Jewish, Beyond Belief: Why Behavior Matters
As a native New Yorker, I know that my hometown is famous for many things, ranging from bagels to Broadway. But earlier this summer, our city made national news for a novel, awesome phenomenon: a double rainbow appeared over our legendary skyline. The spectacle literally stopped traffic (well, more than usual, anyway), and photos of the colorful image flooded the internet. I have no doubt that among the mesmerized lay photographers, charmed children, and everyday gawkers, there were many Jews who saw the sky and uttered the following prayer upon seeing a rainbow:
Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-heinu melech ha'olam zocher ha'brit v'ne'eman bivrito v'kayam b'ma'amaro. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to His covenant, and keeps His promise.
My daughter Sophie would not have been among those Jews. Her reaction to the rainbows would have been the same as it had been to hearing about the great flood, the plagues and even the creation of the universe: “Haven’t you people ever heard of science?”
In her 11 year old mind, religion and science seem incompatible – and if she has to choose one, she chooses science. And while I believe that there’s room for both explanations of the universe to be true, she’s not there yet, and in fact, may never be. Even though she has attended Solomon Schechter Day Schools for her entire life, lives in a kosher home, and shows up to synagogue most (OK, many) Saturdays, she doesn’t believe in God, or a higher power, or a mystical force greater than us. She’s not even questioning — she’s committed. What she did believe, however, was that her parents might be disappointed in her or angry with her for dismissing God. This gave me the opportunity to tell her what was at the core of my personal Jewish value system:
I don’t care what you believe. I care how you behave.
As Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.” If Sophie believes that she will walk a self-directed, self-constructed path in life rather than one where God is her partner, I am not going to argue with her. If she subscribes to the belief that life ends at your last breath and therefore her soul needs no chicken soup, then I will support her as she makes the very most of her life. If Sophie chooses to see miracles as acts of nature rather than acts of God, that’s fine with me. What she believes about God is her business. In fact, I admire the critical thinking and communication skills that she has learned at school that has allowed her to construct this point of view, and share it so clearly and confidently with me.
What is my business is how she acts. Of course it’s my role as her mom to attend to this, but it’s also my job as a Jew to make sure that her behaviors are kind, loving and generous.
Sadly, we have all seen on the news, in our communities, or even our homes, people behaving abhorrently while they claim that it’s “in the name of God”. I can understand how people eschew religion altogether when they see the atrocities committed for the sake of faith. It is mind-boggling to me that anyone would claim to be a believer while behaving in a way that no loving deity could want or ask from its followers.
I grew up as a non-believer, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I took a leap of faith that there was a God, and I wanted to get to know Him. We’re still working on it, of course – what with Him being unknowable and all. And I can honestly say that while believing in God has given me a sense of peace and a moral compass, I don’t think I am happier now because of my faith in God. I think I am happier now because I have a loving husband, terrific children, a job I adore, great friends and family, a comfortable home and my health. (Poo, poo poo.) How did I come into this embarrassment of riches? Was it because God blessed me? Yes, I believe that’s part of it. But much of what I have in my life I behaved my way into.
Without false modesty – or even real modesty – I can honestly say that by behaving in loving, kind and generous ways, I found a husband who is loving, kind a generous with me. By being loving, kind and generous with my kids (usually), I have helped to nurture loving, kind and generous children (usually). By conducting my business in as loving, kind and generous a way as I can afford to — without undermining my efficacy – I have found a loving, kind and generous clientele, which in turn allows me to have the kind of home I love, commit to the upkeep of my health, and so on.
Do I believe that God has a hand in all of this? I do. But I cannot and will not discount the role of my own conduct in making my lot in life. And even during those times when my lot feels like a lot of stress, strain and suffering, I know that I need to check how my behaviors have contributed to it.
Proverbs 20:11 tells us, “Even a child makes himself known by his acts.” This is what I want Sophie to know. In fact, this is what I want all adults to know. Believe what you will, but behave as if every action you take can build up or tear down a person, a relationship, a workplace, a community, a country, a religion or the world. Because it can.