Questions: A Love Story
By Jacob Shamsian
I wrote this as my autobiographical essay when I applied to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (I got in), and I thought I ought to share it. I hope you find it thought-provoking, and maybe some of you out there have had similar experiences.
I don’t remember what my Bar Mitzvah speech was about, but I never gave it. After I finished writing my first draft, my mother read it over. When she came to a specific word, she squinted, then recoiled.
It was inappropriate to call G-d “treacherous,” she said. I didn’t understand. G-d has many qualities, to be sure, and one is treacherousness. What else could describe a G-d who asked his sole follower to sacrifice his son for Him?
My mother and I never settled on a compromised speech. During my Bar Mitzvah a few weeks later, the rabbi gave his own speech, and called me up to give mine. I remained seated. It was a little awkward, but we moved on to the next part of services. No one remembers the speeches, anyway. Everyone turns into adults in the same clichéd ways: from their family’s support and through a crucial lesson from that week’s Torah portion. I’d rather give no speech at all than something everyone would forget.
A lifetime of Jewish education couldn’t define me in the way my parents wanted it to. After four years of yeshiva high school, I opted not to spend a gap year in Israel, as many of my classmates did, and instead went straight to college. But I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed out. I loved my first year of college, but many of my friends were across the world, learning from the world’s greatest Torah scholars in a city sunnier and holier than Binghamton, New York. Whatever issues I had with G-d, I always knew I needed to grapple with them. There were thousands of years of Jewish wisdom I had barely investigated, even with nearly two decades of living in a Jewish home. So I applied for and was accepted to a summer program where I had the wonderful experience of interning at an Israeli newswire in the afternoons and studying in a yeshiva in the mornings.
I studied texts that dealt with a treacherous G-d. I spent a month on Job, and the Rabbis’ commentary where they tried to explain why G-d wiped out Job’s family and property. Outside of class, in the yeshiva’s courtyard, I read Jose Saramago’s Cain, a novella where Cain, after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, constantly accuses G-d for filling the world with immorality by creating flawed humans.
Saramago, an atheist, rejected G-d, but couldn’t forget about Him — Cain was the last book he wrote before he died in 2010. And G-d rejected Job, but he couldn’t forget Him either. Rejection brought them both closer to G-d, and the mutual rejection between me and G-d also brings me closer to Him. I like his high standards. If G-d’s love were unconditional, it would be unrealistic; I don’t always deserve to be loved. It makes more sense to make me earn it. G-d’s treacherousness means He changes His acceptance standards. Or, at least, he never made his standards clear in the first place. “Follow all of my commandments,” he says, and bad things seem to happen regardless of whether or not we do. His selective agency gives room for interpretation. It also leaves the Jews sometimes picking up the pieces of their civilization and having to, on some level, reinvent themselves.
I like that, a requirement for unflagging reflection and questioning. It makes us survive. I can never assume that G-d is in any way entirely predictable by human reason. I have to figure out how this inscrutable G-d fits into the world, or how the world fits into Him.
The Jews and G-d wedded at Mount Sinai, the Rabbis taught us, and we could never divorce. If it sounds like an abusive relationship, that’s because it is. We only love Him more. He doesn’t need to prove that He deserves us, we need to prove that we deserve Him.
The only yeshiva the program could place me at was a baal teshuva yeshiva, one meant for unknowing Jews who wanted to turn to Orthodox Judaism. The people surrounding me were just encountering this G-d, questioning Him to understand Him. I wanted to tell them that the questioning would never end.
I don’t know what first drew me to the idea that G-d was out to get me. By all means, I had a relatively fortunate life. I live in a middle class Long Island suburb. I go to a good college. I have friends. I have a girlfriend. Life is unreasonably good to me. I still capitalize His name and elide His middle vowel. “He formed light and created darkness,” and I can’t help but stumble around in the latter.