsuspecting head like water balloons from a high terrace. (20.66)

Judd sure does think about God a lot for a self-proclaimed atheist. Maybe that's the difference between believers and non-believers—believers see miracles, while non-believers just see fate lobbing water balloons at you.

Within ten minutes [...] Dad would close his eyes and rock lightly in his seat, humming along with the cantor to the liturgical melodies he recalled from his own loosely affiliated youth. (30.16)

Although Mort was not a religious man, it's clear that he held affection for the Jewish faith. This passage indicates that nostalgia for his youth has a lot to do with it. Is this any different from humming along to the one-hit wonders of the '90s? Maybe not, when it comes down to it.

"Do you believe in God?"

"Not really," he said. "No."

"Then why do we come here?"

He sucked thoughtfully on his Tums tablet and put his arms around me, draping me under his musty woolen prayer shawl, and then shrugged. "I've been wrong before," he said. (30.18)

Mort brilliantly sums up an age-old theory called "Pascal's Wager." It's pretty simple: it makes sense to practice religion because you have a lot more to gain if God does exist than if He doesn't. It might not be enough to turn Mort into a hardcore believer, but it's certainly enough to keep tradition alive.

Boner [...] descends like a spirit from his high seat on the front platform to dramatically hug each one of us as we enter the pew. This seems gratuitous to me [...] like when talk show hosts warmly greet their guests even though they've obviously talked backstage before the show. (30.23)

Boner clearly loves the pomp and circumstance that comes along with being a rabbi. Hey, who wouldn't love being a congregation's conduit to God, or at least tradition? Judd, on the other hand, finds the ego involved to be more than a little annoying.

Boner has become the kind of rabbi whose agenda seems to be comprised solely of proving to the younger generations that Judaism is cool, that rabbis can be hip, that he, Charles Grodner, is a happening guy. (30.23)

It seems like being a rabbi is Boner's outlet for his teenage Led Zeppelin fantasies. It makes sense when you think about—religious leaders were probably the closest things to rock stars at one point in history. (And in some places, they still are.)

"I'd like to take a moment to welcome the Foxman family back to our temple. As many of you know, Mort Foxman, one of our founding members, passed away a few days ago." (30.31)

It'd be easy to miss this bit of information when reading the book, but you might want to get out your highlighters: this avowed atheist was a founding member of a temple. Huh. Wonder what that's about?

For reasons I can't begin to articulate, it feels like something is actually happening. It's got nothing to do with God or souls, just the palpable sense of goodwill and support emanating in waves from the pews around us. (30.45)

We have a tendency to focus exclusively of the supernatural aspects of religion when it's discussed, but this passage proves that we're completely missing the point. Religion is as much about creating a community here on earth as it is about heaven or hell.

"Oh come on!" Mom says. "You knew how your father felt about religion. Or, rather, didn't feel. I'm just surprised you all went along with it for so long." (47.67)

If we were in an arguing mood, we'd say that the kids knew on some level that their dad hadn't requested that they sit shiva. Maybe they just realized the ritual would actually help them make peace with their dad's death.

"It would be so nice to believe in God," Phillip murmurs to no one in particular. (50.9)

Yeah, so … why doesn't Phillip just believe in God already? Not so easy, you say? Maybe not—but, as their mom knows, acting like you do is a good start. After all, the Foxman family didn't need to believe in God to get a lot of comfort out of sitting shiva.

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