Thursday, October 25, 2007

Judaism and me: An autobiographical excursion

Part 1: Becoming an atheist

I was born in Mannheim, West Germany in 1969 to the best parents anybody could ever have -- mine. My parents both came from Orthodox Jewish families but by the time I was born they were not particularly religious. They had met in Germany but neither was originally from there. My dad had grown up in a little town in Poland until his family's existence offended the invading German armies. His experiences in surviving the Holocaust permanently cured him of any excessive religiosity. My mom's family moved from Aden, Yemen to what was then British Mandatory Palestine when she was still a child. It was a large family -- she had nine brothers and a sister, yet she resisted the culturally-religiously inspired disrespect for women in her family (e.g., my Grandma had never learned how to read) and ultimately left home without following in the family traditions.

Nevertheless, I was raised in a "traditional" Jewish context. That meant that I was sent to a weekly Jewish religion class taught by the local Rabbi as a substitute for the Christian religion classes that my non-Jewish friends were taking in the public schools I attended in Germany (no, there is no separation of Church and State in Germany). The class taught Hebrew, Jewish history and about the Jewish holidays. We also went to services at the local synagogue during occasional Fridays, Saturdays and most holidays. At home, my dad would conduct the various ceremonies, though we were not exactly strict (e.g., we would watch TV on Friday nights). My mom would light the Friday night candles. When I would ask my dad at a much later age why he went through the various motions of religious ceremony and songs, even though he did not believe in the underlying theology, he would say that it reminds him of his youth before the war when his dad and the rest of his family was still alive, and conducted the same ceremonies and sang the same songs.

We moved to Tel Aviv, Israel when I was 10 years old. When given the choice by my mom, I opted for the secular Israeli school system over the religious one, on the basis of my preference for sleeping late. I had previously heard from my cousin (who had also moved from Germany to Israel) that the religious students are required to pray the daily morning prayer at school at 7am and I had no interest in getting up even earlier to go to school. In secular Israeli schools, the Jewish Bible is taught as a historical and literary text. Also, some of the so-called Jewish "oral law" is taught. We still attended synagogue frequently and during all the major holidays. I started to resent religion somewhat as the services were getting annoying and started to interfere with my social life (e.g., I preferred to go the pool on Saturday morning rather than to prayers). Even so, I had a very traditional Bar Mitzvah including an extended chanting of a section of the Torah. Despite much ceremony I did not consider myself religious. I believed in God but did not think much of religion. Some of my dad's attitude toward it all was definitely starting to rub off on me. I started to think that there's a bit of hypocrisy involved. If all this stuff (the Bible, etc.) is real then we really ought to take it a little more seriously. If not, why do it at all? All my friends were at least as secular as I was or even considerably more. Large segments of my extended family, however, were very religious and while I maintained cordial relations with some of them, we were not close.

We moved to Los Angeles during the summer of 1984. Here was the first time that I was not part of a large or small organized Jewish community whether secular or religious. At first we attended some synagogues during some holidays and kept up some of the ceremonies. But we never quite recovered even the limited religiosity that existed in the previous two countries in which we had lived. I decided I was an atheist early in my senior year of High School. That was even before I had discovered Ayn Rand. I simply concluded one day during my science class that there is no God in these equations, therefore no God period. At a certain point I decided it was too hypocritical (and really downright strange) to attend synagogue anymore and participate in any further ceremonies. So I refused, despite occasional extended pleading from my mom. During college I discovered Ayn Rand and that further cemented my principled opposition to any religious practice....and yet...

Part 2 Religious Relapses

...and yet...throughout my college years I maintained a close eye on everything related to Jews, Judaism, and Israel (I still do). This was the late 80s, early 90s. The various Objectivist splits deeply disturbed me and I became somewhat disillusioned with Objectivism. In addition, I realized right around the time of my graduation that my choice of career was a mistake. I did not want to be a physicist. At the same time, I watched with some jealousy as a High School friend, who became an Orthodox Jew late in High School, and intended to complete his legal degree in Israel. His life seemed to have purpose and meaning whereas mine was a confused mess. I visited Israel for a couple weeks after my graduation and saw my maternal religious Grandmother for the last time (she died a few years later). When I got back to L.A., I decided that perhaps I should give Judaism a try and see what it can do for me.

