October 19, 2019

Confessions of a Jewish Atheist

We were seated at a round table at our local Jewish Community Center, awaiting our tax-dollar-funded senior meal, when the man at my left began a conversation (or, shall I say, confrontation). “You know, the first monotheist wasn't Jewish,” he bellowed. “He was an Egyptian king who worshipped the sun.”

After a sharp “I told you so” look (as I'd dragged him to this lunch), my husband, a former museum docent and history buff, decided to take on the challenge. “The pharaoh’s name was Akhenaton and he reigned for 17 years during the second century BCE,” he stated matter-of-factly. “He was the first monotheist known to history. He worshipped Aten, an ideological descendant of Egypt's popular sun god, Ra.”  (Yeah, sometimes my husband sounds like an old college professor.)

Not to be denied his place in the sun, after a few stunned beats, the man turned his attention to the little old lady seated across us. She dutifully provided the expected, shocked response. No worship of a “sun god” could be considered on par with the worship of the “one true god” — as given to the world by the Jews, she countered. And besides, she'd be checking to see what her rabbi had to say about that!

Her outburst gave me an idea. There had been much talk at my freethinkers meetup group lately regarding the public's reaction to atheists. (I'd never personally experienced the common negative response — likely because I tend to keep my beliefs to myself, while others seem to actually enjoy confrontation.)

But in this instance, I thought I'd join my husband in pricking the self-appointed table leader's balloon by one-upping the shock factor. I stated nonchalantly that I consider myself a “Jewish Atheist” and have no problem with early monotheism predating Judaism in Egypt. Suddenly, it was I who was under attack by a table of elderly Jews who insisted I could not call myself both “Jew” and “Atheist.” To be a Jew, they insisted, one must believe in God.

Their reaction reminded me of my daughter's experience at a Jewish afterschool program called Judaica High School. On the first day of class, students were asked to step into one of four corners of the room, each representing a religious identity: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Despite the snickers of her classmates, my daughter stood her ground at the center, insisting she was “none of the above.”

While proud of her independent spirit, I was sorry to see yet another Hebrew School program backfire in my attempt to transmit the beauty and ethical teachings of our Jewish heritage … not to mention act as a counterbalance to her nascent interest in Wicca!

I did have an answer for the affronted little old lady at the table, however. Back when my daughter was enrolled in a temple preschool, I'd had a serious conversation with their Reform rabbi about his religious beliefs. He admitted he didn't personally believe in the existence of God, but felt that had nothing to do with his ability to lead his flock in a spiritually satisfying Jewish way of life.

Happily, a tradition of acceptance continues among many leaders in the Reform movement who regularly embrace all comers, whatever their level of conviction —including members of mixed marriages and alternate sexual identities. About a week after our lunch, I attended a “Conversation with the Clergy” event sponsored by the largest Reform temple in our area. The public was invited to question the temple's rabbi and cantor on whatever topic came to mind (including politics and religion).

So I brought up how when I called myself a “Jewish Atheist,” it seemed to affront, even outrage, many Jews. Yet I considered it to be a valid form of Jewish self-definition — quite prevalent, in fact. Both the temple's rabbi (a recent NYC-transplant, schooled secularly and in the movement) and their long-serving, Orthodox-educated cantor agreed. In fact they added that many, if not most, atheists are Jewish — as are legions of alternative spiritual “seekers.”

The cantor next referred to non-religious practitioners and non-believers (like my husband and myself) as being “culturally Jewish.” It was a revelation! This term applied to our situation far better than the more common “ethnically Jewish,” as our background is more European than Semitic. (And suddenly we no longer felt so weird about our Chanukah candle-lighting habit or annual Seder traditions. For, like other Jewish rituals and practices, they could now be viewed as part of a community celebration of our common Jewish culture … and not a hocus-pocus religious edict.)

So “culturally Jewish” it is. And I will continue to enjoy my Jewish observances with a lot less (Jewish?) guilt! At occasional Shabbat dinners, do I join in reciting blessings to a God I don't, intellectually, believe exists? Sure. It's actually easier than pledging allegiance to the flag (which I refuse to parrot before meals at the senior lunch — what? am I back in kindergarten?).

