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An Atheist’s Synagogue Search

In a congregation that didn’t focus on God, I discovered the value of reciting prayers I don’t believe

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(Illustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock)
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Though I grew up in a typical vanilla Conservative synagogue, I have been fortunate to attend services that reflect many flavors of Judaism, from centuries-old Sephardic congregations in Spain to reggae-infused hippy-dippy “prayer gatherings” in Los Angeles. Still, none of these services ever came close to expressing my own beliefs, or lack thereof, as a Jewish atheist.

I thought I might have finally found that place when I attended my first Shabbat at a Humanistic congregation in Manhattan this winter. At Friday evening services, my wife and I sat on plastic folding chairs in the back of the Lower East Side Y’s multipurpose room. We were the youngest people by a couple decades in this group of about 20. The next youngest sat in the back with us, sipping something from a brown paper bag. Everyone else was praying.

Turning to the Shema in our prayer books, my wife and I glanced at one another uncomfortably. We had heard and chanted the Shema thousands of times in our lives, and it was always exactly the same. This time, though the tune was familiar, the words were jarringly different: Shema Yisrael, echad ameinu, adam echad. Hear, O Israel, Our People is One, Humanity is One. Hearing God replaced by “humanity” in this version of the Shema—authorship was credited in the prayer book to Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Humanistic Judaism movement—felt something akin to hearing Christian heavy-metal: The words and the music were so incongruous, it was impossible not to giggle.

I’d come here hoping to find that Humanistic Judaism felt like home: After years of trying to reconcile my Jewish identity with my atheist beliefs, I’d discovered an entire Jewish denomination dedicated to addressing the very issues I’d been struggling with; its guiding principle, according to the congregation’s mission statement, was to “celebrate the centrality of human reason and responsibility from a uniquely Jewish perspective.”

I looked back down at this new Shema’s words, which still seemed so profoundly odd, and then checked other prayers I knew—only to find that they, too, had been reworded, with God’s name replaced by such notions as “humanity,” “life,” and “nature.” Of all the prayer books in the world, this was likely the only one with which a Jew-who-happens-to-be-atheist could find not a single word to disagree. For perhaps the first time in my entire life, I literally believed every prayer I read.

And yet, even though every word was true, the prayers rang false.


I was raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a bastion of committed East Coast, Conservative Judaism: large synagogue, summers at Camp Ramah, and a social life based around USY dances. My Jewish upbringing allowed me to develop a strong Jewish identity without having to think much at all about God. While I kept kosher, observed Shabbat, attended services, and engaged with Jewish texts and rituals, I scarcely gave second thought to my own beliefs about the protagonist around whom all of it was based: this “Hashem” character.

As a child, I experimented with various immature conceptions of God—the old man in the cloud, Ariel’s father from The Little Mermaid, the booming voice in The Ten Commandments—but I always abandoned them quickly and without much concern. Neither my parents nor my Hebrew school teachers ever tried to impose a singular God explanation on me, so I felt free to largely bypass the issue.

Growing older, my questions about God interested me purely on a philosophical level: Why did God flood the earth? Why didn’t God allow Moses to enter Canaan? Why does God allow good people to suffer? On a theological level, the accepted aphorism that “God is everywhere” seemed innocuous enough that I didn’t have to spend my time looking for Him. Over time, without even knowing when it happened, I began to view God in the same way my overripe teenage imagination viewed all other fascinating literary figures: as a fictitious character full of symbolic importance.

My first clear moment of atheistic thinking came at camp shortly after my bar mitzvah. In an informal learning group, one of the counselors professed that she considered God her “best friend.” She spoke to God every day, she said—not symbolically, or through prayer or actions, but literally; in her mind, she spoke to an unseen-but-real-being she called God. To my surprise, she was not the only one who admitted to this belief. It seemed nearly everyone in the group had developed something they called their “personal relationship with God.” I believe this was the exact moment of my first teenage eye-roll.

As the conversation played out, I realized that my practiced disinterest in God as a being—as opposed to a concept or metaphor—made me somewhat of an outsider within the Jewish community. Though I continued to pray, read Torah, and practice Judaism as before, from that day forward a tiny ember of skepticism burned within me. My skepticism was further fed and nurtured by a burgeoning knowledge and appreciation for the deep history of Jewish doubters; from Elie Wiesel to Albert Einstein to Woody Allen, I read their work and marveled over the richness of their disbelief.