I started attending services at a nearby synagogue and read a lot of books to try to educate myself on what was actually involved in being Orthodox. This spell lasted a few weeks. In the end, there was a conflict between work and religion and I chose work. After that choice, I no longer attended synagogue and slowly became an Objectivist again.

I met my lovely future wife on a web-based Jewish dating board. My reasoning was: I need someone who understands my obsession with this stuff, even if they, like me, don't want to get too near it. In fact, as we started dating we both confirmed that neither of us was religious and we opted to have a completely secular wedding. My wife's family had celebrated Christmas when she was growing up and at her insistence we got a tree. I must admit that have never felt entirely comfortable with Christmas. Growing up in Germany, it was always very clear that despite the various pagan and commercial elements, it was the holiday that celebrated Jesus's birth and that's something Jews just don't celebrate. But I agreed as long as the celebration was entirely secular and amounted to a non-specific season's holiday (even if we did call it Christmas for simplicity). We had our daughter in 2001 and our son in 2005 by which time we had moved, for job-related reasons, into the suburbs in Orange County, California.

For those not familiar with the area, let me assure you that the term Bible Belt could easily apply. My daughter is enrolled in several ballet classes and virtually all of her friends's parents conversation focuses on church activities. There are over 80 churches within a mere 4 mile radius of our city, including some mega-churches. Just for comparison's sake, within the same radius, the number of synagogues is one and there are no mosques. Having two kids and moving into the suburbs has substantially isolated us from our friends in Los Angeles. We see them every few months now, instead of weekly as we used to. Of course, we're closer to Ayn Rand Institute but since I prefer to attend the Institute's events with my wife, and because of the difficulties in finding a reliable baby sitter, I usually end up not going. In the meantime, my dad's health has not been ideal. He's in his eighties now and unfortunately it's showing. If that wasn't enough to disturb my emotional state, over the last few years I had also become, for various reasons, more and more dissatisfied with my job. I was thinking of going back to graduate school to study a different subject and change career paths but upon reflection I rejected that option as financially prohibitive and far too time consuming.

I have always been a news-junkie but the news over the last few years has been worse than depressing, particularly with regard to Jews and Israel. Israel witnessed the worst spate of terrorism in its history. During the late nineties and first decade of the new millennium so far, the news was filled with the most horrible, vicious explosions as suicide bombing were becoming a regular occurrence. To say that watching this has been disturbing is an understatement. I started reading the lists of victims with dread, afraid of recognizing some names. In addition, Europe seemed to feel nostalgia for the 1930s with antisemitic incidents increasing in countries such as France and England, as well as the rest of Europe. With every incident or attack, I felt a strong identification with the Jewish victims.

At around the same time, the question of what exactly we should tell our daughter about our Jewishness eventually arose. All the kids around her had no trouble identifying themselves -- they were Christian. In fact, my daughter would get frequent invitations to a local church group's kids club which we politely turned down. At first, I thought well, we are certainly Jewish, in the ethnic sense. But that seemed rather hollow and meaningless. We thought it was inappropriate to introduce Objectivism to a 5 year old. That was something that my daughter will learn about at a much more mature age. But we thought it appropriate to give her some content to Judaism so that she could at least see what her background meant, even if her parents didn't practice it. I wanted her to experience some Jewish holidays first-hand so that she could see what they are like. This was right before the time of the Purim holiday.

