Dear Mom, I Am an Atheist for Good
The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
My Mother Can’t Accept That I Don’t Believe in God
I was brought up centrist Orthodox. However, in the late first grade, it hit me that God probably could care less what we say in the morning and how we say it. Ever since then, Judaism hasn’t mattered much to me. While this could be seen as precocious behavior, my parents, particularly my mother, and my teachers did not see it as so, and berated me for my lack of interest and desire for independence from much of Judaism. Today I identify as an atheist.
Over the years I have been subject to constant berating which has made me feeling terrible and highly controlled. I’m convinced my mother loves Judaism more than me, and will put the Jewish community’s, particularly the Orthodox community’s, needs first before mine. Seesaw, how do I tell her that the fact that I am in my mid-twenties and she is still yelling at me and telling me that believing in God will solve my problems is actually the cause of my problems? My relatives encourage me to have a good relationship with my mother, but how can I when she doesn’t accept the person in front of her and never has? —Longing for Acceptance
You Are a Good Jew and a Good Daughter
JAMES PONET: You are truly a serious Jew, a beautiful daughter. And not only because you have taken the time to write to a Jewish newspaper for counsel in dealing with your God-advocating Orthodox mother, but because you take both God and your mother very seriously. So do I.
Since age 6 you have felt that God has no interest in you, and over the years you’ve come to feel that your mother cares more about God and the Jewish community than she does about you.
You could be right on both counts. But have you considered the possibility that you may be wrong, that maybe God and your mother, each in her/his/its own way (definitely not in your way), actually loves you?
Love should not control, condemn, judge, or even intervene but simply accept, receive, give, and attend. Nonetheless, someone who loves you may enact her love for you in a manner which you legitimately find offensive. It is a mistake to believe that actions, yours or another’s, can prove the absence or presence of love. While cruelty and rage are not expressions of love, they do not prove its non-existence. For everyone of us yearns to love and be loved more than we usually recognize, more than our words or deeds may actually reveal.
This goes for God too. God as portrayed in the Bible and Midrash is often jealous, fearful and insecure, unable to accept that humanity actually loves him (sic). This love-hungry deity demands our total, exclusive love while he threatens to punish us, abandon us, and deem us evil sinners. If you really loved me, this God believes, you would obey me. So many parents believe this too. So why not join me in extending compassion to mothers and fathers, to God, and of course to yourself?
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 4 grandchildren.
Maybe a Rabbi Could Help
LAUREL SNYDER: This sounds like a very difficult situation, and I’m sorry you’re in it. If you had only recently decided to leave your parents’ religious community, I might caution you to tread lightly, but clearly this is a path you’ve been on for many years, and a core issue for you. You have a right to make your own religious choices.
I think our parents often have a hard time disconnecting the role they played (appropriately) when we were kids from the role they play (less appropriately) in our adult lives. It sounds like your mom’s current response to you is a continuation of the way she treated you in first grade, and that’s hard. It probably causes you to respond in a less mature way too, and so there’s a vicious cycle.
I wonder if you could find a rabbi she’d respect who could talk with you both about the appropriateness of her role in your religious life. Because she has a lack of respect for your atheist beliefs, arguing from that place won’t be likely to convince her of anything. But if you can find a Jewish way to explain it (maybe by framing her insistence as proselytization?), she might be able to hear you differently. Is there halacha that might apply here?
Simultaneously, this effort would show her that while you don’t believe in her brand of Judaism anymore, you do respect her beliefs and community. That seems key to me. In order to work this out, you’ll both have to find a way to show mutual respect for each other. You can begin by modeling that.
She likely feels your rejection of Judaism as a rejection of her. The more you can show her you aren’t rejecting her personally, the more open she’ll probably be to hearing you.
This Is Making it Hard for You to Really Figure Out What You Believe In
HAROLD BERMAN: Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked: “I say that this world in itself is so fascinatingly mysterious, so challengingly marvelous, that not to realize that there is more than I see, that there is endlessly more than I can express or even conceive, is just being underdeveloped intellectually.”
And then there’s your relationship with your mother.
This unhealthy dynamic stretching from childhood makes it challenging to develop your own religious identity (or lack thereof) independent of your mother. Your beliefs are now pitted against your mother’s, and against your feeling that she prioritizes Judaism over you. Given this, could you ever really know whether your atheism isn’t borne, at least in part, out of reaction to your mother? Conversely, if you found meaning in Judaism later on, would it ever be possible to feel you weren’t somehow “giving in” to your mother’s wishes?
I can appreciate that you formed conclusions about God in first grade. But do you approach any other area of your life – finances, relationships, even clothing – based on your six year old self? I believe in God. But not the one you describe. Nor did Heschel. Nor do most thinking adults of faith I know.
But then there’s your relationship with your mother.
It’s critical to explain that her behavior is not only counter-productive, but is ruining any chance for a loving relationship. She needs to accept you as you are. If she can’t do that, then as painful as it may be, for your own sake you need to limit your time with her.
At the same time, why not take a look at Judaism independent of your mother and independent of your six year old self? Your Judaism might turn out differently from your mother’s. But whatever it becomes, it needs to be yours, not a reaction to someone else’s expectations.
Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”