I was with a friend recently who was about to shop for 11 people for Rosh Hashanah dinner. “Are you going to Shul?” I asked.  “Oh no,” he said, “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in that stuff. The Chosen People? That bothers me.”

I let the conversation drop, but the encounter has stayed with me. Judaism is less about what I believe than about who I am. The more I learn the more Jewish I feel and the less sure I am about what it is.  My Jewishness is an ongoing spiritual dialog with myself, driven by five thousand years of studying, practice and devotion around chosen-ness and a great many other things.

There doesn’t seem to be a ‘right’ way to be Jewish, despite our internecine arguments; ultimately, my relationship with God is my private business.

Judaism, not surprisingly, has developed quite a few handy mechanisms for exploring these sort of questions. A primary one is the Days of Awe, happening now. For these ten days the gates of heaven are open; our souls can wander back and forth over the boundary as we make amends (Tshuvah), look within (Tfillah), and give without (Tzedakah). Then, just to keep you from getting too arrogant, we cap it off on Yom Kippur by seeking advance forgiveness for all the ways we’re going to fail in the coming year. It is this full engagement with our full self, from heroic striving to abject failure, that makes Judaism so compelling.

In a way, belief in God is irrelevant to the internal conversation Judaism requires of its practitioners. Is God God? Is God a metaphor? If God is actually a being judging you, or if God is that inner vision of a perfected self–successful, compassionate, educated, strong, sexy, whatever–the inner process, the Jewish process, is the same. Prayer, with its inherent tension between the said and the unsaid, can be the catalyst. Inevitably we are broken, imperfect, but repairing ourselves is done in the world, in our relationships and our work, in making the world better through bettering the way we act in the world (Tikkun Olam).

Living, as we do, in an unending state of brokenness makes us aware of this dialectic–we are both the chosen and the chooser. Chosen-ness is a state of mind, not a destiny; an invitation, not a free pass. It is a responsibility and an opportunity. This dialog is the core blessing of Judaism, that has helped us survive the deadly choosing of Jews by others (i.e. the Inquisition or the Holocaust), and allows us to thrive when given the chance.

Shana Tova Tikateivu, everyone.

On Being Jewish