I chose to attend a local event organized by Chabad, knowing from previous general knowledge of them that they are a highly welcoming group that does not ask too many questions. My son was sick that day so my wife stayed home with him and I alone with my daughter. The event included the traditional reading of the scroll of Esther, as well as food and drink, various activity booths, music, and lots of (sexually segregated) dancing. Partially to my surprise and certainly to my wife's surprise (who was hoping that perhaps I would get all this out of my system now) I enjoyed myself thoroughly. A short time afterward I expressed a desire to my wife to start a Friday night Sabbath ceremony. We decided to visit a synagogue together to see how we would react to the experience. We tried a large local Reform temple and both hated. Not, because it was religious but because it wasn't religious enough. I would later describe it to my mom as more entertainment than prayer service. Having attended nothing but Orthodox synagogues all my life, the female Cantor, the guitar player and the general atmosphere just was not the Judaism I remembered. It seemed more like a new age church with a little bit of Hebrew prayer thrown in. So after looking around at other more traditional places we opted to go to the local Chabad events. These were most held at the Rabbi's home which doubled as a synagogue and meeting place.

Part 3 Chabad, Religious Awakening and Decline

Chabad is somewhat different than some other Orthodox groups in that it has an incredibly extensive outreach program. There are over 4,000 "emissary families" in neighborhoods and University Campuses, all over the United States, Europe, Israel and around world. These emissaries try to encourage Jews to do Mitzvot (Mitzvah is the singular, Mitzvot is plural -- these are the commandments, and no, not just 10, 613 when a temple exists in Jerusalem, somewhat less at present) and get in touch with their Jewish heritage. Chabad also engages in numerous charitable activities. I have to say that the local Chabad Rabbi and his family are some of the nicest people I've ever met. It definitely helped that they had children of similar ages to ours so that we weren't the only people chasing kids during the various meetings we attended. We decided to enroll my daughter in the Sunday school that the Rabbi's wife set up. My daughter would not grow up ignorant of the traditions.

Meanwhile I was trying to get a better intellectual grasp of Jewish history and ideas. I found the following site particularly helpful. There I found a complete history of the Jews from Biblical to modern times available for download for free, as well as some really interesting lectures on Jewish philosophy. I also found a particularly fascinating series of counter-missionary lectures which probably permanently convinced me that Christianity really is a gigantic fraud. I hope to write about some these ideas, which I believe have general application, in some future posts. I also read a book and saw a DVD by scientists trying reconcile religion with science. Mostly, these were "find the God in the gap" arguments or outright "arguments from incredulity" -- i.e., you can't possibly believe this is all an accident. Admittedly at times, I did fall for them even though in the past I had rejected such arguments. There are still a lot of interesting mysteries in the universe. Some have to do with scientific problems that haven't been solved, such as issues around the origin and function of consciousness and free will (a subject taken seriously by few outside the religious world). Others with the Biblical events such as what, if anything at all, actually happened at Mount Sinai? An alleged event on which the entire Jewish tradition depends. Would I say that any of this proves the existence of God? A few months back I would have said "it would seem so". By now I'm back to "it seems very unlikely". At the rate I'm going, I'll be back to my usual "certainly not" before the year is up.

So what made me change my mind and turn back toward Objectivism? Well, the influence of my wife is not to be discounted. She strongly resisted the mystical mindset and while we both enjoyed the company, found all these strange customs we started to engage in, well, strange and ultimately unacceptable. I found that I was willing to do many things but ultimately could not quite suffer the incessant altruism, as well as the intrinsicism of the mitzvot. I was also never quite able to fully break with Objectivism. There's something so rational and so right about that wonderful system of ideas that any proposed alternative would have to incorporate many of its essentials to hold me for very long. Interestingly, one the major intellectual appeals of Judaism was the claim that "faith" was a foreign concept to it. This may surprise many non-Jews and even some Jews but I heard lectures that insisted, that Judaism is perfectly rational and does not really require any leap of faith. I may write on this in a future post as well. At the same time I noticed that despite Judaism's emphasis on this world and making this world holy, my own orientation during my more religious moments was definitely focused on what seemed to be a completely separate spiritual reality. It seemed that I was started to make the real world, unreal. That started to disturb me and I backed away.

