Elderly man lost in thought

I Told My Religious Parents I’m Dating An Atheist. It Didn’t Go Well.

We were cleaning off the dishes from the Sabbath table, when my mom turns to me with a wink in her eye.

“Nu, are you seeing anyone?”

“Yes,” I swallow.

“Who is he? Where is he from? What does he do?”

I say we were very close friends for years. I say he had been asking me out for a while and I had finally said yes.

“Why didn’t you say yes in the beginning?” Mom wonders.

“Well, because we were different. I mean, on the outside we’re different. But on the inside, I feel like we are the same.”

“How are you different?” She pushes.

“Well…” I pause. Do I really need to say this? It would only… “He’s an atheist.”

She sits down.

And with that, all hell broke lose from its thin cage and invaded my home.

“How could you possibly be the same on the inside? He’s doesn’t believe in G-d. You couldn’t be more different.”

“I mean, I’ve always doubted my faith. He did too. We are both questioning, thinking people. We just chose differently.”

“What’s this nonsense about doubting your faith?” My dad, informed by my mom later that night, stands at the top of the stairs.

“I’ve always been questioning. You know me. Remember when I asked you when I was ten and the power had gone out in the house and it was all dark, why you believed in G-d. I never really got an answer. I’ve never really gotten an answer.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” he says. “How could you not believe in G-d?”

I look at him. I open my mouth and no words come out.

“Of course you believe in G-d,” he says. “You’re just fooling yourself.”

And then he shakes, his face turning red.

“That boy,” he says, “That boy is corrupting you. That’s why you’re thinking like this.”

“No Dad, I’ve always been like this.”

“Nonsense!” he shouts quietly and storms across the room. “You’re twisting your life to fit into this warped narrative.”

And with that, he looked just like the boy I was dating, this boy who gets a fire in his eyes when he talks about people twisting us into narratives. Except the people he is talking about are peers, are administrations, are teachers, are… my parents.

I see my dad shouting– He is corrupting you!
And I see this boy shouting– They are corrupting you!

And I don’t know who is right.

See it is the same story– girl who questions, who cares about meaning, who searches, who loves, people, life, the bigger complexities of the universe. But the narratives formed from the same strings make different music. There is my dad saying– but you believe in goodness, in rightness, in Something bigger than yourself, in humility, and there is the boy saying– but you believe in freedom, in independence, in not being stuck into the boxes we are placed in, in choice, in questions, in searching.

You believe in truth, my dad says, you believe in truth, the boy says, and they are saying the same words and they are meaning different things, and I am stumbling around their language until I can no longer differentiate between their sounds. Just two people shaping my life into their narrative.

“How do you expect your kids to be Jewish?” My mom stands behind my dad.

“I… I don’t know.”

“But you want them to be Jewish. I mean, right?”

“Yes.” I think so.

And then my mother turns into fire and water. The red flush in her face and the wetness in her eyes.

“Remember your great grandmother Rachel who was stabbed in the eye as they were escaping from Europe. Just so you could be Jewish.”

“Just so you could be Jewish.”

“They risked their lives for you. How can you be so ungrateful?”

Later that night, I would tell my dad—

“I feel like I have this huge responsibility placed on me to carry a tradition onto the next generation. But I didn’t ask for it, it’s not fair.”

And he looked at me like I had no right to complain. Maybe I didn’t.

As we are leaving the door to go to shul the next morning, he turns to me.

“You’re idealistic, I understand that, but you are also naive about the way the world works.”

Why does the world have to work in any certain way? I can hear the boy respond in my head.

“See the love your mother and I have for each other. Don’t you want that?”

“Of course.”

“Well, you can’t get that if you’re constantly having to be the religious authority in the household. It’s a team. How can you be a team if you want different things?”

And I remember the boy’s answer when I had asked that question, back in the very beginning. He had paused and then he had looked up at me with a grin and said, “Wouldn’t it be great that, instead of being exactly alike, we could learn to respect each other for our differences?”

