Over dinner a few weeks ago, my husband and I quizzed our almost 5-year-old about what he had learned that day in a new pre-kindergarten Judaism program at our temple.
The teacher had acted out the story of Noah and the ark. Simon told us about how God created the flood, and then God made the wind and the sun that dried up the rain.
"So what is God?" I asked.
"God is the clouds," he said.
Clouds reflect in the river of Quechee Gorge in Vermont; Photo by Linda K. Wertheimer
My husband and I smiled, then Simon dropped the subject and started chattering about animals in general. He was done with the story about the creatures that were loaded two by two onto the ark. Simon did not ask us to explain our own views of God. Phew. I was not yet ready to have the "God" conversation with my son.
I went to religious school from age 5 to 12, then got permission from my parents to drop out. I was bored and unmoved by religious school and Bible stories. My parents never really spoke to me about God. My father, for as long as I can remember, has described himself as an agnostic. My mother has a stronger connection to Judaism, but did she believe in God? I have never asked.
Now, though I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah in 2006 after two years of study about Judaism, I don't really know how to discuss God with my son. I'm not that definitive about my own beliefs when it comes to God. My husband is clearer on his stance. He's an agnostic and self-defined cultural Jew. He likes the rituals and helps me frequently bring Shabbat to our home on Friday nights. We light the candles and say blessings over bread and sometimes wine or juice. My husband also likes going to temple with Simon and me. But the sense of community more than religiosity draws my husband toward Judaism.
I'm a mixed bag. I believe there is something non-human that gives me a sense of awe or comfort at times. Maybe it's God. I'm not a blind believer, but I'm not an agnostic either. I'm something in between. I'm neither God-less nor God-ful.
I believe this thing called God rests in my heart when I sing with the chorus at our temple and start to feel goose bumps. I certainly felt something at the start of Rosh Hashanah this year when I stood on the bimah and sang solo verses of Mah Tovu to the congregation. The prayer means how good it is that we are all here together in this house of worship. I was nervous, yet found my comfort zone. Something deeper than humankind was in my heart as I sang. Maybe it was an adrenalin rush. Maybe it was my interpretation of God.
I believe something helped when I finally began going to temple services to say the Mourner's Kaddish in memory of my brother. Religion could not comfort me when my 23-year-old brother Kevin died suddenly in a car accident in 1986. I was 21 and disconnected from my faith. But 20 years later, solace came from others when I recited the Jewish mourner's prayer, a string of sentences which praises God. The act of saying the words, rather than the words themselves, provided the comfort. For in saying the prayer, I stood in solidarity with other mourners.
Sun and wind can dry a soaked earth. Weather patterns produce those. God, to me, is more of a sensation than an all-powerful entity.
We say "God" a lot in Jewish prayer, and Simon has recited the Hebrew word for God along with us on many prayers. But I have never told him that we are actually praising God. Those blessings are custom more than religious act in our home.
I will encourage Simon to learn everything he can about our Jewish faith, but also raise him in a most decidedly Jewish way. It's okay to question what he's told. It's okay to believe what he chooses to believe. I want him to grow up comfortable with his Jewish identity. In our home, having mixed feelings about God comes with the territory.
But what will I say when my son asks me, "Mom, do you believe in God?" I suspect I will say what I know to be true. "I believe that there is something bigger than all of us, something that can give us comfort and hope. And when I was a child, about your age, I used to sit on my blue toy box and stare out the window at the sky and deliver my own form of prayers to God. I too thought God was up there in the clouds." I just never thought God was the clouds.