Part 4 Where am I now?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I now consider myself a "student of Objectivism." I still maintain some contacts with Chabad although I must admit I'm starting to feel a bit hypocritical about participating in the ceremonies without believing in them. So I've started turning down their invitations on many occasions. My wife and I still think it's a good idea for our daughter to learn about her heritage. At home we hardly do anything Jewish anymore. We do still intend to celebrate some Jewish holidays though in a substantially secular way. Basically we take from the tradition what we find enjoyable and fun for the whole family and reject the rest. We'll probably continue this as long as this makes sense to us. In previous years I think I was running away from my background, thinking that any contact at all with that culture would contaminate me in some way. I think our attitude today is much more sensible.


Rational Jenn said...

Hi Gideon! I have enjoyed reading your blog. Regarding your take on holidays with the family you wrote:

Basically we take from the tradition what we find enjoyable and fun for the whole family and reject the rest.

That's pretty much what my husband and I do, too. We were both raised Catholic, although my religious upbringing was more formal and solidified than his was. We have developed our own holiday traditions, drawing on the things we find fun and in concert with our pro-human-life Objectivist ways. So far, so good!

Gideon said...

Hi Jenn,

Thanks for your kind comments!


Anonymous said...


I used to follow your old blog and have missed your blogging. Its great that you are blogging again. I found this post on your religious past fascinating. You linked to an awesome site with all those lectures by Rabbi Singer. I recently discovered another site by a good atheist / religious skeptic and he has totally convinced me that Christianity is a fraud. Here is the link:

Doherty's essential thesis is that there was no historical Jesus but that Jesus started as a mythical person embedded in a savior cult exhibiting all the characteristics of the other savior cults which dominated the ancient world. Doherty also discusses how Plato's philosophy was intertwined with this mythical Christ savior cult and ultimately shaped what we think of as today's Christianity.

Doherty's site is awesome with voluminous amounts of material to read. If you are really interested in those first two centuries of Christianity and what exactly was going on in the ancient world to cause this development and how Judaism is related then you will love Doherty. I should add, I'm not giving you this to say that you should agree with it, but to point out there is a massive surge in scholarship which is all getting at one thing namely that Christianity was a religious system entirely created by man by being carved out of all of the disparate elements of the Greco-Roman world.

In fact, I don't know if you know this but Objectivist James Valiant is currently writing a book about the origins of Christianity. His belief is that there is a high probability that Christianity was a deliberate attempt by the Roman Imperial Court to pacify the warlike and fanatical Mosaic Jews. So there are volumes to read on this stuff if you are interested. Doherty's site is a great place to start and it helps that he is a clear thinking atheist with a great grasp of history and philosophy. He's the closest thing I have found to what an Obectivist religious scholar would be like (I really think we need one).

Its great to have you back.

Bill Visconti

Gideon said...

Thanks Bill -- Glad to be back!

I'll take a look at Doherty's site when I get the chance. I'm happy you liked Rabbi Singer's site. Keep in mind that Singer is not a skeptic but a very much a believing religious Jew. Nevertheless, he makes perfectly logical arguments that if one accepts the Jewish Bible (the so-called "Old Testament") then one can't also accept the claims in the New Testament -- there are too many contradictions. So Christianity, even from a religious perspective, is in fact self-contradictory. No wonder Christians strongly emphasize the need for faith. In general, that is a feature absent from Judaism. (which is not to say there aren't problems there as well).

Yes, I've heard that Valliant's next book will be on early Christianity, though I hadn't heard the details you mention. I'm certainly looking forward to it. Any estimate on when it will be completed?

Anonymous said...

"No wonder Christians strongly emphasize the need for faith. In general, that is a feature absent from Judaism. (which is not to say there aren't problems there as well)."

I'm really interested to hear more from you on this. I find the subject of Christianity vs Judaism fascinating as I lived through it with a Catholic mother and a Jewish step-father (I had a crazy house growing up - loving but crazy).

As for Rabbi Singer, could you recommend a few of the best of his lectures (of those on that page) to start with. They have descriptions but perhaps there are those which you feel really get at the point that New Testament Christianity really can't be extracted (and reconciled) from Judaism.

Thanks again.

Bill Visconti

Anonymous said...

Oh and as to Valliant's book, I believe he said on Solo that it was roughly a year away or thereabouts. I'm really looking forward to that one.

