I remember the day I realized that religion is a choice. I could practically feel my brain twisting inside my skull as my entire worldview shifted. Yet the thought itself came from nowhere. There was no catalyst–no book I read or lecture I heard that got me thinking, no cataclysmic event that caused me to reconsider my place on this Earth. I was just standing, alone, in my apartment.
After two decades of living under my parents’ roof and following school rules, I was on my own. And, as I stood there, alone, a silly little thought popped into my head: I could make myself chicken Parmesan and eat it right here at my tiny kitchen table, and no one would know. No one would care. I wouldn’t be summoned to that dimly lit office that smelled of Clorox and perfume and told to sit in that squeaky vinyl chair that betrayed my every guilty wriggle. I wouldn’t have to wait silently, knowing even as I stared at my shoes, that my principal’s critical eyes were boring into my soul like an MRI searching for a cancerous apostasy that must be extracted.
And there in the kitchen, after two decades of piety– two torturous decades of trying to squeeze my curvy thinking and curvy body and expansive interests into the straight-edged boxes I was offered, two decades of long skirts and chokingly high necklines, of keeping hidden, like a sefer Torah, like a precious jewel, they said, of crying into my siddur wondering if there is even anyone listening–that’s when I truly chose God.
But I did not choose the God of my childhood–the one that kept a scoresheet of meticulous checks and exes. That God, and his human proxies in the forms of my parents and teachers and community leaders, demanded too much. They demanded uniformity as my inner voice screamed, “You are unique!” They demanded blind faith. Of course they would try to answer my questions. But I was always left with more. “It’s time to move on now,” my teachers would say impatiently. They demanded a level of aloofness, of separation, of other-izing the ordinary folks among whom we were privileged to live in peace, free from the persecution my ancestors faced. And I lived with it all.
Until I couldn’t.
These demands were so absolute, seemingly so clear to everyone but me, that I began to doubt my worth. Worthiness belonged to the pious–the one’s they told stories about. The girl who pinned her skirt to her skin as she was about to be drawn and quartered by the Evil Ones, so she would remain modest, even in her death. The man who refused to step on a Torah scroll, even as a gun was held to his temple. He gave his life before desecrating God’s name.
I could never be that. I couldn’t even keep to the basic rules. I needed to read. I needed to know what was outside of my tiny pocket of the world. I wanted my clothing to express who I am, not who they wanted me to be. I wanted my brother’s friends to notice me. And I wanted to not feel ashamed for wanting all the things I was not allowed to have.
Eventually, the pain I felt on the inside made it’s way out. The reality of the situation was that I had purposely cut my own skin, but I imagined those lacerations were actually the injuries on the inside finally showing through.
They hospitalized me. They medicated me. They made me speak to a therapist.
I made it through high school, through seminary, through some of college. And after all that, once I was no longer being told who to be and how to think, that’s when I chose God.
There is no definitive proof that God exists. There is no definitive proof that He does not exist. If there was, religion would not be a choice. There is no merit in following God’s law, when God Himself is the one whose eyes bore into you as you stare at your shoes. Who is so bold and so foolish as to defy an omnipotent being upon whom our very lives depend?
Maybe there is someone up there with a clipboard, tut-tutting as we all go about our days, falling into folly, as us fallible humans are wont to do. But I hope that is not the case.
I chose a God who created us in His image–with free will. Humans are the only known beings in the universe with free will, and with the ability to question their own existence. I cannot follow blindly. I cannot be dictated to. I must use this unique gift that was bestowed to me to it’s fullest capacity. And I know that sometimes I will get it Right, and sometimes I will get it Wrong. But if that is not what God intended, then why even give us the ability to choose in the first place?