The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Relevancy of Freemasonry Today

Originally written on September 30th, 2009
Let’s imagine we want to start a new fraternal organization. Interfaith groups are popular these days, and when we look at the Middle East and see religious people fighting each other, we long for a place where people of different faiths can share common ground. We look at our political landscape and see different political groups at each other’s throats and wish we could sit down together and talk to each other, connecting as human beings rather than as advocates of a particular political position. Almost immediately, we begin to worry about how the fragile peace of the group we are creating might be disrupted.
We decide to choose our members really carefully, investigating them to make sure they are people of good character, and we make sure that there is total consensus on choosing new members. We intend to become very close with each other, so we have to trust each other. We are going to open up in this space, so before long. one of us guards the door to make sure that no stranger barges in when we are trying to meet together.
We set a few ground rules. No talking about partisan politics or sectarian religion. What happens with the group stays with the group. No gossiping. If we’re really going to take the fraternalism seriously, we pledge mutual assistance with all the group members. Any fraud or deceit, messing with each other’s spouses or children, or betrayal of what happens inside the group leads to being supended or kicked out of the group. We also worry that the group meetings will turn into a free-for-all, so we decide to elect a leader. We worry that the group will become a dictatorship, so the leadership will change year by year. We allow the leader considerable freedom to lead in their own way, and pledge to honor the current leader, and be compliant with them while they sit in the leader’s chair. We decide that the leader will need assistants, and we create a structure, based on service to the fraternity, of successive leadership positions, enough of them so that everyone feels that they can, if proven worthy, be part of the leadership structure.
Here’s two tough decisions this group is going to make, and they may be misinterpreted and may cause offense, but we are going to make them anyway. First, because we are an interfaith group, we are going to ask members to join only if they are willing to profess to a belief in a Supreme Being. Discussions about whether God exists are interesting in the abstract, but in our group seem to drag us too far afield. This will almost certainly offend our friends who are atheists and agnostics, and ethical humanists, and we regret the pain this choice is going to cause these friends, but we need some kind of common base to start an interfaith group, and belief in a Supreme Being is that base.
Second, searching our hearts, and having had experiences in other groups in the past, we decide that the dynamic between men and women interferes with the way we want the group to work for us. Because the initial members are men, we decide to be a male-only group. We want to work on what it means to be men, with other men in a supportive group, and we fear that work may not be done in a mixed-sex group. We ask our female friends, our spouses and girlfriends to forgive us for excluding them from this particular group, but we have manhood issues to work out in a non-competitive environment. We have healthy connections with the women in our lives, and we cherish the women in our lives, but in this one group, we want to work with other men to explore the mysteries of masculinity in a supportive setting. Testing the idea out, we find that outsiders sometimes snicker when we bring up the idea of Brotherly Love, or αγάπη, so we decide to close the group to those who mock this idea.
We want the group to explore some deep issues of spirituality, gender identity, leadership, fraternity, connection. We know that not everyone is comfortable diving into these issues and tackling them head-on, so we decide to use ritual and symbolism to help the newer members get to the deep levels of the more experienced members of the group. We find a rich tapestry of symbols to reflect upon. We use these rituals and symbols to get at a deeper truth.
It works. Our group is highly cherished by its members, who bring in more good men to join us. Eventually it gets too big to stay cohesive, and other groups are formed under the same principles, using the same ritual and symbolism, upholding the same values, customs, and usages. We come up with simple ways to show members of other such groups that we belong to such a group. We visit other groups to show our support.
Ultimately, other groups form based on ours, to explore the ritual and symbolism in greater depth, or just to get together and be silly. Some require membership in our group as a prerequisite. Some are open to the women in our lives. Others imitate what we do, but come up with different themes, different symbols and different rituals. A challenge presents itself in that there are groups that have spun off from our group but no longer require belief in a Supreme Being and talk about religion and politics inside their group, and groups that allow women or are composed of women only. Both of these new groups call themselves by our name, use our symbols, and use ritual based on ours, but modified to handle their changes. There is some concern that these new groups will be confused with ours, and that people will think we adhere to their principles or structure. Some members of our group are vehemently angry at these new groups, and make strong statements disavowing and delegitimatizing them, while others seem content to let them be as long as the distinction between them and us is clear enough.
A group like I describe has its appeal to men. In a world troubled by a false dichotomy between science and religion, it’s nice to find a group that believes that science and religion can be allies. In a country disturbed by partisan conflicts, it’s reassuring to call a man “brother” regardless of his politics. In a cultural climate where a striving for equality between the sexes has degenerated into shaming and denigrating men, it’s nice to be somewhere where every man present has dignity as a man, whether rich or poor, regardless or race, ethnicity or religious creed.
Ultimately, who knows? A man may lower his rifle on the battlefield, or turn his bayonet thrust away after seeing a fraternal pin on the enemy’s uniform. Someone might demonstrate he belongs to the group and thereby save his family farm from looting in an invasion. Men at war might cross enemy lines to bury an enemy soldier they didn’t know, with customary honors because he belongs to their group.

