According to the Babylonian Talmud, a text written about 1,500 years ago by Rabbis interpreting the Torah, “in the hour an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked four questions:
• Did you conduct your affairs honestly?
• Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?
• Did you work at having children?
• Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?”
Notice that these questions do not include: “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you keep Kosher?” or “Did you go to Sunday school every Sunday instead of going to your basketball games?”
As one of maybe ten Jews at Jefferson High School in Bloomington, I am frequently bombarded with questions ranging from simple curiosity like “What are those things you wear on your head called?” to “What presents do you get for Hanukkah?”
Eventually these questions filter into the philosophical: Do I believe in God? And if not, how can I be Jewish?
My thoughts and response to this one question are quintessential to my growth into the Jewish young adult I am today and my development on this issue starts way back.
The time is second grade. I’m at Sunday school and we’re learning about the story of Moses leading the Jews away from the oppression of the tyrannical pharaoh into the Promised Land. My mom poses the question to me “How do you explain the things that happen in the Torah” – also known as the “Five Books of Moses” or the “Hebrew Bible” – “that don’t make any sense?”
For example, the burning bush, or the Jews not having time to let bread leaven but having enough time to grow the grain for the bread. With a grand image of a white-bearded man beaming down on me, I pushed aside the question. Of course He can do things I don’t understand.
As I was forced to go to Sunday school and services week after week at Shir Tikvah, my synagogue, this image slowly deteriorated in my head. The Rabbi often repeated a phrase at services that I will never forget: “God is everywhere and God is one.” As I got older I began to question these images that were externally inculcated into my head.
It is now seventh grade, the Thanksgiving before my Bar Mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony for young Jews, and my uncle is questioning me about my beliefs as I move into traditional “adulthood.” So the question comes up: “Do you believe in God?”
My doubts festered inside my gut, but I couldn’t call up the courage to articulate them so I gave a weak response along the lines of “I don’t know. I think it helps sick people when I pray for them, but I’m not sure.”
These doubts soon materialized and by the end of eighth grade I was denouncing “God” as a delusion. This is when the second part of the question comes into play. If I dismiss “God” as fantasy, how can I consider myself Jewish? This is something that laid siege to my mind for a while.
As I grew into my young adult years and maturity as a young Jew, I realized my critical flaw in thinking: The question. After spending my confirmation year studying under the brilliance of my former Rabbi, Stacy Offner, I realized that the question cannot be “Do you believe in God?”
Something as profound as God cannot be reduced to black and white. The question that needs to be asked is “What is God to you?” And that realization has opened a whole new chapter in my development.
This is a question that I believe needs to be asked by everyone of themselves and every individual will have their own answer, which is exactly what Judaism supports. Judaism is special in that it challenges you to question.
People may ask “How can you not believe in God when it says He exists in the Torah?” Judaism challenges us to question what the Torah says and allows us to interpret the religion individually for ourselves.
There is a teacher at my school named Mr. Schnitzer, and I think he explains the relationship profoundly. He describes two major elements to religions: belief in God, and doing good things.
In Reform Judaism doing “good things” is at the forefront, while a devout belief in God is almost secondary. For myself, I consolidate the two in a way. My vision of God has come a long way from the old man in a cloud chair. For me, God is the incredible forces of good that permeate our world. Love, hope, beauty, intellect, intuition, friendship, happiness, satisfaction and kindness are all the invisible forces of God that lay within each of us, with prayer being a meditative time to search for these forces inside of us.
The beautiful thing about Reform Judaism is that this belief and any other interpretation fits perfectly within the religion. The Tanach’s – the Hebrew Bible – prophets and the most prominent figures of Jewish history have all proclaimed that ethical behavior is the central tenet of Judaism.
The Prophet Micah said: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.”
The number one thing that God commands us in the Torah is to do Tikun Olam, which translates to repairing the world. Every single one of us knows that the world is torn apart, and it is our duty to sew it back together. The Torah is filled with passages that inspire us to this work. As the Babylonian Talmud proclaims: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
My growth into Judaism goes beyond my beliefs. As my beliefs have changed, so has my connection with the Jewish community. I’ve gone from abhorring every Sunday morning for being dragged into the synagogue, to being on the verge of tears, reciting Torah in front of friends and family at my Confirmation ceremony marking the last day of my Sunday school class.
I’ve become more involved with the youth around the region by being a board member on my youth group and going to conclaves with other Jewish youth from around Minnesota once every season.
I’ve gone from feeling uncomfortable with the label of Jew dumped upon me to proudly holding it as an integral part of my identity.
So what does it mean to be a Jewish teenager? For me, it means:
• constantly asking and challenging the world around me,
• being able to look at the teachings of others and fit them to my own beliefs,
• being part of a magnificent, welcoming, supportive community, and
• taking time to look inside myself and ask questions.
But above all, it means working every day to spread love, happiness, friendship, kindness and everything else that God is to the people around me.