Judaism, I found, was a remarkably easy religion to engage with skeptically: It’s been coded into our DNA ever since Jacob literally wrestled with God. When I was a teenager, teachers and religious leaders alike approved of and even encouraged my harsh interrogations. As I moved from one Jewish community in high school to another at Brandeis University, I remained steadfast and secure in my identity as an “engaged Jewish skeptic.” It wasn’t until I truly fled the nest and moved to Los Angeles for graduate school that I felt challenged to decide, once and for all, what my answer to the “God question” was. Oddly, it was being around a vast majority of non-Jews for the first time in my life, and seeing myself through their eyes, that caused me to realize I was still carrying around this unresolved issue from my childhood. And so I thought and read, replacing the Jewish skeptics with the truly polemic standard-bearers—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell—and finally emerged from my incubation period as a fully realized Jewish atheist, an identity I maintain to this day.

Because my Judaism was handed down by birth and is not contingent on any personally held beliefs, I feel comfortable continuing to identify as Jewish and even practicing Judaism’s rituals without compunction. However, being that from the earliest years of maturity my belief in God was basically metaphorical, and that any conception of God I might have held is probably more akin to a healthy spiritual awe for both science/nature and humanity, the most accurate and appropriate label for my beliefs would have to be atheism. And so there I am: a Jew by identity and practice, an atheist by logic and belief.

As a Jew, I was quick to reject the aspects of atheism that labeled religion entirely unnecessary or pernicious. I knew that there was much richness in Judaism that I had no interest in abandoning, and I found some atheists’ glib dismissal of religion laughably reductionist. But at the same time, as I embraced my disbelief, I found myself slowly but perceptibly slipping in my Jewish observance. I tried a number of new synagogues and communities, opening myself up to all denominations, from Reform to Reconstructionist. I was dismayed to discover that the less-traditional services often had an even stronger God-focus than my Conservative upbringing—they had simply removed conventional ritual and substituted a vague spirituality in its place: talking about “God’s presence,” or turning off the lights during prayers so we could “feel God.” I couldn’t find a community that felt “just right.”

Daniella, my wife, took a position of patient indifference toward my journey. A committed believer, she smiled and nodded through my strident epiphanies and discursive rants, only cutting in to make sure I wouldn’t try to brainwash any prospective children we might have. Accompanying me from one dissatisfying service to another, she was the one who first recommended I search online to see if there were any congregations dedicated to serving Jewish atheists.

That’s when I learned about one fringe denomination that sounded fascinating: Humanistic Judaism. Unfortunately, there was no congregation in Los Angeles, but when Daniella and I moved to New York last fall, I found that one of the most active Jewish Humanist congregations existed in the city: the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which meets at the Lower East Side Y. Many of City Congregation’s talking points, presented at a fall open house by the congregation’s Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, fell right in line with the same ideas that had been brewing inside me for so long as a Jewish atheist. I could not wait to try out my first Humanist service.


After attending that first Shabbat at City Congregation, and laughing uncomfortably with my wife at the revised Shema, I was dismayed by my inability to feel any connection with this group of fellow atheist Jews. Schweitzer agreed to speak with me, offering an explanation that I found challenging and persuasive: My giggle-stifling reaction was natural, he explained, because I remained beholden to the customs and traditions that nurtured me, from Hebrew school to Jewish summer camp. I still found comfort in these words even though I no longer believed them, just as a child finds comfort in the myth of his parents’ protection long after he’s discovered that they are fallible. Part of maturity into adulthood—for myself and for Judaism as a whole—was learning to abandon these comforting fallacies and reconcile our beliefs with our actions: “Say what you mean, mean what you say,” one of his guiding tenets of Jewish Humanist belief.

What gives us the right, I asked, to change the words, and the meaning, of prayers and sacred texts? This was yet another kind of superstition, he contended, an unhealthy fetishizing of certain words while ignoring their troubling moral and historic fallacies. How can we claim to be humanists, let alone atheists, if we allow our reverence for archaic texts to outweigh our most deeply held beliefs? In his view, it is our duty as Jews to remove anything from our traditions that we do not believe in, as assuredly as one would remove a splinter.

The more I argued with Schweitzer, the more I realized I was actually arguing with myself. I could no more find fault with his logic than I could talk myself into believing in God. I left our meeting even more conflicted than when I began. Was my inability to find meaning in his God-free service a reflection of my latent superstitions? Having heard Schweitzer’s challenge, could I ever practice traditional Judaism again—with its innumerable celebrations of God, angels, prophets, biblical violence, and sexism—without feeling like a complete fraud?

