The bat mitzvah of a Berkeley atheist my daughter

My Dear Magda,

The other day when we were discussing your drash, your commentary on the Torah, to one of my questions you answered “that’s what the Jews think” — insisting that you don’t think like them.

And I suddenly asked myself: If by excluding herself from the community, could Magda be the wicked one among the four kids asking questions on Passover?

Before I could find an answer, you then added, “because I don’t believe in God.” What a charming statement just two weeks before your bat mitzvah. So what are we doing here today, just folklore?

I know it must not always be easy to live in a family with a mix of Swedish, Hungarian, Moroccan, Algerian, French, Israeli and American languages and traditions. It must not be easy to live between a mom who’s a complete atheist and a dad who’s a religious freak.

Magda dances with her father, Albert Benichou, in her grandparents’ vineyard in Healdsburg the day after her bat mitzvah.

But there’s always a good way to look at things, and when you say that you do not believe in God, it is not because you are stupid, young or naive. In fact, such a statement requires you to be smart and courageous, and I, your father, I agree with you that “God doesn’t exist.”

I mean, this God doesn’t exist — the God they talk about on TV and in the newspaper; the God that every religion uses to justify their privileges, their wars, their hatred for others. It just doesn’t exist. They invented it and modeled it, like gold, like a golden calf, to serve their own interests.

And that is the case of every single religion when it ignores and fails to adapt to our basic day-to-day needs, and just promises a better future, never for now, always to come, where only the goal matters, not the people — and instead of a life it becomes a program, an ideology.

The good news is that ideologies are easy to recognize; they all end with “ism.” Like communism, capitalism, Islamism, and even democratism and humanism.

You are right, Magda. “God doesn’t exist.” But you are still too young and have not yet been confronted to the “first cause” of Aristotle, or the “categorical imperative” of Kant, or the “the One who gives existence to the existent” of Maimonides.

But you’ll see in a few years, if you and your brother are able to keep your curiosity alive like it is today, that even if these thinkers don’t convince you to believe in God, they won’t slam doors. Nor will they totally open them. Maybe just half-open doors. Or no doors at all. But they will open spaces for you.

You are not the wicked one, and you did not exclude yourself from the Jewish people. What Jewish people, after all? For centuries people tried to understand what defines a people. They talked about a common language, common traditions, a common race, a common territory, a common religion.

I am telling you that for us, Jews, what really defines us is no definitions at all. We speak and share many languages, many traditions, many races, many lands or sometimes, even better, no land at all, and no religion — because to be a Jew is not to follow a religion. It is a vocation. You just need to decide on it and commit to it, like deciding that today I will stop smoking, or deciding to act honestly.

It is a commitment, not a program, not a religion. And a religion, any religion, is by definition idolatrous, and we can’t be idolatrous. A golden calf doesn’t have to be in gold, or doesn’t even need to be a calf. It could take the form of anything, a state, an ideology, like patriotism or nationalism.

So now, do you know what it means to be a Jew? It could mean that nobody here today is a Jew, or it could mean that anybody here today can be a Jew, in one second, without a rabbi conversion.

That Torah sitting here, it is said, contains many secrets, secrets about the creation, secrets about a promised land, secrets about the world to come. But there is another secret in this Torah, maybe the biggest one, and in the same way there are no definitions of Jews.

The real secret is that there are no secrets in the Torah. It is a beautiful and very simple book that you can simply open and simply read. And it says, “I am God and you won’t have any other God” — which first means that even if you are not sure if you believe in God, don’t believe in anything else.

It is only our tortuous minds that make the Torah complicated. It should flow like a fresh source of water, but we built a dam on it, we built an ideology, stone after stone, ism after ism — like Judaism, Zionism.

And it was Zionism that told our families to leave Morocco and Algeria and France and the U.S. — and go to Israel. And it was Zionism that told us to change our names and to forget how we speak and how we dress, because now we had one country, one language, one culture.

It was also Zionism that gave us one centralized state religion, which gave us soldiers and an upgraded version of a verse we read today. Only it is no longer “an eye for an eye,”  but rather “10 eyes for an eye.”

Your mother and I did not subscribe, so we left Israel and came to the United States. But the philosophy spread here, too, and we did not accept it, so we left our synagogue. That gave us a chance to celebrate your bat mitzvah here at home.

Some people asked me if it was kosher to celebrate a bat mitzvah at home and not in a synagogue. Of course. A synagogue, like a land, is not holy because of its stones and walls, but just by the value we put in it in our minds.

All we need is a welcoming place: a Torah scroll, a community of at least 10 non-idolatrous members — and I know we have them — and a right-minded bat mitzvah girl who I hope will always challenge what she reads and learns, who will always fight ideologies and not people.

It’s like the last Torah verse we read today, which translates to “because you will always do what is straight in the eyes of God.” That means for a young non-believer like you, just “act honestly.”

That’s my blessing.

Albert Benichou and his family recently moved from Berkeley to Marrakech, Morocco, for one year. Magda attended a Jewish preschool and then Oakland Hebrew Day School until the third grade.

This is a letter from Albert Benichou to his daughter, Magda, that was read publicly at her Modern Orthodox–egalitarian bat mitzvah on Aug. 14 at the Benichou’s home in Berkeley. Men and women sat separately, but women took part in the reading the Torah.