And it had sounded so wonderful at the time. But here were my parents with their 30+ more years of experience telling me that was impossible.

“Just listen to me,” I try to tell my mom as she lists her ancestors that came before her, the ancestors that had died for her, died for me, died for my children, died for my children’s children.

“Mom,” I say, “I don’t want to die for somebody else. I don’t want to live for somebody else.”

And I know as I say them that they are his words, the boy’s words. But they were starting to sound like my own. I liked them, liked the way they made me stand up for something.

“How could you be so selfish?” My mom quivers with upset. “I did not raise you like this.”

She pauses and shakes her head. “How can you possibly marry an atheist? What’s he going to do— bring your kids to shul and just stand there not praying?”

I had asked him this when we first started going out. I had said I wanted to raise my kids to be Jewish and I had said I wanted us to be team.

“We can do it,” he said at the time, “We can do it together.”

“But how?” I asked.

He never answered.

“We can transcend the boxes,” he said. “We can show the world that we are better than the lines we place around ourselves.”

“We could be the heroes of our own story,” he promises.

He saw us, himself, as the defenders of some type of cosmic rightness.

“Our side is better,” he claims, “because I try to understand them, but they do not try to understand me. The side that listens is always the winning side,” he says.

“You’re as bad as them,” I respond. “You think you’re right, and they are wrong.”

These are my dad’s words. When I had told him that my problem with religion was that it thought it was right and everyone else was wrong, my Dad had turned to me and with a rush of emotion had said—

“You think you are escaping to something better. But agnosticism is the same thing! They think they are right and that I am wrong!”

I see in my parents’ anger how much Judaism means to them. They had both chosen to become religious later in life.

“That’s all I want!” I shout at my dad. “A choice! Like you had.”

“Like me?” My dad shouts back. “I worked my whole life to raise you with what I never had— meaning. I raised you so that you could do so many mitzvoth in the world, so that you could spread so much goodness to the world. I would have given anything to have had that.”

My dad whispers, “I really feel like when you do a mitzvah you bring goodness into the world. And when you do the opposite, you are separating the world from its spiritual source.”

And for a moment, I see what he sees. Not a daughter finally having a choice, but a daughter about to fall into something that was to him objectively very, very hurtful to herself, to her own spiritual future.

Then it struck me— he really believes in it— in the mitzvoth having intrinsic value, in the spiritual forces running the world, in prayer, in miracles. For me, Judaism had become a paradigm of meaning, as something which I act within in order to structure my life with purpose, as a means for me to reach out into the void and create value. But, for him, there wasn’t the void, there wasn’t the need to create meaning, there was only the Truth and Judaism was there, G-d was there, breathing, living, within him, permeating everywhere. His Judaism was the Judaism of necessity— he needed to do it because it was the only answer, but my Judaism was the Judaism of choice, I chose to build my life through its structure to instill my life with meaning. His world was the world of receiving, my world was the world of creating. His world was full, my world was empty. The gap between them could not have seemed more infinite in that moment.

That’s the thing with post-modernism. If everyone is right, then what should you do? If all paths are equal, how can you choose? Here was my dad saying one path was right (devotion to G-d) and one path was wrong. Here was this boy saying one path was right (doubt and nonconformity) and one pathway was wrong. But to me, with these post-modern leanings instilled in me by American society, they all seemed beautiful.

Being able to listen to all sides, to see the good in all things, in all people, paralyzed me in indecisiveness. If my opinion was merely the composite of all the thoughts from everyone in my life, was it really my opinion? And how could I listen to myself if I could hear the world so loudly screaming from all corners? Everyone else’s voices eclipsed my thoughts.

“That’s what your parents think,” the boy says when I tell him of the Sabbath nightmare. “But what do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Why are you always listening to everyone else?” the boy asks.

Including you, I add silently to myself.

