The Freedom to Doubt


Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who don’t give you the answers.

by Michelle Cove

I remember sitting in synagogue as a young girl, feeling dazed and confused during High Holiday services. Almost all of the congregants were reciting from their prayer books, speaking straight to God and perhaps even hearing responses. I couldn’t hear anything; in fact, I didn’t get a sense that there was anything listening to me. Was I the only one who felt this way? Why wasn’t I blessed with a direct line to God?

I figured I might learn that connection during Hebrew School. Maybe there was a lesson plan on how to find a spiritual connection to our Creator when it’s missing. No such luck. Bored and frustrated Hebrew School teachers stood in front of the classroom lecturing on God’s achievements and what He expected from all of us. God was an assumption. Again I felt like the Jewish odd-girl out.

I struggled with this issue many times throughout my childhood and into adulthood. I felt the desire for a connection to God most when my father died in a car accident when I was 20 years old. I was desperate to feel there was a heaven where my dad would have the opportunity to meet up with some of his favorite classical composers and long-gone artists. I wanted to believe there was an altruistic being to watch over him, and that was providing a little order in this cruel world. Yet the moments I felt most angry were when others told me that my father’s death happened for a reason. When I looked at them with shock, they would add, “God has his reasons.” Although I was already doubtful of God’s existence, I was certain that, if there were a God, He/She would have no reason to take my father away from his family in such a violent way. I moved even further away from religion.

I ended up marrying a Jewish man who was raised in a Conservative Jewish family and also shared my doubts about God. He is an out-and-out atheist who doesn’t struggle at all with questions about God’s existence. I sometimes envy him. I get tired of my struggle and my doubts. I want an easy connection to God, and faith that I can draw upon.

I looked for ways to redefine God: sunsets and canyons and double rainbows that reached to the sky; the best in all of us; or perhaps love itself. I tossed these ideas around in my brain, hoping one of them would ring true so I could be a believer. When my daughter was born, I worried about what I would someday tell her about the existence of God. I wanted the journey to be easier for her.

And then, at last, something amazing happened (no, not a message from God). I met a rabbi who brought me peace. A close friend introduced me to him after hearing me voice my anxieties about parenting around this issue. My friend told me this rabbi was smart, hip, and unconventional. She was spot on. Right away I liked this man with his friendly face and easy-going style. I told him that I am an atheist but that I wanted to find a connection to my religion, for myself and for my little girl. He smiled and assured me that many, many Jews feel like I do, and that he himself is an atheist. I couldn’t believe my luck—an atheist rabbi! He assured me that there is nothing more Jewish than grappling with the idea of God and other issues of religion. He explained that he loves Judaism—the guidance, the sense of community, and the focus on social action. He doesn’t worry so much about “the God thing.”

I wanted to weep with relief. There was room for me to keep up my exploration and search for connection, but without the guilt and frustration of forcing something I didn’t feel. As for talking with my daughter about God’s existence, the rabbi suggested telling her straight up that I don’t know if God exists. Some people do believe, some don’t, and many change their minds throughout their lifetime. This type of debate is respected, even healthy, in Judaism. My daughter would find her own way in her own time.

To me, this rabbi is one of the great all-time teachers. It’s not just that he made me feel “normal.” But he came into my life open-minded and without an agenda. He listened to where I was spiritually and emotionally, and started the conversation from there. He answered my questions patiently and, even more importantly, he was up front about the fact that he didn’t know all the answers. He also became a model: Rather than “struggling” for answers, he is able to enjoy the ongoing process of “challenging and learning.” If he can do it, maybe I can, too.

About the Author

Michelle Cove
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. In 2003, she developed and became editor in chief of JVibe, the national magazine for Jewish teens. In 1999, she coauthored I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict (Penguin). She is also the director of the documentary Seeking Happily Ever After.

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