Confessions Of A Jewish Agnostic

By Shlomoh Sherman
June 20, 2011

I was sitting on the plane coming back from New York and noticed a young man sitting next to me, reading a book. I glanced over to see what he was reading and he started a conversation with me. The book was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens criticizing religion.  I have read books by Hitchens as well as by some other of the new, militant atheists and my problem with them is that they are as nasty as the ultra religious whom they are criticizing. Altho I might empathize with them, they lose me when they insult the intelligence and integrity of decent people. This is my problem also with the Democrat Party and with Liberals in general. It is a smug philosophical elitism which completely nullifies the guiding principles which lead people to even try to love their neighbors.

I had this conversation with a friend last SHABBAT at a Torah study session at a local Reform Temple.  We all know how utterly damaging and destructive religion can be in the hands of certain people. I, at least, am no friend of people who want to deny civil rights to any citizens and who want to squash scientific progress, especially when it benefits people. I am against the arrogance of Christians who think that their faith should take over and rule America. But as an American, I was brought up to respect the religious faith of all Americans. What the Left and the New Militant Atheists seem to miss is what Sinatra sang, ALL RACES AND RELIGIONS -THAT'S AMERICA to me. Oh yeah, all races maybe but not all religions.

This young man [in his 20s] noticed me looking at his book and he began speaking to me. "See?", he says. "It's the type of book that gets me into trouble with people who don't like that I don't believe in God." Yeah, I said. That's your right, alright. I've read those books too. I just don't like being nasty about my non-beliefs. And I made a new years resolution this year to at least to TRY to love my neighbors as myself. You see, making resolutions to lose weight are too tough for me. Loving people is a bit easier. Or at least not hating them. I don't even want to hate the very people WHO PISS ME OFF, and I try not to. I don't hate Republicans or Democrats or Conservatives or Liberals. I may not agree with them but that's also America. I don't have to agree with people to respect them, or to like them.

The young man then revealed that he comes from a traditional Jewish family in the Cleveland Jewish Community but now he no longer subscribes to all that stuff that he learned about the TORAH "and all that". He is also engaged to a nonJewish girl who shares his unbelief.

I begin to speak to this young man. This is the gist of what I say to him.

Look, your mind is sacrosanct. Tom Paine said that his only church was the one that exists in his mind.

No one can convince you to accept the literalness of the stories, and why would they try to? I wouldn't. But I would ask you to carefully think about throwing the baby away with the bath water.

You come from a traditional family rooted in the Cleveland Jewish community, a very dynamic Jewish community. Your parents obviously thought it was very important for them to let you know that you are a Jew and that you come from an amazing background. Why? is it that they are just old people who don't know any better than to believe foolish stuff? Or is it something more? Something greater than they or than you?

I spent most of my adult life as an Orthodox Jew. Then I became an APIKORES. [I have to explain what that means to him] So what was I thinking? I can't even remember anymore. All I know is that after I became an agnostic-atheist, I missed something Jewish. And I am probably the most God-friendly agnostic that you will ever meet. I mean, I am a religious atheist. The kid is just listening to me, nodding his head, mesmerized. I don't think he has ever encountered my visions before.

I said, There was a famous Jewish atheist who lived in the late 1800s who went around Europe giving lectures on why it is impossible for there to be a Supreme Being. At the end of one of his lectures, he told the crowd that he had to leave. He had a prior commitment. He had to attend MINYON to DAVEN MINCHAH. But, the people said, you are an atheist! Yes, he said, But I am also a Jew and a Jew has to DAVEN MINCHAH.

I've seen this kind of reaction before when I tell that story. The listener doesn't know quite how to react. Am I fooling and pulling his leg? What kind of nonsense is that? I tell the kid, In the 1970s, the head of the Israeli Communist Party died. In his will, he shocked everyone by asking that he receive an Orthodox burial!  Somewhere inside, thoughts are swimming in his head. This is all new to him. You can actually be a free-thinker and a loyal Jew at the same time.

I tell him that I understand that he doesn't like religious people bashing gays and trying to stop abortion or stem cell research and I totally agree with him. But I tell him something else. Often when I walk into a SHUL, the people know I am an APIKORES and they still welcome me and in fact they ask me to come and be part of a MINYAN and they even give me ALIYAs. What's that about? I'm like that 19th century public speaker. They know I know that a Jew has to come to SHUL and celebrate being Jewish, especially on holidays and SHABBAT. I often wonder about something. If a Christian walks into his church and tells people he no longer believes in God or in the literalness of the gospel, will he be welcome? Logically he won't. No one is born Christian. At best people are born pagan or gentile. To become a Christian one has to either be baptized or accept Christ. Once he rejects Christ, he is no longer a Christian [altho some believe he is till saved].  But a Jew is born a Jew. He can never stop being Jewish no matter what he believes or disbelieves.

But a Jew is also taught that the righteous of all peoples have a share in the world to come. Who are the righteous? I am not sure but you have to respect people who CHOOSE to be religious, Jew or gentile, because they might be the righteous. And these mean-spirited atheists and Leftists have no respect just as some of the religious right have no respect for the neighbors they are supposed to love.

I tell the kid, Don't be so quick to make people wrong, especially people who have been around much longer than you. I tell him, the older I become, the more I really like people, ALL people of GOOD WILL. I say, you know why I like Christmas? Because its a time of year when people are REMINDED that they need to have good will. Do they listen? I don't know; maybe some do. I say to him, You know which Christians I admire the most? The ones who relate to the Sermon of the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is about life and how to live it. It's good Jewish wisdom. It is a paean to the TORAH. All else about the Nazarene story pales in comparison. The kid is VERY respectful. Something is swirling around in his head, I hope.

And lastly, I say. You are an atheist, a young one. The thoughts in your head in your 20s will not be the same thoughts in your head in your 70s. Believe me. I know. Your parents love you enough to let you know you are a member of the Tribe of God. You're just starting out. You are engaged to a nonJew. If you marry her and don't ask her to share your Jewishness with you, what future can you expect? What will your children be? What do you want them to be, Jews or nonJews?

As an atheist, I don't have to believe in the literalness but I have to believe in AHAVAT YISRAEL, Loving Jews as I love myself. I believe in the Jewish People who represent God on earth. We are the most misunderstood of all peoples. Other people can't figure us out. That's why we are held in contempt. We are a light that shines in the darkness of the world but the darkness cannot comprehend us. Don't give that up. We are the salt of the earth. We make it kosher just as salt makes food kosher. We are the menorah of the world so don't let your light go out.  

The plane landed and he thanked me for the conversation and I thanked him for listening. A really nice kid.

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