By A L Katz
To be completely honest, I think I hit the ground an atheist. I can’t recall ever believing there was a giant sky deity who created everything and looked down on human life benevolently — except when he got angry at us or a natural disaster hit. Aside from one 24 hour period when I was 8 and thought I was in deep shit (I wasn’t), I never even tried to communicate with this sky deity as in “Hey, God — here’s what I want from you!”
It wasn’t until I’d been in Hebrew School for a few more years (I started when I was 6) that I actually began to process the stuff they were putting to us — and think about it — that I began to question, well, everything. Fortunately — for me — questioning, well, everything wasn’t a bug in the system, it was what the system wanted me to do. For real.
Judaism isn’t dogmatic by nature. Though the ten commandments feature prominently, there’s no institutional stick to make you follow them or else. There’s no hell in Judaism. No concept, really, of “sinning” or “sinners” (except in the broadest possible sense of people not following the ten commandments). Punishment is more personal. You should know better. Be ashamed of yourself — for real.
Jesus did not invent “Do unto others”. It’s a core message of Judaism that Jesus (whatever vestige of an actual human he was, if he was) articulated with sublime economy. Three words even a humble atheist can live by — without another drop of “instruction” from above or anywhere else.
Do. Unto. Others.
My family were “conservative” Jews. We were “the middle way” between the “we follow-every-last-rule-there-is” Orthodox Jews and the “we-follow–so-few-rules-we-might-as-well-be-Christians” Reform Jews. My family belonged to a large synagogue called Chizuk Amuno in the northwest Baltimore suburb of Pikesville, MD. We went to high holiday services and, mostly, all the other holiday services which got us out of going to public school for the day. We went to Saturday services occasionally — usually when my mom decided we weren’t being Jewish enough.
Moms, ya know?
My dad (a surgeon, himself the son of a physician) was, in retrospect, an agnostic on the way to being an atheist. He was, more than anything, a cultural Jew — the same way I see myself. I am proud of my Jewish culture and heritage. I have no use for the religion.
While Hebrew School itself was mostly dreary, a few of the teachers were awesome. Memorable and life changing in what they taught me. I don’t know what Henry Hyman did for a living in addition to teaching Hebrew School. If he was half as good at whatever that was as he was at teaching? He must have been very good at his job. Mr. Hyman invited questions — not slapdash, shotgunned bullshit — I mean, in the context of what he was teaching us — Mr. Hyman’s main job was teaching us Jewish scripture — the Torah and all the other books of the canonical OT and all the other texts and commentaries that are part of extended Jewish learning and thought.
With Mr. Hyman, the assignment was always this simple: read and ask questions.
The story we read that made me ask the MOST questions was the one about Abraham and Isaac. The one where Abraham — because Yahweh tells him to — agrees to sacrifice Isaac. “God”, by the way, is actually the character’s job description; his name — one of them — is Yahweh as in “That Yahweh is one unpleasant, self-centered god, isn’t he?”
What message, I wanted to know, was my religion trying to convey with this cockamamie story? Do they really want us to “respect” a grown man (like any of our fathers, understand) who hears a voice in his head say “Take your son — this person you love more than anything in the world — and KILL HIM because I’m telling you to” — and DOES IT?”
Henry Hyman didn’t try to dodge the question. He tried to reframe the story’s point from the ending — where Yahweh (now that he’s seen just how loyal Abraham is) promised Abraham great things because of it. A great nation will flow from him — this man who didn’t just consider murdering his son but went to do it. If an angel doesn’t intercede (in the story) — Isaac dies right there, right then.
On the one hand, Henry Hyman — representing my faith and its teachings — couldn’t answer my question.
On the other hand, Henry Hyman — acknowledging that my 14 year old’s point had actual real world validity — gave my religion credence in that it’s response to my continuing to question it wasn’t to bludgeon me into submission. “Keep asking question,” Mr. Hyman told me. Not — “Shut up and go away” but “Keep-a-going”.
I don’t know what became of Mr. Hyman. I’m quite sure he’s long gone. But if I could talk to him today, if I could video call him (social distancing after all and neither of us is Spring Chickens), I’d thank him — genuinely. I hope he would take pride from the fact that nearly 50 years on, I’m still thinking of the man. Still thinking about him — and what he taught me.