I sit wringing my hands as I watch my father, with his dark beard and long flowing side-locks approach the car. I am about eight years old and he has taken me along, as he had done many times, on one of his deliveries. I wonder, "should I ask him? Will he be angry with me?" I am so nervous, the pit in my stomach has all but enveloped me. His car door opens and he climbs into the drivers seat. I decide that I must ask him, and hope for the best. I heard myself ask: "Abba (Dad), how do we know we are right; the Jews I mean?"
The question was out in the open, there was no turning back now. He looked at me, his eyes were not filled with rage, as I had anticipated, but with love. The very first thing he said to me was: "Great question, son." He then went on to present me with an answer that had left an impression on him. It didn't so much matter what his answer was, it only mattered that it was okay for me to doubt the religion, the path, he had chosen. He then concluded, the way my parents always do when I or my brothers ask questions: "I am proud of you for asking, keep on asking."
There are religious people who reject the natural skepticism in their son or daughter. They either get angry with them for their lack of faith, or they brush off the questions as silly or childish. Their children may remain religious or they may stray, but those parents have failed one of the most important challenges that every parent faces: That of, teaching their children how, as opposed to what, to think. How foolish are such parents!
My parents, who are converts to Judaism, understood the beauty of the question. They praised our inquisitive minds. They challenged our assumptions. They understood that without the question, there can be no progression. If a child inquires into the nature of God or reality, the parent, whether a believer or not, should marvel in the fact that their young son or daughter is seeking to learn about the most important aspects of human life. In that moment, the parent can either lay the foundation upon which the child will build his intellectual tower, or they can shatter the child's most important will, the will to know. My father, on that day, laid the first brick.
My parents, after searching and experimenting with many other ways of life chose Judaism. However, they have always encouraged my brothers and I to ask, to challenge, and most importantly to find the truth for ourselves. I hear stories of children hiding their disbelief in God from their parents. Some have to go so far as to "escape" the confines of their home if they wish to espouse their thoughts. Children who do not believe in their parent's God may be excommunicated, disgraced, and hated by their own families. I have no such woe. My parents, my family, have been nothing but embracing. We debate, we discuss, but we never stop loving one another.
So, are my parents to blame for my atheism? Yes. But not because they did something wrong, but because they did something right. They taught me how to think for myself. They challenged me to find the truth, where ever that journey may take me. They cheered me on always, no matter if I was a ultra-Orthodox lad, or a wild-haired hippie. Their smile is filled with so much love when they repeatedly say: "We are so proud of you."
I do not know what my future will bring; my path may not be that of my parents. But we will always be a family, a loyal family. A family that embraces great questions over easy answers. A family that, though both in the secular and religious world the family structure is crumbling, will stay together. I will continue to seek truth, continue to doubt, continue to ask, and I know there will be a family waiting for me, always. On that day when I was eight year old, my father proved that to me.
Thank you both so much. I love you.