I reached out to the closest person I have to a spiritual adviser: my former camp counselor, Rabbi Joel Seltzer, now the new director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He listened with growing excitement as I explained the predicament I found myself in. Not only had he wrestled with these same questions as a rabbinical student, but he continued to wrestle with them to this day. He spoke of his conception of God as one that vacillates constantly, stretching from the biblical understanding, to “Godliness,” to certified atheism. Yet, he contended, none of this impeded his ability as a rabbi; it informed and strengthened it.

As I considered and compared the words of both rabbis, it became increasingly difficult to tell who was the skeptic and who was the believer. The only difference I could find was that while one chose to sublimate his doubt to serve his religion, the other chose to transform the religion to conform to his doubt.

I’d gained much respect for Schweitzer and his beliefs, but I didn’t belong in the congregation he leads. Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it? Who wants to follow only rituals that make intellectual sense? It seemed so shortsighted to me. If I hadn’t been given a God to wrestle with growing up, I wouldn’t be half the cynical, pestering, relentlessly questioning nudnik I am today. In other words, I wouldn’t be Jewish.

I needed my experience with Humanistic Judaism to relearn what I intuitively understood from a young age: There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.

Although I am still unsure how, I know at least that I will continue to act out this fiction. And if that associates me with a God and superstitions I do not believe in, I accept that, because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.


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Jacob B says:

This is one confused/confusing article. It’s bad enough to be so confused, but for someone to FEEL that he has to actually has to write down the details of his bewilderment, and then actually DO IT, is pushing it. And to make things worse- I actually read it!! Who’s the fool?

    Jacob, I have several “Jewish” friends who claim to be atheists. I think this is a great read for others going through the search to understand their own thoughts, and also for the rest of us to understand how he got to his ultimate conclusion. The “good son” at Passover is the one who asks “what does all this mean?” out loud. I’d say we have a good son here.

    fred capio says:

    I agree with you. This is the verbal diarrhea of a confused narcissist

I love being part of a congregation where people believe all kinds of different things about G-D (including atheist), come from all different movements (and even other religions), are at different levels of observance and practice, and have a variety of opinions on Israel. To me, that’s what makes Judaism special; we’re all there as Jews regardless of how often we come to services or what we believe. Sometimes the services really speak to me and move me; sometimes, I’m just there (and I realize my presence may have a performative value for others, for example a friend in mourning or someone celebrating a life passage).

Fascinating and honest tale. I appreciate you telling it. I am a Reform Jew and believe in God, but I frankly admit this is a “choice” I make because it works for me, not because there is any logic to the belief itself. Over time, my “relationship” with God has been more or less distant. At times “God” is “the force” akin to Star Wars, while at other times I find myself arguing with God as though He or She IS a person one might argue with. Both views are more about me than about God. I was once engaged in a conversation with a rabbi about the veracity of the belief that the Torah was delivered word for word from God to Moses at Mount Sinai – and in fact about the veracity of the Children of Israel being at Mount Sinai at all. The rabbi – an orthodox rabbi of a particularly ultra persuasion – argued that I could not truly be Jewish if I did not believe in the truth of these stories. But while doing research for a Judaic studies course, I came to the conclusion that the available archeological and written sources on the Sinai story were inconclusive. Also, variations on the contents of assorted ancient Torahs from around the world suggest that a human hand has, from time to time, for whatever political, cultural or personal reasons, had a role in the Torah’s contents. My argument is that this did not matter at all from a Jewish perspective. Whether 600,000 stood before Moses and said “All the words that God has spoken we will do and we will hear” ( or not, and whether or not each word in our Torah came to us word for word as delivered by God to Moses matters not at all. The reality is that the Jewish people – and much of the rest of the world – has been living as though these events were real. Our values and our culture and our community have been shaped by these ideas every bit as much as if they were real. To me, that is one of the truths that does connect us all, no matter our personal belief in God.

