Oh God – Part 3 (An atheist in shul)

My friend Melissa in Sacramento has a knack for getting to the heart of things. She wrote after one of my recent posts: 

Since I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to synagogue because I am alienated by a service full of prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe. And I don’t envision a Bat Mitzvah, because it surely would involve worship of same. I wait with great anticipation to see how you reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs (non-beliefs?) Carry on!

I’ve spent the past two blog posts more or less talking about what I don’t believe.

So let’s give a little time now to why I in fact love the Reform Jewish liturgy – why I enjoy going to services even if they are full of God God God – and why I’m studying to become a Bat Mitzvah.

Services are a rare place in our modern American world where people talk about the big stuff. Mortality. The meaning of life. Forgiveness. Becoming a more loving, generous person.

Most of the time we run around completely preoccupied with daily life. There’s the whole materialistic drumbeat of buy! buy! buy! But even those of us who don’t buy into all the buying still get caught up in the scramble to get dinner on the table, hold on to our jobs, volunteer at our kids’ school, fix the broken toilet, keep up with the latest convoluted turns of the health care debate.

We don’t talk about death. (Well, except for those famous death panels.) We don’t talk about how precious life is. We don’t stop to remember how utterly long-shot miraculous it is that our temperate, water-filled, oxygen-filled planet with its millions of forms of life even exists.

But in services we do that. And for me, all those “Gods” in the liturgy are a stand-in for life, or for our universe. For creation.

When I say Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu – blessed are you, Adonai our God – I am expressing my awe that all of this exists.

I am reminding myself to feel awe that it exists.

I am reminding myself that I am just a minuscule piece of a very big picture.

Going to shul (synagogue) gives me an opportunity to do this on a regular basis — even if I haven’t had a particularly awe-inspiring day, even if I have just spent the last four hours fighting with traffic jams or a moronic boss or a sulky teenager.

And it lets me do this in public, out loud with a bunch of other people, which is more powerful than thinking it silently by myself.

One reading that I love within the Reform siddur (prayer book) cites a Chasidic leader from Poland around the year 1800, Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said:

Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”

Wow! I don’t think you need to believe in God to find that profound.

So yes, sometimes all the God-language in shul (synagogue) gets to me like it would get to Melissa. But most of the time I take it as a metaphor.

And there’s a lot in the Reform siddur – like the Rabbi Bunam saying – that speaks to me with a depth and “big picture” perspective that is missing from other parts of my daily life.

P.S.  Want to read a Yom Kippur sermon by a modern rabbi on that saying by Rabbi Bunam? It’s here.


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14 Responses to “Oh God – Part 3 (An atheist in shul)”

  1. Susie Miller Says:

    Ilana, I am SO enjoying your blog. You are making me think and I’m on the same page. I will be sharing this with Ben (and Part 2) as you’ve put it all together so clearly. I just gotta go slow with him…don’t want to scare him off!

    Thank you.

  2. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t sound like you and I are saying very different things, even if we’re saying them very differently. Which is why I’m as happy in synagogue as in a UU church as in a yoga class as in a meditation hall (I typed “medication hall” first…) Once you started saying what you DO believe in, we’re almost on the same page.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Whew! I would hate not to be on the same page ( or at least the same chapter) as you, Nancy. :-)

      • Nancy King Bernstein Says:

        Me too. It no longer feels like we’re having conversations in parallel universes, and that feels much better. (And it’s amazing at how polarizing the word God can be…. We had a conversation on the deck while on vacation this summer, involving a couple of friends who were getting married the next day, one of their nephews–who’s studying to become a Presbyterian (I think, can’t remember–) minister, me, and my sister-in-law. I was curious about the ministerial preparation process, and my sister-in-law felt obliged to launch into a whole anti-God-I-want-nothing-to-do-with-organized-religion-it’s-evil-look-how-much-harm-is-done-in-the-world-in-God’s-name rant. And while she’s certainly right about all the harm that gets done regularly in the name of religion, I feel badly that she feels compelled to throw all the possible good out the window along with all the bad.

  3. Judy Levin Says:

    HI Ilana,
    I too am really enjoying your posts because I have very similar beliefs (and lack of beliefs) as you. I struggle with the God, God, God, liturgy but, in addition to using the liturgy to remind me of the awe of the world (which I also get from camping/backpacking) one of the things that I find motivational and unique is a connection that I feel to my ancestors I never knew. Sometimes it just hits me as I say or sing the prayers that these are the same prayers that have been said by my ancestors and by generations of Jews all over the world. This sense of continuity and connection is something I marvel at.

