I’m an atheist, and I always have been. I’m a third-generation atheist, moreover; my parents are atheists, and so were/are most of grandparents. But unlike my parents or my grandparents, I was raised without any Jewish observance in my life at all, mostly due, in my opinion to various family schisms and my parents not having good associations with those celebrations (cf family schisms). But I’m also a folklorist, for a certain value of folklorist, at least, and tradition, ritual, ceremony, all seem to me to be important elements of being human. Not the most important elements, no doubt, but important to me nonetheless.
I’m thinking about this because I just went to the Bat Mitzvah of the little girl I babysat/nannied for when I was in graduate school, lo those many years ago (she was two months old when I started). I found the ceremony moving, as I usually do at ceremonies of people close to my heart, and that made me think about what I wanted for myself and my son.
When I was pregnant I was looking into Bris Shalom, the secular humanist Jewish alternative to Bris Milah, and I found the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, essentially a secular humanist shul in New York City. I am particularly intrigued by their Bar/Bas Mitzvah program, in which the kids focus on learning about Jewish history, heritage, and literature and presenting their studies to the congregation, as well as taking up some kind of activism. I like that idea; I like the idea of preserving Jewish identity without requiring a belief in the Jewish God. And I was certainly raised to consider social activism part of my Jewish heritage.
I consulted with their rabbi, and developed a naming ceremony for my son presided over my uncle, an anthropologist who feels similarly about the importance of tradition and ceremony. I have made small, private rituals for myself to mark important anniversaries, but this was the first time I included family and some friends (mostly family). Everybody was very supportive and it meant a lot to me, and my uncle gave a great talk about my son’s name and its history and famous namesakes. I spoke a little about his middle name and having named him after my grandfather.
I know I’m not the only unbeliever here (I’m pretty sure), and I’m wondering what others do vis-a-vis ritual and ceremony. Are you just as happy to be free from it? Do you observe any even without believing in them? Have you adapted any to be more meaningful to you? And you know, I’m interested in what those who do believe in various gods and religions think and feel, too.