I have many confessions to make, but this one is probably my biggest one — I wish I had faith.
I am a Jewish atheist. I am. In spite of being a member of a synagogue, and going to synagogue services most Saturday mornings, wearing the prayer shawl, lighting the candles on Friday nights, saying the prayers over them, saying the prayers over the wine, I am an atheist with no real belief in a god.
It has become almost cliché for people to say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” For me, this phrase is just the opposite — “I am not spiritual, but I am religious.”
The only prayer I ever say and ever mean is: Thank you. But this gratitude is not directed at anything supernatural — I am not thanking God from whom all blessings flow. It is simply because I am overflowing with gratitude that I want to say thank you to the universe, to my parents, to my husband, to my children, to friends, to the weather, and everything. It is a bit of an odd thing, to be a grateful atheist. I am hurtling through space on a third rock from the sun, thankful for my life, but I have an inability to thank a higher being because I lack a belief in a higher being.
I actually do sometimes wish I could believe in something “greater” than myself, some force, or at least some mystical watchmaker responsible for the creation. But, it is no good. I used to believe in magic, mystical, supernatural things when I was a child — way back in Soviet Union. But when adults in Soviet society and teachers in school tell you often and loudly, that there is no god, well, it’s difficult not to believe them after a while.
My mother, since arriving in United States, has developed a sort of a spirituality that combines some points of Judaism and some ancestral worship of her parents, with whom she was close, but she definitely believes in god and she is grateful to this god. My father, who I think just sort of goes along with her, believes in god. And I am jealous of both of them.
My husband, who converted to Judaism seven years ago, 18 years into our marriage, without any prompting from me, and with some dismay from my parents, is more of a Jewish agnostic — God is there, but very hard to define or confine (or as he puts it, “I believe the same as the Founding Fathers of our country. I am a Deist.”).
I would love to believe in a loving god, or even an angry god of the Torah — the five books of Moses. I would love to talk to him or her, or argue with him or her, get angry, get fearful, get overwhelmed, get grateful. But whenever I think of a god, there is just an empty space there, with a few tumbling tumbleweeds going by occasionally, a dry and arid place, kinda like some of the flat, windy parts of Kansas or Wyoming. Maybe some rodents scurry by, and an occasional screech of a lonely owl is heard at night. It’s a pretty picture, but eerie and desolate and definitely god-free.
But if I believed in god, I would also believe in his or her messengers, the angels, maybe walking among us, and maybe the story I have always told my daughter and son, about their sibling, my little stillborn daughter who happened between them, would be a story I would be able to believe in myself. That she is an angel herself now, instead of a tiny skeleton resting in the saddest place on Earth, the children’s section of a cemetery. And that part of belief would make life a little bit less painful and more just.
But life, at least to me, is not just, not to any large degree, and I have learned that it’s OK. In some ways, it’s better than OK. Now I don’t even expect justice from this life, and nothing from afterwards. That means that everything here, everything now matters more and counts greater.
Even without belief, there is one passage in our Jewish prayer book that I really like. It is not a prayer, but rather writing, something that a regular person once thought of and written down. “Pray as if everything depends on god, / act as if everything depends on you.” To me, that means that last line: work as if everything depends on you, as pure as that.
Still, I wish I had me some faith.