|Struggling and Not Finding|
At age five, I remember well struggling to decide whether God existed. My family was Jewish, but God was not an active part of our life. During my fifth year, mother read Genesis aloud to me. As she read, "God created the heavens and the earth.", I immediately asked, "And who created God." To my young, critical mind, the concept of God did not help to explain the beginning. It was just as difficult for me to grasp how God came into being as it was to wonder about the creation of the earth and stars.
To me, God was not a given. So I began wondering about Him. What might He be like? What might it be like to accept his authority?
After pondering, my young mind declared that there was no God and God did not deserve my allegiance. I did not appreciate what I understood to be His plan for the world. Surely a benevolent God would not permit: the inevitable death of my mother and father, whom I loved dearly; my own death; the death and torture of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, and the unfairness of slavery and racial prejudice.
This decision against God was never challenged in my home, and our daily lives were cut off from concern about the synagogue or God. It came as a surprise to me that, at age 12, my parents directed that I be bar mitzvah; but they considered it the thing to do, and I never questioned their authority. During the next year, I studied Hebrew, learned to read one passage in the Torah, and prepared a five minute sermon for the day of my bar mitzvah.
On the morning of my bar mitzvah, there was a service in the synagogue. Three of us were being bar mitzvah, and the synagogue was full. I was taken with the dignity and solemnity of the occasion and I felt uplifted participating in the service. Reading the scroll of the sacred Torah was special, and I welcomed the opportunity to be before such a large group of people.
After the ceremony, something totally unexpected happened. I was generously praised for how "good" I had been, but the praise turned my stomach. Something felt "off." It took me 34 years to understand the mystery of that feeling in my stomach.
There were other lessons about God and ethics that I learned. One evening my dad came home from an elementary school open-house and asked whether one particular girl in my class was Negro. The question burned as I heard it. I had not thought to classify my classmates by race and the request to do so felt like an attack. I had no idea of her race and I did not care. But finally, I searched my memory and obediently replied that I guessed that she was Negro.
I also remember that sometime during High School my father told me his prejudice against "schikzas," a Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman. My father declared that I must not date or marry a schikza. Since he was a cynical, non-practicing Jew it was clear to me that this was pure race-bigotry, learned from life experiences in which he had been the target of bigotry. Although I was not aware of it at the time, I think his anger about schikzas greatly increased my attraction to non-Jewish women.
My principal exposure to the Jewish religion was in Sunday school and in synagogue on the High Holy Days. Sunday School did not teach me anything about my relationship to God, and it made a scant impression on me. I studied some of the stories in scripture, but primarily to know the stories rather than to know God.
The Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur services were the only times we attended synagogue, and we attended at my mother's insistence. She sat quietly and reverently in the services, which obviously meant something to her -- although she never spoke of their meaning. By contrast, my father attended begrudgingly and frequently whispered to us. When a member of the congregation spoke in the service, he told us how much money they were contributing. He also would criticize the text of the service and the sermon.
In college, I became a Unitarian/Universalist out of reaction to my roots. I welcomed the acceptance I experienced and the rich multi-ethnic and multi-racial community in Unitarian/Universalist churches. I deeply respected Ellory Schempp, a college classmate who introduced me to Arlington Street Church. I was impressed that he had cared enough about God and prayer to have started Schempp vs. Abingdon County Township, Ellory believed that prayer was a precious, private right in which the schools should not abridge by providing a required form of prayer. At his request, the Supreme Court of the United States banned prayer from the schools.(1) I also respected Ellory's Unitarian minister, Jack Mendelssohn, whose sermons inspired me and whose ministry included extensive service to the poor and illiterate. I felt at home.
As a Unitarian-Universalist, I accepted a religion in which each person was cherished, regardless of origin. Brotherhood was given the highest place, and each person was encouraged to work out their own relationship to God. All beliefs were welcome, from Atheism to a belief in Christ; and the freedom of belief meant the freedom to explore new ideas and new relationships to God.
I taught Unitarian-Universalist Sunday school for seven years, and I became chairman of the lay committee on religious education. At first, I taught sixth graders a course called: The Growing Up Year; and there was one year that my rebellious son, Ben, was in my class. After he graduated that course, I switched to teaching junior high and high school children and created a new course: Movies With a Message. One week the students would see a full-length movie. In the following week, we discussed the lessons we could learn from the movie and how we could apply them to our lives. The movie furnished the situations we would discuss and helped us to share about real problems that faced each of us.
While I am grateful for what my Unitarian affiliation did for me, it did not meet my spiritual needs. In retrospect, I now know my experience was primarily intellectual and social. It did not penetrate my inner life or stop me from slowly becoming emotionally numb.
1. Regretfully, all the publicity for this case has gone to Madeline Murray-O'Hare, whose case had been combined with Ellory's and whose atheism made a far more colorful press account. It is easy to understand how the press was willing to forget that Ellory cared for prayer and brought his suit to protect his personal freedom to pray.