“You listen too well,” he says.

Here I was, quoting other people’s words. But what were my words?

And I think of my dentist appointment a few days earlier, when the technician had asked me if I floss.

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“Well, you need to do it strongly and with umph,” she responded.

Umph. Maybe I lacked umph.

Sometimes I stare at the girl in the mirror and wonder what she wants and what she thinks. I wonder if I will meet her, myself, after all these years, on the other side of death, on the other side of dreams and I’ll shake her hand and ask her simply, who are you, and her lips will open in shock, in anger, and she will mouth to me in a whisper, how come you never asked me before?

How come you never asked me before?

Maybe I should stop blaming my wonderful parents for teaching me, with force and love, the things which give their life meaning. Maybe I should stop blaming this wonderful boy for teaching me, with hope and disregard, to see past boxes and lines.

Maybe I should start asking myself—

What do I think?

I sat down and faced myself and this is what came out:

I think that religion speaks to my hope that the fragments of depth I sometimes see in children’s eyes, in corners of sadness, in moments of kindness, is attached to something bigger that connects all of us. Sometimes I really do feel that—whole with the air, the sky within me absorbed into the sky around me. But, on the other side of that hope, just as true and just as authentic, is a despair. Because as fully as I had once felt complete, I can also feel alienated and inherently lonely, my insides shriveled until they are almost basically empty, the entire world almost basically empty, and I am floating or falling with nothing to reach onto, nothing to touch.

My mortality in the face of the infinite universe feels like fists banging against the air with no collide, the absence of contact silent and silencing, weightless and infinitely heavy. Those moments are just as real as those other moments, just as dear to me, and just as true. To deny their validity, to look away, to cover them up, to silence them, is to silence a part of myself. I don’t want to have to turn my face away from myself. Our community should claim those moments as their own, hold us while we whimper, cry with us as we cry.

I think a religion which cannot face the negation of itself is a religion which negates itself. Its foundation becomes merely social responsibility and the yoke of generations past and future. Religion should be built on a search for truth and meaning and never ever the pressure to conform.

And, when it’s late enough at night, I curl into a fetal position and think, less in words but in feelings—

Dad, I am trying to listen so closely to our religion, to the heart of it. See, it is the humility given to me by our answer that tells me there is more than our answer. It is the religion that taught me the value of striving for truth that ultimately taught me to search beyond our truth.

I can no longer blind myself to the worlds beyond our world. To the questions beyond our preformed answers. And I understand generations of great scholars before me have grappled with understanding their world and recorded their struggle in Halachic prose and Talmudic arguments. But I do not want to just be a vessel, do not want to merely pass on their meaning to the next generation. All I am saying, in all of this, is that I need the space to form my own sense of the world.  Because deep down, I know that in order to love my life, I need to choose it.

The problem with writing something is that it needs to make a statement, needs to shine a sure, determined light into the darkness. But I am not sure. Behind the face of my rebellious words, Dad, I am shaking. Because I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Because I want you to know that I see how your eyes crinkle in grief when you approach a mourner, how you turn other people’s mean spirited acts into personal lessons for yourself, how you listen for poetry in the trees, in the cement, in the prayer book, in the tiny acts that bind one person to another. I watch how you struggle against an undefined illness, how you wheel yourself to synagogue, how your tired, bagged eyes lean over a Gemara, trying to learn, striving to connect. And because of the way you pray softly and lovingly and with pause, Dad, I begin to pause, I begin to see the soft and loving light that seeps beneath the seams of religion. I see all of this and, Dad, I want you to know that everything I love about religion is because of you.

And that was why you were the person I wanted to talk to the most about this. All I wanted was for you to listen quietly enough for me to whisper without words—Dad, Dad, I need you. But you were frustrated whenever I tried to sit you down and have a conversation about faith and philosophy. Because it can’t be proved, you said, and life is about doing, not about thought, you said. Just go through the motions, you said, and you will come to believe it.

