I do not know how I feel about the conflict in Israel and Palestine. I am reform Jew, and I have been my entire life, but I have never considered signing up for a birthright trip. I have never affiliated with Zionism, and when I went to Israel I was impressed with the Mediterranean cuisine and landscape, not the religious aspects or my presence in the “homeland.” I attended preschool at my temple, was bat mitzvahed and confirmed, but I do not believe in God. Clearly, I have some explaining to do.
Throughout my ten plus years attending some sort of educational programs at my temple, I found myself at odds with the concept of a higher power. I do not remember a time in my life when I did not know what the Holocaust was, what a swastika represented, from what antisemitism was contrived. When I was ten, I saw a swastika etched into the side of an elevator and could not reconcile why such an “outdated” symbol, so wrought with hate, would be located in the public sphere. I quickly realized that the symbol was less archaic than I thought.
This symbol, burned into my mind, bars me from believing in an “all good,” “all knowing” God. I could not, and still cannot, reconcile why an “all good” God would let thousands of years of persecution, and the death of six million Jews in less than a decade, occur. This process of reconciliation was difficult, grappling with events perpetrated by the Nazi regime and their repercussions even more so.
Because of my nonbelief, the validity of my Judaism has been questioned on countless occasions. “How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God?” “Isn’t the whole point of Judaism that it’s a monotheistic faith?”
To some, this is true. To me, and to countless others who find themselves at odds with the concept of God, this is far from the truth. Judaism transcends worship and belief into culture and values. Although I do not resonate with every prayer, the sermons that my Rabbi gives on every ere of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind me of the importance and community of the Jewish faith. He stresses the importance of transcending religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic boundaries to feel compassion for other minorities. He preaches the importance of Black Lives Matter, the gravity of the ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria, and the dangers of being apathetic to the current political climate.
To me, this is Judaism—the installation of the values and code of conduct that I live by today. It is not only a religion, it is a culture. A culture of empathy and inquiry, acceptance, tolerance, and passion. A culture that allows its members to come to terms with it in any way that makes sense to them, that allows room for mistakes and individuality, and fosters forgiveness and a drive to leave the world better than one found it. My Jewish upbringing has taught me how to be all of these things. I have an immense sense of gratitude and pride for my Jewish upbringing, even in the face of events like Charlottesville and my ten-year-old self facing the swastika in the elevator.
Being Jewish encompasses so much more than religious worship. For me, it is the foundation of who I am, even if it plays a less centralized role in my life than many other Jews that I know. It is the basis of what I believe, even if that belief is channeled into ideas and movements more tangible to me than God.