Deb Rusnak says:

I have had the same type of experience in Chicago in the past 5 years. I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, sang in the synagogue choir, was the first female to read torah on Shabbat morning at her Bat Mitzvah and still never felt like I belonged. I raised my kids in the local reform congregation in the Chicago suburbs. The synagogue was warm, the rabbi open and caring and the members were friends and neighbors. Somehow, though, I never felt like I could become invested in it. Then I discovered Humanistic Judaism. Beth Chaverim has become my second family. I can embrace the culture of Judaism without having to feel like an outsider because of what I believe about G-d. I have a community and I feel at home. My husband and daughter have joined with me and I hope that more humanistic communities continue to spring up around the country.

    disqus_qZ6DCvpsy9 says:

    There is a difference between Judaism and secular cultural Jewishness. Adherents of the latter find the Jewish part of our identities in the history and culture of the Jews as a PEOPLE; belief or disbelief in the supernatural is a personal, private matter. We observe Jewish holidays, for example, based on knowledge of their origins in pre-historic marking of natural events — common to most cultures — and evolution through historic associations (even if mythical) and folk customs, including song and food (often adapted from neighbors). It is based on that knowledge — not simply dropping mention of god(s) — that we can and do create new forms and content relevant to the 21st century.

    It’s too bad, but understandable, that Zimmerman didn’t find the Humanistic congregation, the progressive secular Sholem Community or the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle during his stay in Los Angeles. In the eyes of the local Jewish media, they don’t exist, just as similar groups throughout North America are ignored by the Establishment.

Thanks for articulating what I and many others have been struggling with. For about 60 of my 75 years I have realized that the “god stuff” is meaningless to me, while strongly identifying with Judaism and the Jewish people has been a central tenet of my life. I’ve learned to live with it, but one thing I realized early on was that one of the concepts not taught in our Jewish “catechism” is that of “Faith”, as in “you must believe this in order to be Jewish”. I don’t remember the word or the concept ever coming up in my fairly extensive Jewish education.

    EvelynKrieger says:

    I think this is because Judaism is a religion of action. There is nothing you need to believe in order to be Jewish–you just are as a birthright or conversion. Maimonides wrote the Principles of Faith which some Jews recite each day as a part of the morning prayer service. Even that was controversial.

I’m a non-believing Jew who finds the long prayers torturous — but I love to sing along during the songs I learned years ago in Hebrew school or USY. Sometimes I sing them in the shower or the car, particularly the high-speed version of Ozi vzimrat ya-ah, vaya hee lee l’shuah! as taught by Cantor Herb (now rabbi Avraham) Feder.

41953 says:

I wonder if Jonathan Zimmerman would have found the Humanistic Shabbat service more appealing if it did not re-phrase traditional prayers to take out God language while using some of the same melodies. I conduct such services using readings, poems, songs, sayings etc. from non-religious Jewish sources.
The problem with typical synagogue services for an non-believer is that they are based on the prayer book and the Torah reading, minimizing any contributions or enrichment from non-religious Jewish humanist sources. All the God-wrestling has to be done in private.
I do not see how that degree of cognitive dissonance can satisfy an atheist or agnostic, but I respect Zimmerman’s choice.

By the way, there are Los Angeles area organizations that do serve the cultural and spiritual needs of secular humanistic Jews. They can be found at and

bertglass says:

I pray in a language I don’t understand. This is much like viewing abstract art. My definition for g-d is “the unknowable”. Thanking g-d is a natural expression of the joys of being alive.

    elie says:

    Bertglass,you don’t make progress in life without making an effort. so why don’t you go and learn hebrew? than you will be able to STUDY in order to comprehend your prayers and realy understand what you’re doing as a Jew! this will give you permanent satisfaction & much more meaning in your life in general!!

      bertglass says:

      I think of myself as a Hillelist. Live by the golden rule and study the commentary. I enjoy learning about the various issues and the plethora of intellectual arguments on both sides of each argument. I also enjoy the rhythm of the Jewish year. I am content to read hebrew without comprehending it. Listening to Hebrew being sung remains one of my favorite spiritual experiences.

41953 says:

You had a difference experience. You found a home in Humanistic Judaism; Zimmerman did not, unfortunately, from my point of view.

elie says:

I realy do not understand what tou are doing,going to synagogues when you’re not a believer. you do not believe in g-d? don’t pray! and don’t waste your time reading texts of prayer rewritten without the name of g-d! I do hope for you that you will understand one day what believing and praying are about.

    cipher says:

    Or you could simply mind your own business.

    you do not believe in g-d? don’t pray!

    The articles on Tablet upset you? Don’t read!

Ira Wolff says:

Yasher Koach on an honest and beautiful essay. I share your ” healthy spiritual awe for both science/nature and humanity” and feel that is enough to allow me to live as an observant Jew at home with the profundity of traditional practice, including prayer.

