Friday, October 13, 2006

"Wrestling with God"

Whenever I talk to my parents about religion, I get the impression that they blame themselves for my atheism – that they see themselves as having failed me somehow. My mother has often told me that she does not understand what happened, that she raised me to be a “good, Jewish boy.” in response to some particularly heretical statement.

Unfortunately, what they fail to realize is that no amount of Hebrew school would have made a difference, for the bedrock of my atheism is a fundamental tenet of Judaism itself – the idea of “wrestling with God.”

Growing up, I attended Shabbat services at my synagogue on a pretty regular basis. My family observes most of the holidays, including plenty that even my Reform Jewish friends had never heard of – Sukkot, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av – and went to synagogue for all of them. And despite my present lack of faith, I actually paid attention while I was there.

My Rabbi frequently sermonized about the importance of wrestling with God. The concept comes from the story of Jacob (Genesis 32:24-32), who was attacked by a strange man. Jacob fought back, and refused to give up, despite injuring his sciatic nerve. In the end, he subdued his opponent, who was revealed to be an angel. The angel renamed Jacob – from that day forth, he was known as “Israel,” which translated literally means “to wrestle with God.”

We, the Children of Israel, have inherited Jacob’s legacy. Judaism is not a religion of blind faith, but a wrestling match. We are encouraged to question, to struggle with our religion – to fight through pain in the pursuit of knowledge. It was neither a love of gefilte fish nor the ability to chant the ancient Hebrew prayers, but this challenge to find my own answers that I took from Judaism, more than anything else.

I spent a long time wrestling with God, and I think my match was more intense than most. I take my ontological commitments as seriously as I take my commitments to other people (and probably even more so). What my parents still fail to realize is that the echoes of the final bell ending the match have long since ceased to ring. They cling tightly to the hope that they may yet help influence the outcome of a match that has been over for a long time. I am no more likely to begin worshipping the God of my ancestors than to begin worshipping the gods of ancient Sumer.

Much of my parents’ hope, I believe, stems from the fact that they are not nearly as philosophically-minded as I am. This is no mark against them – after all, they are far more practical-minded than I am. However, my theological views are nuanced and complex, and they have never seemed to have the inclination to listen to what I have to say – or simply refuse to actually hear it. Perhaps most ironic, as I recently discovered, is that the basic structure of my “theology” is very similar to Kabalistic ideas about God. And though the conclusions I draw from that structure have irrevocably separated me from my People in many ways, I will always be linked to the Children of Israel – heirs of the man who wrestled with God.
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