The Struggles of a Jewish Atheist

I have written before about my struggles with characterizing my Jewish practice. Having done extensive research on the “millennial” generation of which I am a part, I have come to understand the nuances of living in a world in which options and choice are valued above all else, and how my religious practice plays into this, or plays against it.

For this reason, I was taken by a recent article in Tablet magazine, in which self-proclaimed “Jewish atheist” Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles his experience attending a Humanistic synagogue. Humanistic Judaism identifies with the history and traditions of Jewish culture independent of a higher power. That is, the focus is on “[celebrating] the centrality of human reason and responsibility from a uniquely Jewish perspective.” This would objectively seem like a perfect fit for Zimmerman, and yet, for him, the experience was totally uncomfortable, even laughable…not in and of itself, but when compared to formative prayer experiences from his Conservative Jewish upbringing.

Zimmerman goes on to discuss how, growing up, the topic of “God” just never really came up. When it did, particularly as his teenage skepticism crept in, God emerged as “a fictitious character full of symbolic importance.” While it was this skepticism that inspired him to give the Humanistic synagogue a try, he found that it felt unnatural to try to change or rework prayers that he grew up reciting. Even though intellectually it made sense to, for example, reword the Shema (Jewish proclamation of monotheism) to deemphasize the importance of a higher power, in practice it felt disingenuous for him. ”The words and the music were so incongruous,” he writes, “it was impossible not to giggle.”

By the end of the article, he chooses to find the beauty in the struggle between going through the motions of prayer and actually meaning what he says. Even if Zimmerman questions ritual and spiritual aspects of his upbringing, he feels fortunate to have been exposed to a tradition that encourages him to wrestle with questions of faith and religion, as opposed to allowing the struggle to create a distancing effect.

Although I am still unsure how, I know at least that I will continue to act out this fiction. And if that associates me with a God and superstitions I do not believe in, I accept that, because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.

Engaging in this internal dialogue helps Zimmerman find a connection to Judaism with which he can feel comfortable. This resonates strongly with me both personally and professionally; finding this comfort level, this entry point into the conversation, is one of the primary goals of The Mothers Circle program, which is a huge part of my work here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. Part of The Mothers Circle curriculum, which provides education and support to women of other backgrounds who are raising Jewish children, deals with the tough questions children might ask, particularly about faith and God. While most of the curriculum deals with more concrete takeaways—how to light Shabbat candles, preparing for Passover, life cycle events, etc.—these particular sessions deal with the “gray areas.” This is particularly interesting in the context of the course, as our moms come from a variety of religious backgrounds, or no religious background at all. Sometimes it can be easier to connect to one faith when one is grounded in another, as opposed to immersing oneself in a belief system without a personal point of context. The latter can make dealing with these gray areas even more challenging.

When I get the chance to connect with these moms, either one-on-one or online through The Mothers Circle National Listserve, I assure them that these kinds of questions are often just as complicated for someone who grew up Jewish as they are for someone who did not. Throughout my Passover observance, as I hung my head and prepared yet another sheet of matzah pizza for lunch (next year I’ll try to get more culinarily creative…of course, I say that every year), I found myself continually asking, “why do I do this, anyway? What difference does it really make?” And yet, upon biting into a glorious celebratory cupcake once the sun had gone down on Tuesday and Passover was officially over, I did feel a sense of connection. On a basic level, I realized the value of withholding something I loved, of challenging myself to do something uncomfortable, in the name of a tradition—much like in other religious traditions—that has had such an impact on who I am and what I do. I barely set foot in synagogue throughout the year, but through refraining from eating leavened foods I felt more connected to my family and to my heritage, both because the practice was familiar to me, and because I continue to question it.

Judaism focuses on actions first, and faith second. It gives us a structure that can set the groundwork for meaningful discussion and, ideally, lasting connections. Whether you grew up Jewish summer camp or only recently learned to say “hamotzi” (blessing over bread), the cycle of acting, questioning, and connecting is one that I think we can all relate to, and something in which to find great meaning and comfort.

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