All religious language, especially language about God, is by necessity symbolic, something well-understood within Jewish tradition. See, for example, Shir Hakavod (Anim Zmirot) sung in traditional synagogues. The distinction between secular and religious, believer and atheist is simplistic and unproductive. Any person sensitive to the beauty and miracle of creation is, at least in my definition, “religious” and capable of finding great joy and meaning in Jewish practice.

If you haven’t read it, I recommend an essay by Tamar Ross, “The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth Statements: Rabbi A.I. Kook And Postmodernism.” I found her understanding of Rav Kook’s thought to be very helpful for people who are uncomfortable both with the literalism of the “Orthodox” and the literalism of “atheists” who fail to appreciate the poetry and religious truth of traditional practice.

I know that some Jews profess to be atheists. But I don’t understand why one who is would go in search of a synagogue. For what purpose? One may be born Jewish (have a Jewish mother) but never practice their religion. OK. But if they were truly atheistic, why would they go and pray in a synagogue? Because the prayers have good words or melodies? Because the other people there are Jewish? But how are they Jewish? I am a Jew-by-choice: a convert to Judaism — not for reasons of marriage, but because I believe in Judaism as a religion. Having grown up Catholic and Irish, I never had the experience in living in a Jewish community. So is it fair to say that I am attracted to Jewish culture, customs, traditions? And yet these all stem from God’s interaction with His people. Take out God, and what do you have? Empty rituals? A lack of meaning behind each mitzvot, behind keeping kosher? I guess I really don’t understand Jewish Humanism (which seems like a contradiction in terms) or atheism. But if I belonged to either of those camps, a synagogue would be the last place you’d find me.

    oaklandj says:

    See Sandra Price’s post above. You can find plenty of meaning and personal resonance in practices that have traditional bases that you don’t find particularly relevant anymore. You can also pay homage to a tradition that clearly had a tremendous amount of foresight without having to force yourself to believe any of it has divine origin (none of it is verifiable one way or another, regardless).
    I’m personally under the impression that the believer/atheist divide is something that is more relevant to dogmatic religions (“faiths”) like Christianity and Islam, not so much in Judaism.

    The reasons gerim convert, in some cases at great personal cost, are highly variable. Technically speaking, I am an atheist; I reject the notion of an interventionist deity. Yet, to my way of thinking (and to that of a great many rabbis and poskim, past and present) that particular conception of HaShem is misguided. When I daven or recite the Sh’ma, when I lay tefillin or fast, it has nothing to do with want G-d wants…and yet everything to do with locating myself within G-d and as part of klal Yisrael. All that to say that, like a lot of things in Jewish life, the theology is complicated. ;)

2dogsbarking says:

To struggle with such an issue and to be honest about it is daring. Thank you, Jonathan Zimmerman, for expressing the thoughts that so many of us have but of which so many remain silent for fear of ridicule or reprisal. There is refreshment in the book of Job, where after all of his hell-raising protestations, Job receives the comfort of knowing that he said what was true, not what was conventional.

Dina says:

Being an educator in a conservative synagogue and worried about what our current students are taking away from the now reduced education time, I appreciate your comments and new wake up call to think about how best to present things to our students.
As for me, a person who found meaningful Judaism in its mystical and spiritual worlds, I believe that the fact that the names of God are so unclear allow us the opportunity to find our meaning in them without changing it in the sacred text. The fact that the world ELOHIM is in the plural format but is actualy one, the four holly letters that combine God’s name, they could be understood in many ways. My take on these is that they represent TIME . ELOHIM representation of the past and the four letters representation of the future in which the present is imbedded. The first sentence in the Torah then become the creation of the first point in time. That way also all the blessings that we have in our tradition are celebrations of time and acknowledgment of the time.
This is just a drop of so much more about this topic. Will be happy to share more if you are interested.

    Indeed, Dina. I share your take, generally, both because of its mystical value, but also because of its anthropological significance (i.e., how the names of G-d changed over time and geography).

Thanks for a thoughtful piece! I’m curious what Mr. Zimmerman will do when/if he has children and they’ll be taught exactly what he doesn’t believe in any other Sunday School. If you are interested in another explanation of Humanistic Judaism’s approach to language, and “what gives us the right” to make changes to reflect our beliefs (as other movements have too), take a look at

    A fantastic post that illuminates what compelled me about Humanistic Judaism. I look forward to reading more, thank you.

