Even an agnostic has reasons to believe

And here I thought I was the clever one, full of surprises.

My family decided to throw a birthday bash for my sister, who recently turned 21. (Most of my family lives in St. Louis; I am fast approaching the one-year anniversary of my relocation to the Bay Area.)

As part of my gift for her entry into adulthood, I crafted a flawless plan: successfully convince my family that I would be unable to attend, secretly take a flight to St. Louis and make an unannounced arrival at my parents’ house just as the party begins.

The plan worked perfectly, but there was a small detail that I overlooked. The celebration took place the day before the first night of Passover, and shortly after I dropped the bombshell on my pleasantly astonished relatives, it turned out they had one for me as well:

“Surprise! You’re leading seder!”

My grandfather, who had done the honors twice as long as I’ve been alive, decided this year was the perfect occasion to pass along the duties to a new generation. With my father disqualified on the technicality of his being Christian, the responsibility fell to me. And although I was clearly unprepared and understandably nervous of taking on the honor, there were larger issues weighing on my mind.

I haven’t been inside a synagogue since my first semester of college, and it’s been two years since my last attempt at fasting for atonement. In fact, the last thing I did that could be considered even remotely Jewish came about when I was invited by a friend to the Giants’ Jewish Heritage Night.

To make matters even more ironic, I arrived at the baseball game with the book I had my nose buried in at the time: Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great.”

If it isn’t clear by this point, allow me to spell it out: My faith has waned in the days since I discovered that I no longer believe in the existence of an omnipotent creator and governor of the universe that we call home. And while I have never at any point desired to renounce my identity, it has been quite challenging to reconcile just how I fit into a creed whose name literally means “believer in God.”

From this impasse stems other qualms I hold with my religion. For one, I believe in the necessity of a Jewish homeland, but I think Israelis and Palestinians have an equally legitimate claim to the disputed land in the Middle East.

The very idea that many Jews base their territorial claim on a biblical right as a “chosen people,” a claim awarded to us in a covenant from a God who has chosen not to speak on the matter in thousands of years, is not just insulting to the suffering Palestinian exiles, it is insulting to me as well.

Yet this does not mean I can abandon my faith entirely. Traditionally, Judaism has held that one who is born and raised Jewish is considered Jewish forever, regardless of one’s personal convictions. This has been a comforting thought to hold while wondering just how “Jewish” I’m allowed to be when I object to major portions of our covenant and am in direct conflict with the First Commandment.

Back in California, I have reflected a great deal on my recent Passover experience, which, for those of you keeping score, went pretty well. Even though I suppose I am not Jewish in the same way that most others consider themselves Jewish, my reflection has led me to remember the ways that all Jews are alike, and to enjoy that kinship.

For me, Judaism offers so much more than an explanation of our place in the universe. It has had a large hand in providing my education, sense of culture, and sense of right and wrong. It has endeavored to make me feel from the moment I was born that I was a part of something much bigger than myself.

In return, all that my religion has ever asked of me is to remember where we’ve come from, and to confront challenges bigger than my own — that is, those particular to a Jewish agnostic asked to lead a seder.

Strangely enough, even after all these years and sharp turns in my thinking, Judaism still finds a way to surprise me with serene enlightenment.

And here I thought I was the one full of surprises.

Nathan Rothwell lives in Fremont.