Joining in group prayer feels like chanting “Ohm” in a yoga class — a social exercise designed to induce calm and harmony. If I want to do this for several hours, I can attend a synagogue service … but that inclination remains rare. Still, the few times I've gone (years back to please my aging parents), I found the experience pleasantly peaceful. There was comfort in participating in the never-forgotten, singsong prayers of my childhood. I felt a part of Judaism's “cultural” chain.

Which leads me to another, more serious (for an atheist), confession. I also pray.

I pray almost daily, in fact. I don't use a siddur (prayer book) and my prayers tend to be more of the silent, “wishing” type. But like many who pray formally, I wish for the health and welfare of those closest to me … and for a better, kinder, safer world. New-agers and self-help advocates might call such prayers “affirmations” or the practice of  “positive thinking.” I could too — but I'd also call that a cop out. I consider what I do real prayer, a practice sanctioned in Judaism for everyone's benefit (believers and non-believers alike).

For even Orthodox tradition acknowledges that religious observance was given by God for man's benefit, and not the other way around (for the benefit of God). So I say, fellow Jew, just go with whatever works for you.

I also believe there's something to be said for traditional rabbinic insistence on “a pintele Yid” (Yiddish for “a tiny spark of Jewishness”) in every Jewish soul, that can never be erased. This may actually have more to do with the habits and lessons of childhood, which remain embedded forever, if in disguised form.

And this fact of early life applies not only to Jews. I once had a dear Catholic friend who'd totally distanced himself from the church and yet had a hard time allowing himself to feel pleasure without guilt. “The nuns got to me,” he'd say with a rueful shrug.

I like to think the habits of being a caring, conscientious person got to me. I don't have a problem with not eating kosher, but I would have a big problem with not leading a “kosher,” i.e., ethical life.

And now that I've been considering the long-term repercussions of early religious indoctrination, I've also gleaned new insight into the “Obama dilemma.” I've often questioned why, as a longstanding Democrat and half-black (and with Jews voting overwhelmingly Democratic and being major civil rights supporters), he's been so antagonistic toward Israel. When he was running for office, I'd shrugged off those who feared his Muslim roots as “crazy conspiracy theorists.” But now I wonder.

Practicing or not, our president was born a Muslim, and raised in Islam as a child — attending religious studies classes and Friday prayers at the local mosque. True, he'd embraced Christianity as an adult and may consider himself a Christian, but Islam got to him first.

That “pintele Muslim” (tiny spark of Muslim soul) in him may very well, if only subconsciously, be guiding his reactions to Islamic issues in America and during his visits to the Middle East. And those ingrained instincts are most evident in his (unusual for an American president) confrontational relationship with Israel's prime minister and the Middle East's only democratic state.

The “tells” are everywhere. It's telling that the “leader of the free world” was conspicuously absent when 40 world leaders, from Europe to the Middle East, linked arms to march in unified condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo-related attacks on 17 Parisians, comprising a satirical magazine's editorial staff, police and innocent shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

Despite the American standard of free speech, perhaps deep inside, Obama simply could not stand with those who would condone the ridicule of a Muslim prophet. He also refused to speak out in the aftermath — as so many heads of government did — in outraged condemnation of Islamic extremism. By merely lamenting the “senseless killing of innocents,” he implied the occurrence had been a random crazed act, as if bred-to-violence Muslim terrorist groups — be they Islamic State, Al Qaeda (who actually took credit) or Boko Haram — did not exist.

More recently, of course, there was his snub of Netanyahu during his last Washington visit. And our president's ceaseless legacy obsession with reaching a deal with Iran — at any cost, and despite dire warnings by respected experts from all spheres and ends of the political spectrum.

All of which, unfortunately, evokes the sagacity of yet another Talmudic saying: “Girsah Deyankutah Girsah.” That which is learned as a child, is learned [for life].

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

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