When I was a kid, I didn't go to church. My parents weren't big believers (so far as I could tell), and we were raised on the Golden Rule (do unto others, etc.) and I got a small Precious Moments bible at one of my early birthdays. The only church I ever went to was with friends. This time of year, I'd be gearing up for Vacation Bible School, full of home-made ice cream and bible tales that I never retained. These characters, these Marks and Pauls and Johns and the Jesus guy ... well, I didn't believe.
I was a child, and I didn't believe. Jesus, to me, was a mythical creature, a fake person, a non-existent fabrication. A man to color in a coloring book. Religion didn't exist for me beyond something to do during the summer, and I never spoke to G-d, I spoke to my dead grandparents who I had never met and the stars in the sky (Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight ...). And then?
When I was about 10 years old, I experienced an incredibly scary crisis of reality: I realized that we die. I realized that at some point, life stops, and what comes after it I didn’t know. For two weeks I was awake every night in my day bed, the light of the moon peeking in my curtains, and I cried. I felt silly in the morning, and I never did tell my parents about it. I didn’t ask them. I felt as though I should know what happens when we die. But all I could picture in my mind was darkness, pitch black nothingness. I would talk to my grandparent’s (my father’s parents who I never knew) in the dark, asking them to ask G-d for a sign of what I needed to know, what death was about. And then, for some reason, I went to bed without tears. I’d realized that death didn’t matter, and what came after it certainly didn’t matter. Our life here – both how we live it and how we choose to live it – were what I realized are most important. Suddenly I understood. (From my conversion essay.)This was when I started believing. At least, that's when I remember believing. In something bigger than us. There was something, someone, sitting somewhere, guiding our thoughts and our hopes and our deeds, and that was all that made sense. The here and now being so important, someone had to be expecting something of us, right?
I spent the next nearly 10 years floating in and out of Christianity, clubs and getaways in high school geared toward "being saved," and anticipating the "big reveal." I was waiting for the moment when I'd believe all the stuff I was being told, that I had been told for so long. But it never came. In high school, I decided it was all a sham and I couldn't do it anymore. I declared myself an agnostic -- I believed in something, I just didn't know what it was, but I felt it at my core. I couldn't define it, no matter how hard I tried. I was agnostic, I denied praxis entirely, and maintained that there was something, but that was it.
One day, I outlined my principals of belief. One Higher Power (HaShem?), a focus on this life, living for the good, doing good things and not focusing on only doing them for a someday entrance into eternal life, wherever or whatever that was, being more conscious of the world around me, and figuring it out. I was on the search. That thing at my core was yearning, hungry, trying to crawl out of its cocoon, and as I grew, it grew, and in the early years of college, over a conversation with a friend, I discovered what it was; it was Judaism, haShem, the Jewish people.
I was once a non-believer, then I was some kind of believer, I was a Christian faker at one point (and I gave that up pretty quick, believe you me, I felt like I was misleading my friends), I was another kind of believer, and then I found what I was looking for. Will I always be so healthy in my relationship with HaShem? No. No one is. We're all imperfect. If we were perfect living in a perfect world then I'm pretty sure Mashiach would be enjoying this coffee with me right about now. The point is to search and inquire and ask questions in the hopes of developing a more well-rounded and clear answer to all of the BIG QUESTIONS out there, including whether HaShem is, was, will be, and whether Judaism is the right response to an individual's neshama.
I have no direct line to the answers, but this works for me, even as an ever-curious academic analyzing tough and contradictory topics within academia and Judaism. But the inquiring and searching -- Judaism DEMANDS it! I like to think of myself as one in a long line of individuals who have been able to inquire, think, and insist on exploring while also believing, wholeheartedly, in this big, great, amazing thing we call Judaism.
I don't think it's easy for everyone, but I'm proud that I can seek and believe, that I can ask and brim with faithfulness. My academic inquiries, truth be told, have brought me closer to my belief. Maybe I'm an anomaly.