A Partial Withdrawal from God

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To have not come up with an official stance regarding God sometimes makes me feel like an intellectual and spiritual failure.

by Melissa Wolfish

When I was 9, I got some helpful advice about God. My Hebrew school’s executive director was serving as a substitute teacher one afternoon, and she told our class, "You shouldn’t explicitly ask God for things. Rather, you should ask for the ability to get the things you want in life." She gave us the resonant example of doing well on an exam. She said, "You shouldn’t pray to God three hours before an exam and beg to pass the test. Instead, start praying two weeks in advance and ask that God give you the ability to study hard so that you will do well."

I took this advice to heart, and I remember praying for God to give me the ability for a lot of things: to be the top student at my elementary school, to not lose my retainers for the umpteenth time, that Adam Rosenblum would return my crush (that wish seemed entirely dependent on a miracle rather than ability on my part). With the exception of my ultimately unrequited crush, this arrangement worked quite well throughout my childhood and preteen years. I came to feel as though I had a travel-sized God within me that I could consult regarding any impending crisis, real or perceived.

However, my relationship with this notion of God started to change around the time of my bat mitzvah. I read as much of my torah portion and haftarah as possible, and led as much of the service as the cantor would allow. I can’t even begin to estimate how many times I said the word "God" during that three-hour service, in both English and Hebrew. But in retrospect, I can recognize that this rite of passage had nothing to do, for me at least, with developing an adult relationship with God. I loved preparing for that day because I was fulfilling a covenant with my family and community. I couldn’t see, feel, or sense the practical role that God played in that special day or in my more ordinary day-to-day life. Ironically, the frenetic nature of the bar/bat mitzvah circuit of seventh and eighth grade gave me little time to reflect on this dramatic change or to feel badly about it.

The more I studied Judaism academically, the less interested in God I became. In college, I was a course away from obtaining a Jewish studies minor when I encountered an obstacle listed in the course catalog: JWST 253—God and the Holocaust in Jewish Theology. I panicked on the first day when we received the syllabus. It was my last semester in school, and I didn’t want to spend it writing a total of 80 pages about how others had reconciled (or hadn’t) their beliefs about God and the unfathomable source of pain that is the Holocaust. Complicating my reluctance was the fact that both my maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Over the years, I had built a defensive wall around the topic to avoid any additional heartache.

I made the receptionist in the registrar’s office listen to my tearful weighing of the pros and cons of having a "W"(withdrawal) on my transcript, as I didn’t drop the course before the first week had ended. At her encouragement, I dropped the course, but never did it occur to me that I was also withdrawing from an important opportunity to reflect on my own beliefs about God. Had I stayed, perhaps I would have gathered the strength to talk to my mom about how her parents did or did not discuss the notion of God and what role that might have played in my upbringing.

Now at the age of 26, I alternate between calling myself "agnostic" and "atheist," but something about these labels feels uncomfortable for me. I don’t like identifying as agnostic because I tend to be a person of extremes; the wishy-washiness of not being sure of where I stand feels so uncool. However, identifying as an atheist also feels a bit false because the truth is, I’m not entirely sure. It seems that people, more often than not, like to view themselves as defiant of labels; I, on the other hand, wanted the security blanket of a label regarding where I stood with the notion of God. To have not come up with an official stance sometimes makes me feel like an intellectual and spiritual failure.

I came close to finding a stance last spring when I was a graduate student. I went with a classmate to my university’s Humanist chaplaincy for a weeknight meeting. Humanism, according to their website, is "a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." In short: one doesn’t have to believe in God in order to live by an ethical framework.

Besides the free pizza and soft drinks, I was intrigued by the evening’s theme, "pathways to humanism." Students from all different schools and grade levels within the university shared their "testimonies" as to how they came to not believe in God. For many, their stories began with how their grandparents identified religiously, an acknowledgement of one of the many complex factors that shaped these students’ current beliefs. When the meeting came to an end, the club president said that we could continue sharing our testimonies at the bar next door, but I chose to go home. While, as a nonfiction writer, I often relish the opportunity to tell stories about my upbringing, a crippling shyness and insecurity came over me in the face of this opportunity. What would I have said had they gotten to me? I wondered as I scurried home in the still tingly March cold.

It’s been almost a year since that meeting, and I’m still not sure what I would have said. In some ways, I’m glad that I didn’t have the opportunity to share my thoughts, as I think I would have openly identified as a humanist in an effort to fit in with the rest of the group. The uncomfortable truth for me is that I don’t know what I believe, and I may never have a realization, whether gradual or epiphanic, that will help me come closer to an answer. Without understanding my place in the hierarchy of the universe, I feel insecure as to how much control I should attempt to exert over my life’s course.

The best insight I’ve gotten as to why my thoughts about God haven’t percolated yet comes from, of all places, a Nelly Furtado lyric from her first album: "Looks like I only love God when the sun shines my way / Looks like I’m into divinity only when I can see its sweet, sweet rays." The truth is that I only think about God (or the absence of God) in life’s Big Moments: the death of my father, acceptance into my dream graduate school program, the pain of a friendship or relationship ending. This undulating relationship is, dare I say, shallow to the core. If I’m going to foster a meaningful relationship with a God, I know that it will come from the most overlooked places: the relationships I take for granted, the ability to tie my shoes, the reflective time that comes from sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. To "wrestle with God" is to wrestle with myself.

About the Author

author_melissa-wolfishMelissa Wolfish
Melissa Wolfish is a Boston-based arts education advocate. She attended Oberlin College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In her free time, she can be found learning how to throw pottery on the wheel and admiring the squirrels in her neighborhood.

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