Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Jewish Atheist

Hey everybody, I'm doing a guest post or two while Jen goes and does some sciencey thing. Perhaps PCR?

Unlike Jennifer, I was born into a family with very specific, if not particularly stringent, religious beliefs. I was born into an incredibly Jewish family complete with a grandmother who escaped the Nazis. While we didn't spend a lot of time going to synagogue during the year, we celebrated each holiday with gusto and nominally kept kosher (while we didn't go out of our way to find explicitly kosher food or have separate sets of dishes, we didn't mix milk and meat together or eat specifically unkosher food (pork, shellfish, et. al.) as a rule.

Being the bright young mind I was, I tried to absorb everything I could...I started reading at 3, I owned a set of Childcraft encyclopedias. By the age of ten I knew more about biology and astronomy than people who graduated high school.

Religion, to me, was just another subject of knowledge...granted, one with a slightly more all-encompassing /something/ to it. By the time I was of Bar Mitzvah age, I knew more about MY religion than some of the older people in our synagogue. I was not only learning the requisite readings and prayers for my Bar Mitzvah, but I was studying, wholeheartedly, to be the Chazzan for the Musaf service on Saturdays.

However, throughout my time becoming more and more involved in Judaism, I began to hit more and more snags. I remember many situations in which many of the standard beliefs of Judaism began to conflict with what I knew about the world.

At Hebrew school one day, our teacher (the rabbi's wife at the time) was teaching us about some of the old stories. She told us that, according to the Torah, the world was created in 7 days. I raised my hand.
“That's symbolic, right?”
“No, Mark. That's really how it happened.”
“Huh. Kay.”

On Rosh Ha Shana (The Jewish New Year) the leader of the kid's service mentioned the world being 5759 years old. At the time, I thought he was joking. Sure, the jewish calendar was calculated from a different starting point...but that doesn't mean that's when Jews thought the universe had REALLY started...right? Uhh...Right guys?

As I got older, it was becoming infinitely obvious that Judaism did not have all of the answers...however, for the most part, I wouldn't bother it and it wouldn't bother me. I stopped going to synagogue, where I had been faithfully going every week with the excuse that I had a lot to do on, music, and continued on with my life...still Jewish. Eventually I would be convinced to try a cheeseburger...and then bacon (actual, delicious pig bacon...) and then lobster and eventually I came to college. It wasn't until I put a word and some actual thought behind it that I really discovered I was an atheist as opposed to simply a Jew who didn' anything.

Even through my atheism, there are still parts of my Judaism I have yet to, and probably never will, give up.

I will always have Passover, Hannukka, and a few other holidays even if I have to focus more on the humanistic aspects. The music I remember from my studies will always remain a part of me. I have no intention of giving up my Judaism...regardless of WHAT I believe.

This is post 15 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.


  1. Alright, Mark, that's a really neat story. And hi! So my question for you is as follows: beyond the holidays, what aspects of Judaism do you keep? Is it a sense of belonging, some of the history? Some more of the traditions, even if you eat delicious, delicious bacon?

    I am simply interested, not being rude, wondering the extent of what you mean...

  2. This actually mirrors a surprising amount of the things that happened when I was growing up in a fairly Catholic household, except with less stringent things. And being "tired as hell" was an excuse to skip catechism and church itself.

    I still get cravings for it sometimes, though. Especially when some of the older priests are in town for a bit. They know how to do that droning chant in just the right way.

    Hell, I don't even have a problem with going to church-related things anymore. I tend to like it more now that I see it as a performing art, rather than something true.

  3. Mark, it's great to finally hear how you went this route too.

  4. @ Veritas
    That's a great question!

    I guess there is a sense of belonging. I consider myself "Culturally Jewish." I don't really have a particular culture of my own beyond that because save for said grandmother, I'm a third generation any real ties to my Russian or Polish heritage beyond my predilection for Vodka has long since dissolved.

    Even so, I've made made so many friends and have so many relatives that severing all ties with Judaism would both be time consuming and make me sad.

    As for traditions, most of those that I do keep are for sentimental value and I view as times of family/friend togetherness i.e. Passover and Hannuka.

    I also went back to Synagogue voluntarily for the first time since I came home from college for my little sister's Bat Mitzvah and also did Musaf again because she asked me to do it....

    Beyond that...No. Not really.

  5. @Andre

    I agree completely. I can't handle getting up and praying in front of everybody anymore, though. It still feels somewhat hypocritical.