I should have told you then, Dad, but I am telling you now— I didn’t want answers; I wanted help. I wanted you stand by me, to validate my struggle, instead of dismissing it. I wanted you not to reject me, I wanted you not to solve life for me (only maybe a little), mostly what I wanted was for you to sit down next to me and listen with a quiet that felt like it could last forever and admit to the terrible ache of silent nights and hug me and say we would be in it together, that we didn’t have the answers but we had the questions and each other and that would be enough for both of us.

Remember, Dad? Remember when I was ten and the power was out and it was dark and I asked you why you believed in G-d and you never really answered me but you said I would understand when I got older.

Dad, the older I get, the less I understand.

The older I get, the less I understand.

Appendix of stories:

My friend back in the fourth grade was learning about Har Sinai and asked the teacher, “But how do we know it actually happened?” She had never thought about that question until that point, but in that moment in class it had started to bother her. She was curious and she cared and she thought the teacher might have an answer.

She was sent to the principal’s office. She had never been there before. She was shivering and she was scared and she thought she was about to cry. 

“I heard you asked about Har Sinai.” The principal said. My friend, all of about ten years old, nodded, trembling. “You know, that’s a very dangerous question.”

“Your namesake,” the principal said referring to my friend’s Hebrew name, “she also asked dangerous questions. And you know what happened to her?”

My friend shook her head.

The principal leaned forward and said slowly and with emphasis, “She didn’t have any children.”

When my friend retold that story to me, I looked at her with surprise and disgust. “But…but…how did she answer your question?” I asked incredulously.

My friend looked out the window, at something very far away, and said quietly, “She never did.”

I don’t understand.

She never did.

And so we begin to breed children who are afraid to wonder, afraid to think, afraid to listen to themselves. And so we become ashamed to ask questions about a G-d we were never explicitly taught to believe.

And so we silence an entire generation of people who are only trying to understand.

 

The following is a compilation of conversations I have had with multiple friends:

There comes a time late at night when all that is left of you is raw and throbbing. On one such night, my friend turned to me in the middle of her laughter. “I need to tell you something,” she said suddenly serious, “something I’ve never told anyone.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Don’t you ever think…” She paused. “Don’t you ever wonder if maybe it’s all not true?”

Her eyes were wet with childlike sincerity, as if this were her ultimate confession. As if on the day of Yom Kippur, while she is shaking and crying, these are the words she repents from with each hallowed strike of her chest.

“We all do,” I nodded with understanding. “It’s normal. Just no one talks about it.”

And she breathed. As if she had been holding onto her breath for a long time. Her face was washed with relief at finally being able to speak and be accepted.

“I want so much to believe.” Her eyes brimmed with tears.  “But I don’t feel His presence,” she looked away, confessing. “I want so much to feel His presence. Is that too much too ask?” She begged of me.

“I know,” I said,” I know.” I took her hand in mine and smiled the type of smile that is another form of crying.

She felt like a big pretender sometimes, she explained, doubting the integrity of the entire system, yet acting as if she never had questions in front of her parents.

“Talk to your parents,” I responded.

And she stared at me in shock and said loudly in a whisper, “You don’t understand! My parents would disown me.”

“They won’t disown you,” I laughed at the time. “Their love is unconditional.”

“No,” she shook her head and paused. Her voice was so swallowed inside herself, I almost didn’t hear her next words. “Their love is very conditional.”

And I didn’t know what to answer her then, but if I could see her again now I would say:

“It takes you a while to notice,” I would tell her, “that everything is moving slightly.”

“And one day, we will have the space to ask questions, the space for our lives to be a choice rather than an obligation, the space to engage completely and honestly with ourselves.”

“But we don’t have the space for it now,” she would say.

My hope that we will one day have the space to question G-d is almost like my hope in G-d. My hope in something good prevailing.

I believe.

“We will.”