Bill Visonti

Gideon said...

Take a look at: Confused Texts and Testimonies – part 1 & 2. Rabbi Singer there proves conclusively that Jesus of the Gospels cannot be the Christ. I think these two (actually one continued across two MP3s) mostly stand on their own.

There is some advantage to going through all lectures from the beginning (though of course it would be very time consuming)because occasionally some stuff from previous lectures is referenced and also you get to see how dishonest Christians were when the Jewish Bible interfered with their own beliefs.
Also, Rabbi Singer is a very entertaining lecturer. You will not be bored.

I do hope to write some posts about the various things I've learned about Judaism and Christianity recently. We'll see when I get to it.

Looking forward to Valliant's book.


Nicholas Provenzo said...

Hi Gideon,

Glad to see you blogging again and thank you for your sharing the story of your intellectual journey.

I'm confused though by your statement that you and your wife thought it was inappropriate to introduce your daughter to Objectivism when she was young, but did not think it inappropriate to introduce her to elements of the Jewish faith and its rituals. Can you explain what you thought in Objectivism was inappropriate to present to her?



Gideon said...

You think you're confused. The truth is we haven't fully settled on what we will do in the next few years yet. In terms of Objectivism, we're essentially following the recommendations of Peikoff in his education lectures where he suggested that it was inappropriate to introduce philosophical ideas before the mid-to-late teens. In a certain sense of course we are introducing an Objectivist sense of life in our home. We try to institute and model the proper virtues such as rationality, honesty, and integrity and she has been learning about science as well. But we are not going to start to expose her to Ayn Rand's ideas directly even in simplified form until she's much older. We would consider that too much like preaching.

So why is my daughter still in Hebrew Sunday school? Well, we still think it's important for her to know where she comes from. I think it's fun for her to participate in holiday activities that aren't Christian inspired. I did those things myself when I grew up and I don't think they were particularly harmful. In fact, I have mostly fond memories of those times. What she will do with the knowledge she has as she grows up will, of course, be up to her.

Myrhaf said...

I put up a few comments on this post over at my blog.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

>But we are not going to start to expose her to Ayn Rand's ideas directly even in simplified form until she's much older. We would consider that too much like preaching.

My view is that it would only be preaching if the presentation is treated like an article of faith, which it is not. If the groundwork for rationality is explained via a history of science, for example, or via a history of politics, or even art, I think the presentation would make tremendous sense to a young mind and spark further, more in-depth interest.

For example, I've been a big champion of how art can clarify abstract philosophic claims. See this article for a hint of what I am talking about:

Edward Cline's Sparrowhawk series is another example of how art dramatizes the abstract, which is in this case is the quest for spiritual independence (I mean of course the rational meaning of spiritual) and its intersection with the political independence of America. Quite frankly, I think the Sparrowhawk series is essential (and captivating) reading, especially for a young person trying to understand the American founding.

What I'm not a big fan of is leaving anything important to one's "sense of life." All that means to me is that the case for rational values goes more or less unstated and absorbed unconsciously, while the enemies of everything that even the best sense of life would hope to achieve go on to explicitly states their claims.

My view is instead of taking your daughter to Jewish Sunday school to establish her cultural heritage, why don't you show her what it means to be an American, i.e., a free, mentally independent, productive individual? To be honest, I simply can't fathom how any kind of religious Sunday school would offer any kind of attraction when compared to the other.

After all, my mother is a downright new ager, and yet when I was a kid, I spent my free time at the local science museum, the historical society and the art gallery. What's your excuse? :-P



Gideon said...


What you talk about has a definite appeal. The reality is that we signed our daughter to the school when we were both, to put it mildly, of a different mindset. Ever since I abandoned that mindset I've been wondering exactly what I think about that decision and what I should do about it. For now, I still think there's some limited benefit to it, though again, what you say about Americanism also rings true. By the way, my daughter's just turned six and she's being home-schooled with a long list of perfectly rational subjects including (Scott Powell's History Program).

Thanks for your concern,