HansPhilL says:

Gail, my view is that “You have to believe to be Jewish” is a nasty piece of inability to accept other people than your own ilk, an attempt to exclude people from where they rightfully belong, and, thus, defines a group of people who I dislike, don’t want to have anything to do with, but, contrary to them, do accept as Jews.

Daniel Winter says:

What you are, nudnik, is a Post-Modern Orthodox Jew. Find a shul with a mechitza not too high and a gabbai with a knowing gleam in his eye that all the ritual is being performed not despite the doubt but informed by it. We are all egoists when we are infants and so our conceptions are infantile. Once we get over our solipsism we see fellow members of our families as intrinsically valuable human beings with narratives of their own in which they star. As we mature we are capable of seeing the invisible bonds that weave us into a universal narrative as something that transcends definitions of family, tribe, locality, ethnicity, race, even language and culture. So we gather in minyanim because to do so creates community. By definition. (most) Women do this naturally, intuitively. (Yeah, go ahead, call me a sexist. I daven with a mechitza. Viva la differance!)

HansPhilL says:

Jonathan Zimmerman ended his observance with “because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.” He may “know” anything he wants, but what I have learned is that when people “know” this kind of things, it is not good for the rest of us. He could just as well have said: “I know that some things you experience could make a really powerful impression, especially when you are a child, and the fact that I am an atheist and still need the traditional Jewish religious trappings can be explained by a very strong emotional attachment to them.” But no, he has to explain his emotional attachment with further statements like this one: “There is inherent value in saying words I do not
mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do
not believe was written by him.” “inherent value”? That is the same as saying that it is a value everyone should recognize. Balony! And, again, not good for the rest of us!

Wow…well, I hate to say that I think Mr. Zimmerman is a hypocrite…I personally subscribe to the words of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, who said that people should “say what they believe and believe what they say.” I find no comfort whatsoever in “traditional” words that ring hollow to me, despite “training” and “conditioning.” If you’re going to go so far as to say you’re a Jewish Atheist, how can you, in good conscience, continue to mouth words about “God” and continue to “pray” if you don’t believe what you’re saying?

I am particularly bothered by the end of the article, where the author says, “There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.” Um…no…I find no value in that whatsoever. I am absolutely participating in Jewish tradition as a Humanistic Jew. I know I am Jewish — and I celebrate that every single day. My son, raised in Humanistic Judaism, knows he’s Jewish, and even goes to a Jewish summer camp — his own choice! But he has not been taught the trappings that I found so disturbing as I was growing up — he knows that he can be richly and fully Jewish without belief in God, and without the “traditional” prayer that would be meaningless to him. He understands that Judaism is an evolving tradition, and that adapting traditional prayers so that they are not hypocrasy to non-believers is more than okay. I know, from observing him, growing up in The City Congregation from baby-naming through Bar Mitzvah and beyond, that he has much more positive associations with Judaism than I had growing up.

I’m sorry that Mr. Zimmerman couldn’t find something to like about The City Conrgregation, our service, or Humanistic Judaism. Perhaps one lesson for congregations like ours, however, is that we must realize that we’re not going to win everyone over…that some people would just prefer to wallow in “tradition” out of some “comfort” in that fiction, instead of having the courage to stand up and say that they will no longer pay lip service to words they do not believe, and do things they do not believe. We can’t be all things to all people — which is unfortunate — but I do think that for every one Jonathan Zimmerman, there are probably two or three others who would not come to his conclusion.

Hershl says:

I was in a yeshivah in Jerusalem and told the head of the yeshiva that I didn’t believe in God. He laughed and told me, Don’t worry, Hershl, it takes time.

Do what makes you happy. As a Jew, as a human being.

I no longer am concerned about other people’s relationships with the concept called God. I experience something that is not a concept; it is my Reality.

And that is the center of who I am.

And I don’t go near any shuls. Period.

Great article that speaks to something I figured out some time ago: Belief is fiction at heart, and I don’t mean that as criticism. Once you know something, it’s not a belief, it’s a fact. The idea of God can only be approached by belief, and religion can be seen as a useful shared fiction that gives its adherents a common language and literature to ponder, celebrate, and of course, argue over.

