My Nephew, the Atheist

Apparently, my nephew is an atheist.

My sister informed me of this on the phone this evening, by way of explanation of why her adult son doesn’t want to attend a Passover Seder with her.  She says he doesn’t believe in God because he was “raised in science.”  I suppose this has something to do with having a father who is a computer engineer and a mother who was a biology major in college and now works in health care.  Still, he attended Hebrew school and had one of the coolest bar mitzvahs I have ever attended.  When my niece and nephew were kids, I spent countless Passovers and Rosh Hashannahs with them, attending synagogue and eating festive meals.

Regardless of how you were raised, I suppose you come to a time in your life when you have to decide matters of conscience for yourself.

My mother says my father is an atheist, but Dad denies it.  He says he doesn’t believe in an old man with a long white beard throwing down lightning bolts upon sinners, but that he does believe there must be some type of higher power.  He just has no idea what that might be.  Still, one would be excused for thinking him an atheist, as he claims to loathe religion, which he cites as the cause of most of the world’s problems.

One of these days, I’ll have to make a point of asking my nephew whether he’s really an atheist.  While having no need to follow the tenets of any faith may seem nominally liberating, I think it must be rather difficult explaining to others the absence of God in one’s life.  It’s one thing to have members of other faiths thinking that you’re going to hell for your beliefs.  That’s par for the course.  When you’re an atheist, however, I would assume that every faith would think you’re a sinner and a lost cause.

Of course, there is no need to explain one’s beliefs to anyone.  Many people of a variety of faiths or of no faith choose to keep their beliefs to themselves.  After all, it’s really no one else’s business.

While it is not necessary to believe in God to have your heart in the right place, to do things like helping the less fortunate and being active in one’s community, I find that it does help.  Although we all manage to justify whatever it is that we want to do, I suspect that it’s a little harder to stray off the straight and narrow when you know you’re being judged by the Divine and will have to answer to Him.  Personally, I find God to be a centering experience in my life, a means of reminding myself of what it’s all about.  And while I’ve known too many people without God in their lives who engage in repetitive destructive behaviors, there are plenty of believers who do this as well.

At least if I go wrong, I know that I’ll be able to ask God for forgiveness.  Real contrition, at least to me, doesn’t happen in a confessional.  It happens when you recognize the error of your ways, vow to take a different path, and follow it up with action toward living a more upright life.

Praying is great, and I do it daily, but I believe that it has limited value if you don’t “put feet on your prayers.”  It’s not enough to talk the talk; you also have to walk the walk.  We’ve all known those whose credo seems to be “church on Sunday, business as usual on Monday.”

Among my saddest experiences was the time I encouraged a coworker to attend religious services with me, but he refused due to his believe that God hates gays.  He obviously didn’t know God very well.  God doesn’t trade in hate, only in love.  If a particular house of worship doesn’t want your presence due to your sexual orientation, that means that the hearts of those involved are in the wrong place.  It has nothing to do with God.

But I can certainly see how those who feel rejected by churchgoers, or who feel that they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal all their lives or who feel that their prayers were never answered might deny the existence of God and consider themselves atheists.

Some atheists might believe that I am indulging in self-delusion by placing my faith in God.  They may find that believing in God is illogical and fails the test of science.  I wonder whether my nephew truly feels this way, or whether he is confusing God with religion.  Every religion has certain precepts that might be difficult for the modern man or woman to believe.  The faithful have all types of explanations for such things, but I fail to see why one must equate the rejection of dogma with the rejection of God Himself.

Ultimately, people come to God (or not) on their own terms.  Finding faith often requires just the right combination of life experiences.  I hope that, as my nephew makes his way through his young adulthood, he eventually finds his way back to the joy that I associate with faith in God.

I’d hate for him to miss out on that.

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On Seeking Forgiveness in a Mexican Restaurant

Earlier this week, friends of ours drove out from Los Angeles to provide new homes for our big screen TV and our antique china cabinet.  We are moving 641 miles north at the end of this week and “everything must go.”

I thought it was cool when our friends texted my wife a photo of the china cabinet in its new location in their house.  It’s a little easier to say goodbye to an old friend when you have a visual of it settled comfortably into its new digs.

We took our friends to dinner during their overnight visit, which also afforded us an opportunity to say goodbye to our favorite little Mexican restaurant here in town.  Husband, who pastors a church in the South Bay, sat across from me as we tucked into our burritos, tacos and chile rellenos.  Wife began gushing over the delicious Rosh Hashannah dinner that her beloved prepared a few weeks ago, complete with all the traditional dishes and the traditional blessings.  This was a bit awkward, as I’ve been a practicing Jew for more than half a century, and I am not familiar with any traditional Rosh Hashannah dishes other than tizmmes and apples dipped in honey.  I also don’t know of any traditional Rosh Hashannah blessings beyond “l’shannah tovah” and “may you be recorded in the Book of Life.”  The blessing to which she referred had something to do with salvation, she told me.  Salvation?  Hmm, primarily a Christian concept, I responded.  She reminded me of the salvation that occurred when we were freed from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians.  True, I said, although I don’t normally think of the Exodus in terms of “salvation.”

