Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Atheist in Me -

Many years ago, before I was even aware that there was such thing as a commandment-oriented way for Jews to live, my spiritual and emotional life were going through a violent turmoil. It was during this phase of my life in which I dabbled in several different philosophies of how one should live - only two made my list of actual potentials; Christianity and atheism. When I now realize just how different Christianity and atheism are, I basically can't understand how I considered either this one or that one - how could I have been satisfied with two different paradigms so different from each other? It would have made more sense if I had found favor in either one system or another which bore similarities discernible to the eye, but what discernible similarities could those two have had for me to actually group them together? Never in my spiritual path did I even consider Islam, Buddhism, or a similar path; Christianity and atheism spoke the most loudly and most clearly to me.

There was a certain philosophical acuteness that I found in both of them, and I will attempt to briefly summarize just what was the nature of that acuteness was.

The Christian Period

The first thing I must mention about my, what was a relatively short-lived but nagging, interest in Christianity stemmed from a deep lack of knowledge of Judaism. It was clear to me most of my life that I was a spiritual person, i.e., a person interested in "the other side," and on top of this I really enjoyed intellectual stimulation. Judaism didn't offer me any spiritual or intellectual stimulation; by that point in time in my life I was almost totally alienated from it and from other Jews. To me, Judaism was either something to ignore, or if I had to, which with to disagree. Suffice it to say that I knew nothing more about Christianity than I did about Judaism; my spark of interest in Christianity did not stem from a knowledge about Judaism that I felt somehow completed it, but rather from it being able to fill the void of my Judaism. Christianity was the best candidate for that at that point in my life for one basic reason: the way it was presented to me. I was eighteen years old at that point in my life and I was taking a general education class at the community college which I attended; the class was "Old Testament" and a pastor taught it. I was fascinated by the topic - I knew it then and I know it now - it was a fascination with my Jewishness, which my parents had helped maintain alive in me (and my sister) by keeping whatever traditions alive they could. Not to mention, the frequent trips to Israel to visit our family also worked in keeping us connected. I understand now that, judging by my glancing over at Christianity, visits to Israel could only go so far in keeping me close to Judaism; that I was far from it is the proof in the pudding.

I would have hour-long talks with the pastor/teacher after class, who of course, taught the class from a Christian perspective, i.e., that everything led up to Jesus, and would steer our personal talks in a way that would get me to budge towards Christianity. I responded with rebuttals to everything, buy my disgraceful knowledge about Judaism, even the basics, allowed him to back me into intellectual corners and dilemma's to which I had no answer. After a semester I was secretly pondering if perhaps Jesus was really the Messiah. It filled me with a great fear, not the fear of going to Hell, which I didn't understand, but the fear that I and my entire people, my family, and the State I so loved were wrong all along. I remember imagining my family in Israel and their response to the news of my choice, and that I would feel obligated not to tell them about Judaism (I was very idealistic), but about Christianity. The obligation and the knowledge that I would be an outcast filled me with fear, but the fear invoked excitement and pushed me onwards. After a short while my musings about Christianity died, not because I was able to prove them wrong, but because my fear had so shaken and overwhelmed me (again, I was emotionally distraught at this point in my life) that it is almost as if I shut down in order not to let in what I was not able to ward off. The only thing that I considered to be positive about Christianity was that it would make me different, i.e., from my family, but that in and of itself says nothing about Christianity itself. Obviously, it was not enough of a driving factor to make me interested, and besides, I was years away from being able to genuinely understand spirituality, theology, and religion. Thank G-d I "short-circuited" and never went down the paths of Christianity.

The Atheistic Period

Since Christianity couldn't be right, because I wouldn't allow it to be, and because I knew next to nothing about Judaism except for things I read here and there, atheism was an alluring and brilliant concept. Perhaps I would somehow try to suffuse my intellectual curiosity and lust for spirituality with atheism. Indeed, the notion that you know a massive secret, that G-d doesn't exist, makes you a philosophical war-lord and hero, that your view trumps the view of everybody and simultaneously slaughters them and lays them to waste. This aspect of atheism was especially alluring to me. Not only that, I had seen myself, in some strange way, being a representative of G-d, believing in Him and having a strong belief in ethics and morality; atheism was adept at supplanting my urge of helping bring a new knowledge to the world, that there was no G-d. I saw the Jews as people who carried the world into the future and into peace by producing intellectual and philosophical genius; I saw atheism as the most powerful and magnificent philosophy. Not only that, the grand irony of it all would be that, the people to whom G-d revealed Himself first, which I interpreted as being simply an awe-inspiring philosophy, now realized the error of this way and once again took it upon themselves to take humanity to the next level, which was that there was no G-d. The allure of it was "very Jewish," I was motivated in this direction for a reason closely related to my identification as a Jew, and it was even stronger and more solid than my short interest in Christianity, although most likely it helped compound my fear. I actually remember thinking that I rather believe in no G-d than in Jesus; I said to myself, "If G-d is actually going to allow Christianity to be true, if G-d actually made Jesus His son, this goes against everything I feel deep down in the deepest form of myself to be right, and I rather reject G-d than accept this model." So I rejected G-d because Christianity, being G-dless to me, might as well have been atheism.