Atheist/Shmatheist! And it’s Bertrand, mister, not Bertram(Russell).

herbcaen says:


BTW, for those New Yorkers who do wish to “say what they believe and believe what they say”, the City Congregation,, offers holiday services, bar and bat mitzvah preparation and training, Sunday school, adult learning, book club, etc.

jlsoaz says:

Hi, I’m an atheist of Jewish heritage and liked this article. I thought it did a decent job of capturing some of the quandries that are inherent to the matter including possible differences between a really inspiring group service experience and one that is not tainted by myths portrayed as truth.

As to Humanistic Judaism efforts, I have not decided or found it necessary to really get into it (observance has never been such a big part of my life), and so I don’t know that I would come to the same conclusions as the author, but this did not prevent me from enjoying this article.

One other ad hoc comment, I really liked this line: “…I found some atheists’ glib dismissal of religion laughably reductionist.” On that point, we are definitely on the same page.

I think it comes down to how one is raised. Mr. Zimmerman is still comfortable witth and perhaps still longs for the mystical.I was raised as a secular cultural Jew, so I am at home with what can be explained and shown to me. I wish him luck in reconciling how he was raised and what he still seeks with the questions his mind and intellect cannot avoid.

Michael Ophir says:

How can you be Jewish and an atheist? Judaism is a religion, not a race nor an ethnicity. Hence, being Jewish is predicated on belief in Judaism and the one G-d. Being a Jewish Atheist is an oxymoron. Can you be a Jewish Muslim? A Jewish Christian? No, and No. Hence, you cannot be a Jewish Atheist…..

    Keith Reitman says:

    We Jews are unique, in all of history. We are a People, and with our own religion. A non-Jew can convert and join our People. Dropping out is more complicated.

Keith Reitman says:

Our Minnesota city has a Humanistic Jewish congregation that is very active. The rabbi is a volunteer; evenings and week-ends. His regular job? He is the Maytag Man.

crabiner@highridgeacupuncture. says:

Leave a message…

Jonah Yisrael says:

The author’s journey and his conclusion are reminiscent of The Trial of G-d by Elie Wiesel, based upon his own experience in a concentration camp, where three learned Rabbis convened a bet din, a trial, of G-d, for permitting the horrors occurring all around them. All through the night the trial proceeds and at dawn, the court finds G-d guilty as charged. At which time the eldest Rabbi states to the assembled wretched inmates that it is dawn, and time to conduct the morning prayers. That is the essence of what it means to be a Jew. Our chosen-ness is two fold – we were chosen by G-d to serve As His people, a “privilege” which carries an almost unbearable price, and we chose G-d, which gives us the right to challenge the justice of his rule and even the truth of His existence. Thus the centrality of the Shema, a constant affirmation of what would not need affirmation at all, if it was not open to challenge. We question, we complain, we challenge, we struggle, we resist, we even deny our G-d, but we remain His people. And in the end, that is all he demands of us. All Jews are innately aware of this fact, whatever labels we apply to our Judaism, what words we craft with which to pray, whatever message our silence conveys.

One of many frustrations with God is that god is never what some people want God to be at the time and place they want God. Some ascribe to God omniscience, omnipresence, and yes always on “our” side. Many forget these descriptions and ascriptions reflect ideas that are about, not what God is. As a “believer” I rely on metaphors, teachings and my intuition all of which still leave me straining. The Siddur is for me in its many editions reflects the expanse of Jewish thought and belief in God through the millennia. While no one view of God satisfies me, not believing in God does not satisfy me. I keep myself grounded and “reasonable” by never believing that I can bribe God or move God with prayer. But Jewish prayer uttered in community worship is a common language, a language of unity although each worshipper’s intention may differ. Intellectual honesty in the Humanist tradition seems human centric and so limiting. Although I am fascinated by the human mind, I am in awe of God’s mind which to me is metaphorically expansive, unlimited reflecting finitude. I like being in the presence of that thought.