I have never associated the concept of salvation with Rosh Hashannah, but perhaps that is a way of establishing a connection that would make our holiday more relevant to Christians.  To me, the concept of salvation is inextricably entwined with Jesus, who, let’s face it, sought to “save” the people from many of the very things that we Jews hold dear.

What really took me aback, however, was when husband brought up Yom Kippur.  “Did you afflict your soul?” he asked.

Why, yes, I did, I answered.  I suspect his question was asked with sincerity, although (at least to me) it came off as tinged with sarcasm at the time.  I have to assume that, as he is a pastor, he was not attempting to belittle my beliefs.  But if he was trying to make me think, it worked.

This was one of only a handful of times that my rear end was not planted firmly in a seat in synagogue for most of the day on Yom Kippur.  Being our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a time when I generally find my way into shul regardless of where my wanderings take me.  Out here in the desert, however, it’s not so easy.  Two years ago, we trekked to makeshift services in a hotel ballroom 2½ hours away in the Phoenix area.  Last year, we attended Rosh Hashannah services in San Luis Obispo on the central coast and Yom Kippur services in Palm Springs.  With no Jews to speak of in our little desert oasis, our choices consist of either traveling or making do.  This year, there was no way for me to get out of work early enough to travel, eat before the fast and still make Kol Nidre services.  So the “make do” option was the order of the day.

This meant that I sat on the sofa in our living room (our beautiful red sofa, now sold… did I mention that I hate moving?) with my mahzor and, wearing my frayed purple kippa, spending hours chanting the Yom Kippur service.  Just like in shul, I stood for as much of the Shmonah Esrei (silent devotion) as my back and knees would allow.  The remainder of the service I chanted aloud, alternating between the Hebrew and the English, doing my best to correctly pronounce the bits that are in ancient Aramaic.  My wife sat in the chair opposite me as I droned on for hours in a language that means nothing to her.  God bless her for being so patient with me.

My favorite part of the Yom Kippur service has long been the reading of the Biblical book of Jonah, which we do late in the afternoon.  Before we reach that point, however, we recite the vidui, the ancient formula for the confession of sins, over and over during various parts of the service.  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu (we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen), and on and on goes the list of our transgressions.  Whether I recite this in the Hebrew or the English, it makes me feel dirty.  Positively filthy with sin.  It’s like a physical thing; I imagine sin covering me with a sticky stink as if I had just stumbled out of a miasmic swamp.

And indeed, I have.  The miasmic swamp is our day-to-day lives in which we are more concerned about ourselves than about others, in which we “do what we have to do” to get ahead, crushing the spirits of those upon whose backs we tread without a thought.  The vidui ends with “we have gone astray, we have led others astray,” as poignant an indictment of our misdeeds as one could imagine.  The fact that we have debased ourselves to every kind of sin should be bad enough.  But let us not forget that every action in which we engage, every word that we speak, consciously or unconsciously influences others.  Someone, sooner or later, is going to follow our example.  Because that’s what we, as human beings, do.

The Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”) is the other prayer that I have trouble with.  This lengthy list of our personal failings goes on for two pages of printed text and never ceases to get me choked up with emotion.  For the sin which we have committed in spurning parents and teachers.  (My parents are about to celebrate their eightieth birthday.  How much longer are they going to be around?  Why don’t I give them more attention?)  For the sin which we have committed in speaking guile.  (I am not known for holding my tongue, or my keyboard for that matter.  When am I going to learn to speak more kindly, to recognize my employees for the little miracles they create every day, to tell my wife how much I love her more often?)  For the sin which we have committed in eating and drinking.  (I can’t even begin to enumerate my sins on this score.  But since Yom Kippur I have (mostly) kept my resolution to eat a more healthy diet, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.)

The final verse of Avinu Malkeinu is sung in unison by the congregation, a moving plea to the Almighty to forgive our human frailities and to give us another chance to be the better people we are capable of being rather than executing the severe decree that we so justly deserve.  I love the tune of this particular hymn, but I can’t get to the end of it without my voice cracking.  I am overcome with emotion every time.

So I think I was telling our friends the truth when I answered that yes, I did afflict my soul on Yom Kippur.  I only wish I had taken time to go into the details of the vidui and the Avinu Malkeinu so that my response didn’t sound so facile.

Yom Kippur may seem like an anachronism to some, but I am one of those who take its message personally.  Which, of course, is what Yom Kippur is all about.  But suffice it to say that it is difficult to explain this adequately in a Mexican restaurant over chile rellenos.  And I can’t begin to fathom how I might translate this message into terms that would be meaningful to a committed Christian.

 

A Jew in Church

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My mother-in-law, whose home we will be sharing starting next week, pastors a tiny church in northern California.  She is a woman of God in the truest sense.  She devotes her life to improving the lives of others.  And she surrounds herself with other like-minded people, creating circles of love that extend outward to encompass many in the community.

