When I was a kid, I had to go to Hebrew School every Monday and Wednesday after my regular elementary school, and every Sunday too. If all Jewish kids develop a persecution complex, this is where it begins. While everyone else got to do what kids do all afternoon, us Jewish kids had to go sit in a trailer behind the synagogue and learn about how, over and over throughout history, the Jews got screwed, beaten, killed, and blamed for just about everything. And now we were stuck in class on a sunny afternoon when we’d rather be doing anything else. It didn’t take a genius to see the pattern.
I hated Hebrew School. I hated it with a passion usually reserved for Hitler or bullies or lima beans. And, there on the cusp of my teenage rebellion, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.
The class was talking about some story from the Torah, something God said or did or didn’t do, I can’t remember. But I shot up out of my usual classroom stupor and said two words out loud.
I barely said anything in class, so this was kind of a shock for everyone. The teacher, some well-meaning twenty-something girl, stammered something about faith not needing proof. Faith was about believing.
“That’s a cop-out,” I said. “You’re telling us that God did this. But how do you know? This was thousands of years ago. Where is the proof? How do we know that any of this is true? What if it’s all just a bunch of stories someone made up so that people had something to believe in?”
She could have taken this opportunity to lead the class on an exploration of belief in the modern age, but she didn’t. She sent me to the principal’s office.
The principal of Temple Beth Israel Hebrew School was one of those meddling, bossy, “community leaders” that makes sure all the fences in town are the same height. She was the size of a bus and her mouth curved down on both sides, so she always looked pissed. She had one of those last names that ends in “arski” that kids make so much fun of, you never get over it.
I told her why I was there. That I wanted proof. That I didn’t believe any of this anymore.
She could have used her years of experience in meddling to force me to believe. She could have used her underdog status to impart some wisdom to me, but she didn’t. She sent me to the Rabbi.
Rabbi Earl Kaplan, rest his soul, was the best thing to happen to the small Jewish community of Claremont, California, in years. He was cool. He did puppet shows for the kids. In temple. Once, on Purim, he actually walked into the synagogue wearing a purple and yellow Lakers uniform, a boom-box on his shoulder blasting Prince. “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.” This was 1984.
I sat in Rabbi Kaplan’s office and unleashed a torrent of bile I’d saved up for years. I told him I didn’t think I believed in God at all. That I thought religion was used to control people. That I don’t believe anything in those books we read really happened.
He could have taken the opportunity to teach me something about Judaism I didn’t know. And, fortunately, that’s exactly what he did.
He said: “Cool.”
The he told me about Marx, Freud, and all the other famous, smart, Jewish atheists. They didn’t believe in God, either. But they were still Jews.
He told me that there’s a long-standing tradition of questioning God in Judaism. He told me a story from the Torah where Jacob wrestles with an angel. And he said the old Rabbis read that story as a metaphor for him wrestling with his own faith.
The idea that it was okay to be unsure was new to me. That I could still be Jewish and question. That, in fact, the act of questioning was part of having faith. That the questioning made me more Jewish, not less.
I was wrestling with my faith, like Jacob. And that was okay. Still, it might be better if I was nicer to the teacher.