I am also inclined toward this kind of doublethink. I think there’s value in living the fiction, suspending disbelief at certain moments to enjoy the rich meaningfulness of Jewish life. The doublethink might be worthwhile — but I worry, because it’s still doublethink. It would be better were it possible to avoid it; it basically feels like lying to oneself. So, the challenge is to find meaning without repudiating reason, to find or fashion a Judaism that doesn’t require so much cognitive dissonance. The choice between sublimating doubt to serve religion and transforming religion to conform to doubt, as he puts it, has got to be the biggest dilemma that modern Judaism is faced with. Let me know if you figure out what the best compromise is. Like any good compromise, it’s likely to be imperfect. But maybe that’s the best we can hope for.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I would like to also share mine. If it weren’t for Humanistic Judaism, I wouldn’t be affiliated with any Jewish congregational group at all. Maybe I’d go to the Jewish Film Festival once a year or would simply have my Passover seder once a year, but that would be it. It was a revelation to me to find a place to be Jewish again after leaving the Conservadox fold because of my humanistic beliefs. When I was 18 years old I left my Jewish practice and went out into the wide world of college. I realized that I was at most an agnostic and that there were many ways to be in the world. I didn’t want to cut myself off from expanding my horizons beyond the small parochial Jewish world I had grown up in. After having two children, my husband and I decided to affiliate with a congregation and found Kol Hadash in Albany, California. I was smitten. Finally a place where I could be a Jew in community and not have to say things I didn’t believe. I’m one of those people who prefers to say what I actually believe. I became active in the humanistic movement and became a Midrikhah after I was trained at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ). I’m now in their rabbinic program. I love studying Jewish history and culture. I love studying Mishnah and Talmud and Torah. For me, the choice would have been nothing or humanistic Judaism. I will forever be grateful to Rabbi Sherwin Wine for helping to create this branch of Judaism, a branch that I hope to help grow and prosper in the years ahead.

You claim that being Jewish involves having to wrestle with the idea of a God that doesn’t make sense. That’s wrong. Jewish tradition presumes from the start that the Torah makes sense and when it doesn’t scholars come up with ways to pretend it does.

Many Jews are not God-believers, at least in the conventional sense, whatever that may be. However, what a person means when the word “God” appears in liturgy or in more secular surroundings can only mean what that individual needs to express, even if there are no standard set of definitions that must come to mind. I have debated the “Humanistic Judaism” practice of eliminating the “God” word as though it is too strong an amulet for a rationalist to withstand.

There are worse things in liturgy that I would change because they insult, like the Aleinu’s “mishpaXot ha’adamah” while thanking God for not making us like them. As a Jew, I think of the generations of Jews who prayed some of these prayers three times a day for many generations while acknowledging that changes were slowly occurring from community to community, from Ashkenazi to Sephardic to Yemenite to Ethiopian, etc. While Tevye has been idealized in Yiddish literature and the Broadway stage as the Jewish Everyman, he only represents an idealization of a reality whose memory gets more distorted the further we get from the events of his fictitious life.

So I don’t understand why liberal Jews cannot use the God-word and the God-language that is meaningful to them in terms of their own experiences even if they find the traditional notions to be intellectually outdated, even insulting to the intellect. As my writing here indicates, I am a freethinking Jew who tries to understand the best parts of religion and seeks them out. Were there a God that could fit traditional descriptions the tradition maintains, then that God would surely bless our “epikursut.” If only because the Jewish prayers are what Jews pray, there is a good reason to make the effort to know where we come from even if we are headed into a future our ancesters could not forsee. And I believe that we will not stop praying, but we will change our prayers to our new circumstances — and call that tradition.

Michael Tupek says:

As an evangelical Christian, I found your bewilderment not surprising. I invite you to read my book, “Torah of Sin and Grace.”

Aron Gamman says:

I consider myself both humanistic and Jewish, but I don’t affiliate with any movement.

For me, teffilah comes out more as meditation, poetry and a sense of of connection to the universe and that sense of awe. This doesn’t necessitate a belief in God for me, but if I ever speak of God, that’s what I mean. For me, humanism arises out of developing an ethics of Good without a supernatural agent.. Whether God exists in that realm seems irrelevant.

I hope we can have these kinds of conversations as a community of Jews without cutting those of us down who don’t necessarily fit a classical Jewish philosophies of God with those who do as well.

This article encapsulates a stance toward the notion of God that is what draws me so strongly to Judaism as a convert. Raised Catholic, where deeds without faith are anathema, and too many questions are frowned on, I struggled for years to find a home that expressed my spiritual, seeking, questioning, self, who vacillates between believer, agnostic,and atheist. Judaism allows an expression of identity and a framework for living consciously and ethically and a spiritual path without requiring consistent and unshakeable belief. If there is such a thing as a soul, mine is a Jewish one born in an Irish Catholic body.

Such a fascinating topic!

Check out My Jewish Atheism



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An Atheist’s Synagogue Search

In a congregation that didn’t focus on God, I discovered the value of reciting prayers I don’t believe