Questioning God, but Not My Identity as a Jew

By Rachel Baruch Yackley


Looking back, I believe that my observant childhood home had all the accoutrements of a typical Reform Jewish family.

Shabbat, the Sabbath, was always observed on Friday night, with the lighting of the candles, the hamotzi (prayer over bread), and the kiddush (prayer over wine), for which my father always held a special cup and got to take the first sip.

As young children, both my sister and I embraced our Jewish heritage and traditions. We knew all the Sabbath prayers, loved the holidays, and were proud to share who we were with others, whether they were Jewish or not. We attended religious school on the weekend, from kindergarten through the tenth grade, at which point we were confirmed. We both were bat mitzvahed (assumed the privileges and responsibilities of adult members of the Jewish community) at the age of thirteen, and I had so much fun at mine that I briefly thought I would like to be a rabbi. We even attended Friday night services with some regularity, although with a bit of arm twisting. And we loved our Jewish summer camp.

When I was sixteen, in 1977, I traveled to Israel for two months. I would say, looking back, that each moment there contributed significantly to my current feelings about religion. Spending time in the most Jewish place in the world, in both population and history, felt exhilarating and empowering. But the need for armed soldiers to travel with us (due to the state of war then), and for a dramatic lecture about items to avoid that might hide bombs, plus the sight and sound of how Israelis interacted with each other, caused me to seriously question my sense of God and religion. I never questioned my identity as a Jew, just my beliefs as one.

Raised to respect the beliefs of others, my sister and I both entered the world of dating with open minds. The new and unusual were often more tantalizing at that point. Plus, while Eastern spiritual and religious practices were considered “cool” in the ’70’s and ’80’s, Middle Eastern religions were not.

Nonetheless, I always felt that my parents’ wish was that I marry a Jew. Sure, they emphasized that he be a person with a good heart, who was thoughtful and moral in word and deed, and above all, treated me well. But that Jewish thing was always there.

And what did they get? Both of their daughters, their only children, married men who are not Jewish.

But they are both warm, loving, interesting men.

And, my own daughter and my sister’s two children are being raised as Jews.

My sister said that what matters most to her is to transmit to her children a sense of Jewish identity along with an understanding and appreciation for the other parts of their heritage.

And for me?

Well, my husband is a devout, non-practicing Catholic. With eight years of Catholic school under his belt, and having been required to attend weekly church services until he was eighteen, he entered our relationship with a strong conviction in his faith. Personally, I had been a non-practicing Jew for several years when we married. Before we married, we did talk about what to do when we had children. Raise them in both religions? Nothing? Something completely different (we talked about Unitarian)? Neither of us experienced this as a potential problem at that point, but we recognized it as an issue worth resolving before children entered the picture.

I was perhaps the least flexible, though, as I took a firm stand in regard to the issue of baptism. As far as I was concerned, this was one of those lines I was not willing to cross.

Then, while driving in the car one day, I remember my husband turning to me. This was over twelve years ago, and I remember it as clearly as if it were five minutes ago.

“I think we should raise our children as Jews,” he said.

Tears immediately sprang to my eyes, and still do, when I think of what an incredible man I married.

I didn’t want to admit that (to my own surprise) this meant the world to me. I told myself I was getting emotional about it because I knew it was going to make my mother completely ferklempt (Yiddish for overcome with emotion).

My mother often expresses emotion over the fact that my husband, our daughter, and myself are active members at our congregation–the same one in which I grew up, and to which my parents still belong. Both my husband and I read from the bima (pulpit) during the recent Yom Kippur services, and Mom has told me, several times, that she teared up. But, although I call myself a Jew, consider myself spiritual, observe many traditions, and participate in the community, I do not believe in God. Throughout personal challenges and global problems, I have often concluded that there is no God, as a noun, as an entity. I believe there is a God-consiousness, which we all have within ourselves, and that we can learn to listen to it, respect it, and commit ourselves to a moral life. Religion provides a way to learn how to do that, and, to an even greater extent, it provides a community of support, especially in times of crisis.

Acts of war, or any instances of inhumanity, compel me to more deeply explore my belief (or lack thereof) in God. Obviously, we have free will, whether it results in beneficial or harmful actions. But where is God? Why wasn’t God able to protect the 6,000 plus people who were killed due to the free will of the terrorists in the recent attacks on September 11?

It seems obvious to me that there is no such thing as “a God.” Bad things happen, and how we deal with them is an extension of our spiritual and human values and teachings. There will always be some people who do things which have dire consequences. This will never change.

But there are more good people than bad among us. This is something I firmly believe. And I enjoy working on this assumption and celebrating it under the umbrella of Judaism.

(c) 2001 Rachel Baruch Yackley


About Rachel Baruch Yackley

Rachel Baruch Yackley is a freelance writer, nonprofit administrator, educator, mother and wife. For over 13 years, her articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. Rachel also leads services, song leads, teaches religious school and volunteers with Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors in Geneva, IL.