Let me stretch that out a bit: I have always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today. Now, in all fairness, I suspect I was an atheist when I dropped from the womb. Hebrew School didn’t make me an atheist. But, it did close the deal. Whatever lingering doubts remained evaporated. Here’s an important distinction though. Jewish culture and Jewish religion are related but different. One can be very Jewish and very non-religious. Judaism isn’t dogmatic the way Christianity is. Whereas Christianity has a kind of “goal” – eternal life – Judaism doesn’t. One can question virtually every tenet of Judaic faith and never be a heretic. Jews don’t excommunicate each other over textual disagreements. That’s why atheists don’t scare Jews the way atheists scare Christians (and Muslims, too).
I’m not an atheist because I reject anything. I’m an atheist because I accept something. The Truth. And I really do mean this completely: I am grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today.
A Touch Of Anarchy
I want to Hebrew School in one form or another for eight years – from the age of six until I was fourteen. I had a bar mitzvah. The summer I was thirteen, I went to Israel for two months instead of attending sleepaway summer camp. The Jewish religion had every opportunity to sway me. It failed.
As I said, I was born predisposed toward progressive politics. My great grandfather Havis Cohen was an anarchist on the down low. Havis arrived in America in the 1890’s in Philadelphia. He and his family had left Vilnius, Lithuania. While everyone else became a naturalized American as soon as they could, Havis refused to become an American at all.
“I’m a citizen of the world!” he proclaimed.
My favorite Hebrew School teacher was Henry Hymen. I don’t know what Mr. Hymen did for a living when he wasn’t teaching Hebrew School (I’m sure teaching Hebrew School wasn’t his main job). Whatever Mr. Hymen did, I’m certain he excelled at it. Mr. Hymen invited us to question everything. If we didn’t like the answers we got, he invited us to ask more questions.
One story in particular bugged me. Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s the first monotheist. He starts off in present-day Iraq. A voice in his head – Yahweh, he calls it – tells him to move his entire family to the coast – to present day Israel. Do that, says Yahweh, and I’ll make of you a “great nation”. Abraham does what he’s told. Never mind that the beachfront Yahweh told him was his belonged to another tribe: the Canaanites.
Next thing ya know, there are no more Canaanites. But, before that happens, Abraham needs to breed. He wants a son more than anything. He produces one via his wife Sarah’s slave Hagar – Ismael. But that ain’t the same. Finally, Mister Poor Sperm Motility gets Sarah pregnant. She bears Isaac. Finally, Abraham has a son. His life is complete.
Abraham & Isaac
And then one day – Isaac’s a little kid now – Yawheh tells Abraham to take his son to a place in the hills where – because he says so – Abraham is gong to sacrifice Isaac. This is the son Abraham has waited for his whole life. Does he question Yahweh? “Uhhhhh… wait, you want me to do what now with my kid…?” Does he get angry? “Dude – what are you even thinking with bullshit like that?” Does he put up any resistance?
No. He does not. The intended message is “See? That’s how a Jew is supposed to love God!”
That’s not how I took it. I saw it clearly as a story of parental psychosis.
How, I asked Mr. Hymen, was a kid supposed to feel about a patriarch who’d do such a thing because a voice in his head told him to?
“Well,” said Mr. Hymen, “It wasn’t ‘a voice in his head’, it was God.”
That did not impress me. I went on: in the story, Abraham stops only because an angel intercedes. If the angel is late for his appearance (gets caught in traffic or something), that’s the end of Isaac. Probably the end of Judaism too – and everything that flowed from Judaism.
To his infinite credit, Mr. Hymen’s tolerance for questions never wavered. They were genuine questions. Mr. Hymen accepted that he couldn’t answer my question. The story was imagined in a very different time and place. People thought about life differently. They didn’t know a fraction of what we know. That definitely impacted how they thought and what they thought.
The Best Ad For Atheism Is Religion
Judaism – the religion – would survive just fine without me. What I didn’t grasp at the time was how firmly Jewish culture held me in its grasp. I think of it as one of the benefits of my culture – I can be part of it without having to believe any of its ooga-booga. Sorry, Groucho, but this is one where club I’m quite proud of my membership.
I know for a fact that I’m not alone. Lots and lots of people become atheists because of their religious education. Catholic school is a breeding ground for us. Oh, the irony! Christians famously ask “Have ya heard the good news?” That’s their sales pitch. The good news is if you believe what they tell you to believe exactly how they tell you to believe it, then just like Jesus, you, too, can defeat death, be “born again” and live forever in a place called heaven.
Ooga, meet Booga.