  4. Susan Laufer Says:

    Hi Ilana,
    I love this one. After moving back to the US from Israel (where, strangely, you can raise children to be perfectly good Jewish atheists much more easily than here!) I’ve struggled with the seeming contradiction/hypocrisy in going to shul with all the “god this” and “god that” — and having the kids bar mitzvahed there — when I don’t believe in god. I liked your “what I *don’t* believe” post and think you did a fantastic job here too. I guess that’s how I seem to have reconciled it in my mind as well, but never found the right way to explain it. I thoroughly appreciate your gift with words! I’ve shared this post with my family; maybe it will help my kids as they try figure it out for themselves, too.
    It sure would have been fun to join you in your MLBM quest! Meanwhile, keep those posts coming!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      What it means to be Jewish in Israel versus what it means to be Jewish here could be an entire blog in itself!

      Maybe I will post some thoughts on that at some point, as a way to encourage those of you who have lived both there and here to weigh in.

  5. johnmangels Says:

    Your walk is not my walk, spiritually. But I like what you write, and I can learn from you. I’m glad Jim Richardson pointed me in your direction. I find both what you do not believe and what you do believe thoughtful and helpful.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi John. I’m honored that Jim’s post brought you to my blog! And a little relieved, since as soon as he endorsed me, I started worrying that I would say something to make him regret it. :-)

      I suspect that our walks, although different, will end up in the same place.

      One of the cool surprises of starting this blog (two weeks ago) is reading the very thoughtful comments posted by my non-Jewish friends. I may learn as much about other people’s faiths as about my own during this process. I encourage you to chime in if you feel like it!

  6. Jim Richardson Says:

    Hola Ilana,
    Just a note to let you know I am soaking all this in, and I am pondering the many comments and the honest, genuine engagement with God, prayer, religion (organized and otherwise). I’ve nothing much to add for now except gratitude. I am only a few blocks away from you for a few days, taking my mother to doc appts. Thanks for the respite with your blog.
    love and peace,

  7. Jody Says:

    Hi Ilana,
    I have a good friend who is on a similar journey as you, but through the Catholic church. We talked for a long time yesterday about her journey – to find the ‘universality in all things’ – grace, love, peace, seeing people for who they are and not for who you think they are – and really connecting with yourself as opposed to the person who you think you are supposed to be…this struck me as ‘not very Catholic’. Her journey has really opened my mind about the essence of religion. And not knowing much about Judaism, I’m enjoying seeing the similarities in your journeys. I think that the essence of all religions is spirituality; people focus too much on the egoic part of religion…the rules, rites, all the things that if you don’t do them, you feel guilty. It is easy to loose sight of spirituality…the connectedness of all things. When you boil it down, whether one considers himself religious or not, we are all trying to do the same thing…being loving, finding peace, understanding our purpose. When you take the human ego out of the picture and when we all stop feeling like we have to ‘defend’ what we do or don’t believe – you end of with grace, connectedness, compassion and peace. Thank you for sharing your journey – I’m really enjoying your thoughts and the ensuing comments…you are touching a lot of people.

  8. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    I love Jody’s post. We all find that different ways of talking about God (or “agnostic equivalent”, in the words of an email someone wrote me years ago) are the ones that speak to us; but I believe with Jody that we’re closest to the heart of things, however we phrase it, when we’re talking about connectedness. Whether we think we’re religious or not, as Jody said, those of us who stop and try to to understand what we’re here for, and then to use our gifts towards those ends, are all trying to do the same things: to love well, to create peace. In language that resonates for me, that’s aligning ourselves with God, or however we conceive of that power in the universe that impels us to do what’s right: and the result is grace, connectedness, compassion, peace. (In flashes, not all the time, I guess unless we’re evolved enough to be Buddha all the time….)

    In a side email conversation with Ilana, I said about this that I’m a religious person because I see and feel God everywhere, and I suffer when I act in ways that cut me off from that experience. I’m Jewish by birth, raised Nothing, and Unitarian Universalist by choice; my kids are being raised Jewish (and having to try to understand and explain about their mother—not always easy). One of the things I love most about their getting their religious education in a synagogue instead of a UU church is that Jews aren’t afraid of the word God the way so many UUs are. The religious school teachers told my children very early on something that works for me: that God is like the wind, or like love: you can’t see them, but you know they exist, right? You know because you can see and feel their effects. And Jody was right there: if you’re experiencing and adding to the peace, compassion, and grace in the world–bingo. I don’t care at all what you call it. That’s the heart of what matters.

    I add my thanks to everyone else’s, Ilana. I’m loving the conversation.

  9. johnmangels Says:

    Alana, you have been very gracious. I enjoyed reading about the sunrise and your day. But this post got me remembering some things from my own life. For which I am thankful this Thanksgiving Day. If you are interested, I posted my reflections on my own blog (at http://johnmangels.com/2009/11/26/meeting-god/). Thank you for the gift of this blog (and the many thoughtful responses).

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