I find secularism personally compelling
I am a member of several Jewish online discussion forums for believers to engage in respectful conversations with those who have lost their faiths. The funny thing is that I fit neither of those two categories. You see, I’m not a believer, but I never gave upon Jewish religious practice either. If anything, I’ve only adopted more religious practices than I was ever raised with.
Despite having been raised in a secular, traditionally leaning Jewish household, I adopted a religious Jewish lifestyle for myself, which I more or less maintain to this day. I observe the Sabbath, and my family keeps a kosher kitchen. While I haven’t been to a prayer service in nearly one year, my preferred style of worship services is Orthodox. Even putting aside the many technicalities of living a traditional Orthodox lifestyle, I very much look the part because that is how I see myself in my mind’s eye – as a bearded Jew with his head covered.
Still, despite feeling somewhat out of place, I find these forums fascinating because the level of discourse is so informed and thoughtful. Those participants who no longer believe were raised in various Orthodox communities around the world, ranging from Modern Orthodox to Yeshivish to Hassidic; and most spent their childhoods and years of their adulthoods studying in houses of Torah learning. Some were rabbis themselves, educators who dedicated years of their lives to spreading love of Torah and traditional Judaism among the Jewish people.
While I personally continue to observe the Sabbath with my wife and daughter, etc., the voices of these scholarly formerly religious Jews resonate with more clarity to me than any I have heard before. Many of them, coming from Orthodox backgrounds, as they did, fought against their religious doubts ferociously for years, seeking out sufficiently convincing answers to their questions; and ultimately – found themselves unable to continue living the lies that they were born into. But to this day, they continue truth-seeking.
Secularism repels me as a parent
On the Sabbath, my daughter and I often go to one of several local playground in our neighborhood and surrounding environs. Religious and secular families frequent these spots together, and while some people are dressed in clearly religious garb, while others are not, it’s often hard to distinguish between them all.
However, when a parent pulls out their phone at the playground, that’s when it becomes very obvious. You see, traditionally observant Jews do not use electronic devices on the Sabbath. I sit and watch them, speaking on their mobiles as if the Sabbath is any other day of the week, and they look back at me, noting my head covering and beard, phoneless. And I think, “You think that I believe using cellphones on Shabbat is verboten… but, really, I could care less, friends. I too would use my phone if push came to shove.”
Nevertheless, I continue observing the Sabbath, and I particularly avoid breaking religious norms in public. But why? Why do I even bother?
At this point in my life, I do it in large part because I am not merely a Jewish individual – I am the parent of a Jewish child, and I deliberately want to root her Jewish identity in our people’s traditions… the same traditions that have united us as a group across vast expanses of space and time.
I recognize and value the significance of the Jewish State of Israel for the well-being of the Jewish people, and I have chosen to live here for precisely that reason, among others. However, from my perspective, the continued existence of the modern State is less assured than the continued commitment of [a significant chunk of] the Jewish people to its ancient traditions… and if I had to bet against only one of the two (not that I see any need to, per se), it would be the State, rather than the tradition. So what is a Jewish parent to do? He must, of necessity, preserve and pass down his people’s tradition.
Were I not a father… well…
Meaning in my perpetual struggle? (Unlikely)
Here I am at the ripe age of 41, still writing angsty blog posts about my faith (or lack thereof) journey… and I have to ask myself – what the heck is wrong with me? In my experience, people are generally more comfortable in their shoes than I am – most secular Jews seem content being secular, and religious Jews seem to be content with their religiosity.
In fact, if I’m being completely honest, having already written about how excited I am about the school that my daughter was accepted to, I must confess that as excited as I am for her, I am no less excited for myself. Why? Because her school is not dogmatic – there’s no expectation that families hew to the theological party line, as there would have been at any other religious school. This means that I, as a parent, can feel entirely comfortable expressing my religious doubts and frustrations as a member of the school community. How deeply relieving for me!
I’ve heard it said by religious people directly to me that they consider my struggle with faith to be a form of faith itself. That constant spiritual discomfort is a reflection of my relationship with God. And… part of me likes this idea, but part of me hates it.
On the one hand, it’s very tempting to attempt to believe that my perpetual unease is somehow not pointless… that it’s somehow an echo of something that truly manifests in the universe beyond the boundaries of my mind… somehow… somehow…
But on the other hand, it is presumptuous to tell another person that you are certain of something regarding him, which you cannot prove and which he has not experienced himself. And – frankly – God may not exist. Even if some supernatural power created the universe (a distinct possibility), that doesn’t necessarily mean that a personal God exists who is concerned about my well-being. Voices lacking any shreds of doubt simply grate on me.
Fundamentally, I’m not interested in convincing myself of something unprovable merely because it makes me feel better about myself. Thanks but no thanks.
So I continue to struggle primarily because it makes me feel good about myself, I suppose. Look how independently-minded I am; how clever; how introspective; how deep… look how much fodder I have for endless theological blog posts…