On one of our recent visits, we happened to be there on Sunday, so I attended Sunday school and church services.  For a lifelong Jew to enter the world of Pentecostalism is quite an experience and could in itself be the subject of an entire blog post.  For now, let’s just say that at Christmastime, I stood in the pulpit, explained the story of Hanukkah to the congregants, and sang Maos Tzur in Hebrew.  Let others create bucket lists, but for me this could properly be added to the list of things I never imagined I’d do in a million, billion years.

I was seventeen years old the first time I set foot inside a church.  I was a college freshman and had bused across the Hudson River with the choir to participate in a choral competition at the Vassar College chapel in Poughkeepsie, New York.  I almost backed out at the last minute.  I felt guilty about going into one of those places.  You know, one of those places where the goyim pray.  I was duly impressed by the sweeping majesty of the sanctuary while I ignored the crucifix and tried not to look at the images etched into the stained glass windows.  I later told my father about the experience, but knew I could never discuss it with my mother.  Anyway, we did poorly in the competition and I stayed out of churches for a while after that.

Later on, I managed to rack up a series of Christian girlfriends, which inevitably led me into other churches in other states.  There was the one with the three-year old daughter who I helped to memorize the Lord’s Prayer.  (Of course, I had to learn it myself first.  And I nearly fell on the floor when I discovered that my father knew every word.)  Then there was the other one who alley-catted around on me but still liked to be in the pew, singing along with the hymns come Sunday.  And if I am to be honest, I must admit that there were times when I was lonely enough to attend church with a friend or two from work.

Many years later, I met and married my true love, who I had discovered, to my delight, held most of the same values that I do.  She happens to be a Christian.  Thus, I gradually learned that, although I know I could never be a Christian myself, the distance between Jews and Christians is really rather slim.  The two faiths are no more than twin branches of the same tree.  In the words of Shakespeare, “what’s in a name?”

I remember well the day I broke the news to my mother that I had asked my shiksha girlfriend to marry me and that she had actually said yes.  The conversation went something like this:

Mom: “What kind of name is Donna?  Italian?”

Me: “No.  Way back, I think they are of English ancestry.”

Mom: “What does her father do?”

Me: “He’s dead.  He worked for the railroad for many years.”

Mom: “Does her mother work?”

Me: “Yes, she pastors a church.”

Mom: “I mean for a living.”

I didn’t tell my mother about the day just a week before that I knew for sure that Donna and I were meant to be together forever.  I knew my mother wouldn’t understand about the power of prayer and how God can out of the blue one day knock you over the head like he knocked Paul off his donkey on the road to Damascus.

But now, fourteen years later, I did tell the story in Sunday school when we were up north visiting my wife’s family.  She herself was not in attendance, as she had decided to sleep in.  But the Sunday school teacher was expounding upon the subject of how the Lord knows our needs and provides for them, and she had asked for personal testimony, and I just couldn’t resist sharing.

I was crazy as a loon about Donna (still am, by the way) and I had a feeling she kind of liked me, too.  Okay, so maybe I was acting more than a bit like a giddy schoolboy even though I was just a few months shy of age forty.  What I really wanted to do was buy a ring, throw caution to the winds, and find out if I really had a chance.  The problem was that overtime had dried up at work, I had no savings to speak of, and I had no idea where I would find the money to buy a decent ring.  I had priced some rings, and I knew that I would need at least $700.  Seven hundred dollars that I didn’t have.

That’s when I started doubting myself.  Perhaps, I thought, this was not meant to be after all.  Who was I kidding?  Making a paltry hourly wage, I knew I couldn’t afford marriage.  And did I really want to impose this on the object of my affections?  Did I want to saddle her with a life of poverty?  No, of course not!

It was a night when I began to feel depressed about the situation, and I began to pray.  “Lord, if this is meant to be, please show me a sign.”  I went to sleep wondering if I was fooling myself, if God would really hear my prayer, or if He had anything to do with this at all.

In the morning, I got ready for work and, when I headed out the door of my apartment, I noticed there was an envelope sticking out of my mailbox.  Removing it, I saw that it was from PG&E, the electric company.  “What do they want?” I thought.  “My bill is paid up.”

I tore open the envelope as I walked to the car.  You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw that it was a check in the amount of (you guessed it) $700.  I had totally forgotten that I had paid that amount as a deposit more than a year earlier and had no idea that I was entitled to a refund.

“Okay, God, I get it!” I said aloud.  It was as if all the lights had suddenly turned green.  I cashed the check and purchased the ring that very day.

The Sunday school teacher was beaming.  When I reached this point in my story, she blurted out: “You forgot the best part!  She said yes!”  I couldn’t agree more.

And so, the Jew in the Pentecostal church took the opportunity to testify to the fact that God does indeed know our needs and that He provides for them, often in some of the most improbable ways.

I write this as a reminder to myself.  I will be laid off from work at the end of next week and I am starting to panic about being unemployed.  But I know that, somehow, some way, when this door closes, God will open another.  He always does.