The death of my grandmother on my mom's side, whom I loved dearly and to which I responded with shouting, punching, and, for the first and last time in my life, literally cursing G-d's Name (and punching my dad), made atheism a high priority for me. Then a few days later the news of one of my best friends to whom I looked up (a girl on whom I also had a crush) being killed in a car accident when I was in Israel compounded it. I hated G-d and was totally closed to Him and to even thinking about Him; I spent the next year or two in a spiritual gaze with no relationship with myself or with G-d. However, deep down inside the deepest part of me knew that I believed in G-d, which makes sense considering that I said that I hated Him, for how can you hate Someone that does not exist? As time went on and my bitter anger and resentment towards G-d did not decrease but simply reached disgraceful peaks of neutrality, I was able to relatively easy enough contend with myself and others that G-d simply did not exist. "Hell" would be a good word to describe that period of time in my life, and there is no G-d in Sheol.

The Jewish Period

It took years for the thick barrier that I erected to begin cracking to the point where water could again flow through. It all culminated when I was twenty one years old and went on a Birthright trip to Israel. My anger and bitterness were, for the few years before this, slowly being replaced with joy, inspiration, and a rediscovered, if not dramatically altered, understanding of G-d. Not only that; I also knew by that point, now for actual theological and philosophical reasons, that Christianity was false, although I still reserved much anger for it. I had begun to understand the urgings of Islam and realized that it too was false, while the Eastern religions never spoke loudly to me anyway. On my trip to Israel that year, equipped with an existent faith in G-d and His existence, He allowed an interesting experience at the Kotel, the Western Wall. I had come to realize that a vow I made when I was in my senior year of high school, that I would not become religious until I felt G-d because so many people called themselves religious but were jerks, was answered with an overpowering spiritual experience. Upon returning to Tucson it took me about five months to digest this experience and to let it seep into my conscious, but when it did, I realized that the only proper course of action for me was to become an observant Jew, i.e., Orthodox, i.e., living in accordance with the commandments of the Torah.

From the time before I approached atheism, I understand in retrospect that certain things I was doing, certain minor "obsessions" I had, which annoyed my family, were in fact "primordial" attempts to embrace my (and our) religion. I was makpid (stringent) with my family on Chanukah to turn off all the lights in the house (although I now know that this is not allowed) and to open the presents in a ritual manner, and showed an external desire to light candles on Shabbat, say Kiddush, and eat the meal together. On Passover I insisted stubbornly that we say the entire Passover Hagadah, which annoyed my family, and even though I too gained little spiritual benefit from it and even resented it a little, wanting to get to the meal already, I felt that it was the right thing to do to read the whole thing. On Yom Kippur, in which my family stayed in our house and fasted, we would try to sleep all day, and I believed that through the relative discomfort we had, that we were achieving the goal of Passover; this is only partially true. We would attend an Orthodox synagogue twice a year, Chabad of Young Israel in Tucson, Rabbi Yosi Shemtov, and although I didn't know how to pray, I felt happy enough holding a siddur (prayer book) in my had, flipping its thin pages, and being surrounded by the service. Rabbi Shemtov also taught me my Bar-Mitzvah portion, of which the reading was held there, with all of my Gentile friends, and some Jews. I was trying to find a way to let something inside of me find external expression, and it just so turned out that that thing was Orthodox Judaism, although I didn't feel like I could accurately call myself an Orthodox Jew until years into observance.

Modern Times

Five years after coming back from Israel on Birthright, I am learning in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, my sister is Orthodox and married to one of my good friends, my newly-wed cousin is married and in living in New York with her husband, my other cousin (her brother) believes in G-d whereas before he was an atheist, and our Tucson family in general has accepted our observance and embraced it in their own ways. My aunt and uncle kashered their house and my dad davins Shacharit (prays morning services) with Orthodox friends and eats lunch with them on Shabbat, which I also did with him when I was in Tucson. Thank G-d, He has surely granted our family with blessing and brings us nearer to our tradition of truth.

I now understand both the appeal of Christianity and of atheism, and having learned about Islam and Eastern religions, I have somewhat of an understanding what makes a Jew go in either of those directions.