Now imagine someone formed this group so long ago that none can agree on when, but certainly more than four centuries ago. Imagine it has spread throughout the world in places where free men gather. Imagine that the ideas of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth remain, that brothers feast together and share ritual with each other in buildings erected for this purpose. Imagine that all you had to do to join was to make known to a group member your intent to become a member, and if after suitable investigation every member of the group agreed, you’d be welcomed to start the process of joining the group, work your way to full membership by three degrees, after which you would be greeted as a brother by millions of other men. Would such a group have any appeal to you?
If so, find a Freemason and talk to him. Ask him whatever questions you want, and understand that he alone might not have all the answers. Visit a Masonic Lodge, or contact the lodge secretary. If you can, visit the Grand Lodge building in your state. But remember, the group you join is only as good as the men who comprise it. The building might be not be in full repair, the tables and chairs might be scratched and cracked, and it might not look like you imagined it would, but if the bond between the brothers is close, none of that will seem important.


  1. Jeremy, thank you, this is a wonderful post! As a new Brother, I found much to agree with here, in the things that attracted me to the Fraternity.

    I was particularly struck by your words about our world, "troubled by a false dichotomy between science and religion." When I was initiated an Entered Apprentice in Amicable Lodge, the Lodge gave me a special coin minted by our Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, bearing its motto, "Follow Reason." I've carried this coin in my wallet ever since, lest I be caught as the only Brother without it and have to buy a round of drinks.

    The other reason I like to carry the coin is that "Follow Reason" is good advice. And yet it's amazing how those self-styled proponents of reason -- the "hard atheists" fashionable today like Dennett and Hitchens, following folks like Russell -- can be so unreasonable. I have yet to learn about Freemasonry from the inside, but I was attracted to the Fraternity because of its history of steadfastly standing for reason in the face of all sorts of unreasonable attacks. In former times, these came mostly from organized religion, and many still do; in these times, they also come from folks who purport to follow reason but in fact make unreasonable judgments of other human beings who believe in a Supreme Being.

    Similarly, sometimes we get religious critiques of reason. I think religion is right to criticize modernity for being too mechanistic, too lacking in spirit, and to some extent a problematic idolatry of reason is to blame. Still, it's obvious from history that reason is a necessary check on the earthly power of organized religion. Religion offers something deeper than reason, and I don't think reason can be said to give us a complete picture of the world, but it's a good starting point.

    Sometimes religious people I respect say that we should limit or dispense with reason, that it keeps us tied down. There's some truth to this; reason can hold us back from seeing higher truths. But this needs to be understood as a figure of speech. Reason is a baseline of interacting with the world. We can go higher and see farther, but when we go outside the bounds of reason here in the material world, that only leads to trouble. So, here I am one religious person who's all in favor of following reason.

  2. On a completely other topic, I'm not sure I'd say that women's rights have led to shaming and denigrating men, but I would agree it's important for men to have a space to talk about being better men in a noncompetitive environment.

  3. Nor would I say that women's rights have led to shaming and denigrating men. I am saying that the cultural discussion has degenerated from that of equality of the sexes to a lampoon of silly and ineffectual men, and an obfuscation of the portrayal of other kinds of men.