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Apr 26 2013

Friday Night: My Husband is an Atheist and He’ll Do Shabbat

By at 10:01 am

two shabbat candlesticksI remember our first night as a family of three. We were in a small hospital room, just large enough to hold a bed for me, a cot for my husband, and a small bassinet for our daughter. I had been in active labor for days, and we were all exhausted from the birthing process. We carefully swaddled our new baby just as the nurse had shown us, and as we laid her down to sleep (HA!) between us, Josh suggested we sing the Shema.

I cried once more, yet another stream of endless tears of gratitude, but this time it wasn’t for the arrival of a healthy daughter. It was for my husband, this man who had been my rock for most of my adult life. Now, in just a few brief words, he had managed to help me find some stable ground once again, if only for a minute. By suggesting that we sing the Shema, Josh took me out of that tiny room, beyond the fear and exhaustion, and reminded me that we are part of something bigger. We had family, community, and the wisdom of an entire history and tradition supporting us.

In the four and a half years since that night, we have had another daughter. We have given both girls Hebrew names in bittersweet ceremonies officiated by our rabbi and witnessed by our community. We have taken them to Tot Shabbat and Hebrew school. The girls have learned to spin dreidels by the light of Hanukkah candles, they have made hamentaschen with their Bubbe and Zayde, and they have bemoaned the lack of macaroni and cheese available during Passover. They have developed a taste for Manischevitz and whole wheat challah, which we have each week at Shabbat dinner. We hope to send them to Jewish Day School.

Through it all, my husband–a product of two highly Jewishly educated parents, as well as a Schechter and Camp Ramah education–has been by my side, supporting me and filling in the huge gaps in my own Jewish knowledge. We attend Tot Shabbat and Hebrew School as a family, and he comes home from work early every Friday night in time to light candles and sing blessings. He fries dough for sufganiyot every Hanukkah, and this year he led the Passover seder.

My husband is an avowed atheist.

I do believe in God, and I have been curious as to how he reconciles all of it. Josh sees no conflict between his own personal beliefs and the inevitable God language that comes up as he’s reading a PJ Library book to the girls or singing along during the family mini-minyan on Saturday morning. For my husband, our Jewish lives aren’t about God. As he often reminds me, you don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, and in fact, Judaism cares much more about what we do than what we think or feel.

Josh’s engagement in Jewish life is far from thoughtless, and he’s not just bending to my will (although that would be awesome). The prayers he utters in synagogue or as we light candles aren’t about who may or may not be on the receiving end; they are about the practice of saying please and thank you, and the importance of acknowledging that so much of what happens in this world is beyond our control.

His commitment to our Jewish lives is about transmitting values and teaching right behaviors through a lens that is meaningful to both of us. It’s not that Judaism is inherently better than any other religious or secular way of raising children, but it is better for us. It’s in our DNA, it’s in our family and community connections, and it makes sense to both of us–not only on an intellectual level, but also on a deeper level that is necessary if one is going to sustain a commitment to raising children in a minority culture. It helps us find meaning in the tough questions of life, and provides us with a structure for figuring out what’s important and how to talk to our children about it.

Inevitably, our daughters will ask about God, and Josh will undoubtedly respond with a listening ear and thoughtful questions, with an awareness of both his own beliefs and his desire to let our daughters find their own way into Judaism. He may not always have the right answer (if such a thing exists), but the truth is, I won’t either. God talk is tricky stuff, whether you believe in it or not.

And so we are making our way through the seasons of raising Jewish children. I lack so much of the knowledge behind the rituals and traditions, and my husband doesn’t have the belief that is so central to my faith. Yet we both agree that there is a place beyond what we believe or what we know, a place of deep meaning and great connection. That is why we will light the Shabbat candles tonight and take our girls to Hebrew school tomorrow morning.

Shabbat Shalom.

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