Five years ago, while home from school for the Jewish Holiday of Succot, I was finally ready to share with my parents where I stood on my path to becoming my own man. I was an Atheist. I did not believe in God and found the existence of anything supernatural highly improbable. Coming from family of strict Orthodox observance, with parents who have made it their life’s mission to educate Jewish people about their heritage, I knew my news would be devastating for them to hear. I was hardly the stereotypical rebel. I was a good child to them. I followed their rules, behaved respectfully, performed well in school, and kept good company. I always made them very proud. As far as they knew I was a superb role–model for my eight younger siblings.
My parents sat with me for hours, trying to understand what had happened. Where had they gone wrong? How had I slipped through the cracks of a rock-solid belief system they kept me so securely within? They could not fathom a life outside of Judaism; existence was dark and lonely without it. They worked daily with Jews of little or no affiliation, but rarely of no belief. To them, denying God’s existence indicated a rotten core, plagued by depravity and an exaggerated sense of self–importance. It was the ultimate chutzpah. It was impossible for my parents to reconcile what they knew of their son with what he was now telling them.
In truth I had been away from home exploring life on my own for quite some time. I had left to study in the great yeshivas of Israel soon after my bar-mitzva. Unmoored from the bonds of home, my mind drifted freely in a new environment of intellectualism, saturated with the exploration of existential philosophy and Chassidic theology. Over time I developed a personal ideology, an ideology sans God or religion, but still true to the Jewish values of social justice and constant self–refinement. I rejected the Yeshiva’s dogmatic perspective on the world around me and sought to explore and create for myself a personal world-view borne of my experiences. Time after time, on issues ranging from religious to social, my process led me to conclusions directly opposed to those of my friends and family. I differed on everything from the role of women in a family to the necessary preconditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. I argued for a two state solution while my friends burnt tires on the highways of Jerusalem in protest to Ariel Sharon’s “Disengagement Plan” of 2004 for violating their divine right to all of the land of Israel.
Challenging the most fundamental values of those closest to me, a strong tension developed. My beliefs and ideas were threatening—even offensive—to the very people I cared about most. I struggled with internal tensions as well. I held my teachers in high regard, yet I was refusing what they taught. How would I separate what I no longer believed from what I still held dear? I was determined to resist falling into a rebel culture or becoming the token “opposition.” I could not accept sacrificing my identity and background on the altar of my atheism—that would be a religious thing to do.
Even within my community’s rigid framework there is still plenty of room for dissenting opinions and even attempts to spur growth and change, provided the fundamental tenants of their belief remain untouched. I can respect their code, recognize the underlying premises, but still challenge the way those premises are applied or even defined. Recently, I was involved in the campaign of a candidate for the local Rabbinical Court. I strongly believed that this candidate’s addition to the court would successfully break the stalemate between two factions in the community that was rendering the court powerless. I actively pushed the campaign into adopting a nonpartisan, non-fundamentalist tone to unify those elements in the community that wished for a functioning court. The campaign was a major success. Standing by my principles and passions while remaining a welcome, active and contributing member of my community has become my challenge.
Today, I still keep a semiweekly telephone study–session in Talmud with a Rabbi in Jerusalem. I unabashedly share my unique perspectives and sometimes staunch opposition, in discussions with my observant peers. As I head down to Augusta for family gatherings, be they celebrations or religious holidays, I partake of the beautiful traditions and enjoy the warm atmosphere. Despite their reservations, my family takes some interest and a lot of pride in my path towards a legal education. My father regularly boasts that his son will attend Harvard law school one day. I only hope that, when the day finally arrives, he will be just as proud.