“I want to be a Jewish leader.”
This was the answer I wrote in my sixth grade diary to the self-imposed question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Also included was a list of possible names for my future children (Catherine, Stephen, Jacob, and Elizabeth) and how old I should be when I got married (between 19 and 26).
One of those predictions was right: I was 22 when I got married. But I named my boys Adam and Ethan—and instead of being a Jewish leader, I have worked in a medical office and as a marketing manager, interior designer, rock singer, and writer.
In my fourth to sixth grade years, I was filled with Jewish fervor. I taught my Irish Catholic friends how to read and write Hebrew (until their parents found out and put the kibosh on the lessons!). I was, shall we say, “into it.” But when I reached my teenage years, the goal of being a leader of my people faded as boys, school, cheerleading, and especially music took hold of my world.
That change was natural in many ways. But I’m not sure when the bigger one happened: I stopped believing in God.
Last week my mom asked if I think there may be a God, or if I don’t believe in one at all. “Not at all,” I said, without hesitation. Over thousands of years, billions of people have believed in different versions of God. Yet, not once has any one of those versions been proven to be true. I’m sure many of you want to argue the point—or hope I slip on a banana peel, hit my head, and come to my senses. And that’s fine. After all, this is simply my opinion.
So, how did I go from wanting to become the next Golda Meir to not believing in God at all? It was a process. When I was young, I remember arguing with my dad about the existence of God. He said he wasn’t sure what he believed.
“How can you consider yourself a Jew if you don’t believe in God?” I asked. “Being a Jew is based on the belief in one God!” I was 14 and he was 38, but I was determined to make him see the light. At that point, the idea of doubting the existence of God was as foreign to me as taking communion at church on Sunday morning.
This was only the beginning of what I call, “my awakening.” I questioned people and politics and rules and norms and, eventually, my own religion. The more I learned about human suffering, the more the concept of God no longer rang true. If God exists and is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, why does evil and sadness occur? Why did the Holocaust happen? Why were Native Americans slaughtered and pushed from their homes? How did God allow the Spanish Inquisition to unfold?
I know that many people think: “That’s not God, that’s the God-given trait of ‘free will’ manifesting in people who chose to do evil.” Maybe, but how then do you explain the randomness of children born into a life of starvation, thrust into war, or born with incurable, fatal diseases? I can’t be convinced of a divine plan.
And yet, although I no longer believe in God, there is much I admire about my Jewish heritage. I love the history, the holidays, the humor, the stories, the music of the High Holidays, and especially the values of kindness, charity, and education. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the Passover Seder, particularly the part where the youngest child able to read is tasked with asking The Four Questions.
Though the questions seem mundane, the results are sublime. Being taught at a very young age to question things is unique to Judaism, and the freedom to question is an instrument of power. In many other faiths, questioning is not only discouraged, but may result in punishment or scorn. And this—the lesson of questioning—is where the foundation for my atheism was born.
I’ve come to the conclusion that life consists of nature and physics and things that can be proven, and that this personal quest stems from my 5-year-old self at the Seder table reciting The Four Questions. In other words, I credit my Judaism with my evolution from believer to non-believer.
I hope the sixth grade version of me who yearned to be a great Jewish leader would be pleased with the woman I’ve become. I still consider myself a proud Jew, although a secular one, and am grateful for my upbringing in a loving, religious home.
So, tell me, fellow Kvellers, what do you think? Have you ever doubted the existence of God? Has your belief in God changed over time? Do you condemn or pity non-believers, or do you think they may be on to something? Do you believe you can be a Jew if you don’t believe in God? Like Linda Richman from Coffee Talk says, “Discuss amongst yourselves.” It’s what we do best, after all.