As someone who found her atheism (if atheism is something you can actually find) relatively recently, I have a mighty hard time saying I'm not Jewish.
Perhaps it is out of habit, as it is what I said for roughly 16 years of my life, without question. But now it sounds a little odd coming out of my mouth, a little too much like a lie, or something of the sort. When I trip up and find myself in that awkward space trying to convey that while I may be Jewish I do not, under any circumstances, believe, I usually temper it with some sort of excuse relating to my culture, to my family history. So too do I feel uncomfortable stating my atheism, for fear people may categorize me as one of those anarchist-types, which I most certainly am not.
My issues with religion (and Judaism in particular) are rather deep-seated and I often wonder if I actually understand them all fully. That's a pretty uncomfortable thought for someone like me, but I guess that's par for any sort of religious course — the lack of concreteness and the need to categorize yourself, to place yourself in a distinct group that may or may not convey that other people are completely wrong and will be punished eternally for this misconception. Am I willing to say that because I was born to Jewish parents who were born to Jewish parents and so on somehow makes me “chosen”? What about my Catholic friends, my Protestant friends, my my-mother-is-Christian-and-my-father-is-Jewish-and-I-had-a-Bar-Mitzvah friends?
My parents maintain I am chosen and felt obligated to make that known to me when they found out I was writing this piece."'Chosen' includes obligations on the part of the Jewish people," my father wrote, adding he was too busy at work to get into it in too much detail. This email, still sitting in my inbox, feels like some weight or ticking time bomb, waiting to expose that I still go to Shabbat dinner every once in a while and get excited for Pesach. It’s there, eager to expose that perhaps I’m not the true atheist I thought I was. And to be honest, I don’t want to delete it. Maybe it's because it's always nice to hear someone think you're special in someway or another. But that doesn't override the lack of explanation or justification for this "status."
This, like so many other things, would be all too easily swept under the rug. I could ostensibly ignore it, feeling that persistent Jewish pride when it is convenient and forsaking God, religion and spirituality at all other times. Or at least I thought I could ignore it, until I recently learned that I am somehow related to Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher best known for his writings concerning religious existentialism. To my surprise, I have taken great comfort in his work as of late, though most of it deals directly with a relationship with God, something I have yet to truly develop and wonder if I ever will. Buber’s God is devoid of qualities and exists everywhere. Buber reasons one cannot look for a relationship with God, but rather a relationship with God develops through your interaction in the world.
Now, I am not going to say that this somehow validates God for me, but his approach gives me something akin to faith. My father’s email to me stating that I am chosen whether I like it or not (we can debate the validity of that later), and my inability to discard the sentiment are all a part of something larger. Perhaps we don’t need to look for reasons to be faithful or reasons not to be faithful. Meaning, comfort and all that sort of rot can be found without God, with God or something in between. It’s connection we’re all looking for, isn’t it? And we look for it everywhere with everyone and religion is just one of those manifestations. Maybe it’s not about feeling connected to God.
For me, it’s feeling connected to anything and understanding that connection. Once you get rid of that awful idea that you’re out there all alone, floating, with no connection to something greater, whatever that greater thing might be, the discomfort starts to dissipate. Instead I’ve realized that understanding my faith and defining it are two entirely different things. It’s far more important to understand how my Judaism and atheism play off of each other than to define myself as one or the other. That understanding gives me more inner peace than any label ever could.
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