Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What will we teach the kids to say?

**This is my entry (not the winner) from Moment Magazine's recent "Elephant in the Room" contest, responding to the question "What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?"

           I’ve been Jewish with God, and I’m currently Jewish without God—a fundamental difference, yet still I’m Jewish. When I was Jewish with God, every word, every act, was an opportunity to fulfill my purpose, obeying commandments, studying Torah, or meditating on God. God was One, which made everything else—my personal plans, values, and all aspects of worldliness—two, at most. In my opinion at that time as a Ba’al Teshuvah, Judaism, like all religions, was a theocentric philosophy and lifestyle.
           What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? I ask my students this question in my class “Judaism Beyond Belief.” I make the students draw extended metaphors for Judaism, placing God somewhere in the picture. For some, Judaism is a flower, and God the sun—without the sun, it wilts, and blooms no more. For others, Judaism is a car, and God the engine—without the engine, no movement, only idleness and rust. One student, a budding Humanist to be sure, drew Judaism as an onion, with God as a layer—without this layer, many other rich layers remain.
           As a Jew without God, I continue to be dedicated to these other rich layers, although the centrality of God in the religion leads to some awkwardness in my adoption of the tradition. I sing niggunim (no words!) instead of prayers at services. Or I stay up all night studying on Shavuos, and then leave before the sunrise morning minyan. I embrace the radical reading of Passover as a holiday of universal liberation, glossing over the clearly religious nationalist message at the core of the Haggadah text.
           My partner and I are both post-Conservative, atheistic Jews. This Friday night we will be hosting our first Shabbos dinner as a married couple. How will we bless the wine? We are facing the fact that Judaism without God, first and foremost, is whatever we want it to be. Our current plan is to recite the traditional Kiddush (to make our more traditional guests comfortable, and to satisfy the part of ourselves that finds comfort in the tradition) and to recite secular blessings created by Humanist Rabbi Sherwin Wine and Morris Sukenik. In this manner we will stay true to our religious pasts and our present secular values.
           Doubtless, the question of the meaning of Judaism without God will be raised again when we have children. What will we teach the kids to say—the traditional or the secular humanist blessings, or both? What reason will we give for each? What will we have besides nostalgia to offer, if we want our kids to learn Hebrew and sing about God’s creation and covenant? We will teach them that to be Jewish without God means to find beauty and wisdom on the outer edges of a religion that values learning, family, ritual, art, nature, and social justice—all of which we seek to embrace, casting aside its pre-scientific, pre-democratic, pre-feminist roots.

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