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Judaism Without God

How your new guestblogger remains Jewish while letting go of faith.

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Photo of a sunset around Washington, DC.(By Josh McLaurin/via Facebook.)

When I was around 12 years old, I attempted to defend the existence of heaven in an argument with my father. What with him being a philosophy professor with a degree from Yale Divinity School, and me being 12 years old, it was not very close. Despite my crushing defeat, I stuck to my guns, forcing him to deploy the nuclear option in any parent-child argument: “When you’re older, you’ll understand why the concept of heaven makes very little sense.”

He was, as it turns out, right. And the reasons he was right pointed ineluctably to a more fundamental truth: There’s no reason to believe in God, either.

I’m not interested here in defending the core atheist claim here; that territory has already been trod persuasively and in exhaustive depth. Instead, I want to address a question that I’m sure has vexed more than a few Tablet readers: Are we still really Jewish once we give up our faith? And, if so, then in what sense?

In Israel, the answer to the first question is somewhat obvious. Around 20 percent of self-defined Israeli Jews don’t believe in God. A community of atheists that large that still thinks of itself as Jewish suggests that Jewish atheists simply exist. Any definition of Jewishness that ignores them misses something important about contemporary Judaism.

It’s a bit different for us Diaspora Jews, though. Traditionally, Jews separated ourselves from the enveloping majority through our distinctive religious practices and beliefs. In Israel, where Jewish practice is part of public life, it’s easy to make participation in the Jewish community a civic rather than theological affair. When you’re a minority, by contrast, there’s no mass Jewish public life nudging you toward being a Jew. It takes real effort to carve out Jewish space for yourself when the world around is pushing in the opposite direction. The institutions that do want to give you a hand are plainly religious in character. Where does an atheist fit in to this private, religious world?

My entirely personal and speculative answer is that seeing Jews as only, or even mostly, a theological community is a mistake. When a group of people share such a rich set of experiences and history, it really doesn’t matter whether or not they all believe the same things about God. The role of Jewish tradition in shaping our beliefs is so powerful, so primal, that it transcends the question of theology and becomes a simple fact about who we are. I can lose my faith in God, but I can’t change the fact that I’m Jewish anymore than I can change the fact that I was born American. Being Jewish is a principal part of what makes me “me.” Rejecting Judaism means not only rejecting traditional theologies, but also rejecting this core part of your self-identity, choosing to turn your back on a tradition that’s shaped your whole life to this date. Put differently, the question of whether you tell your children that the Passover story is literally true is much less important than the question of whether you tell the story (and have the Seder) at all.

What this suggests, then, is that Judaism can be a sort of “religion for atheists,” but not in the inane way suggested by Alain de Botton in his awful book of the same title. De Botton envisions a sort of secular religion, where religious-like traditions (such as shared meals with strangers) are re-appropriated under a secular banner. This idea struck most observers as hokey and absurd in part, I think, because an integral element of religion is tradition. What makes Jewish ritual and communal practice meaningful isn’t just the words or rituals themselves; it’s that they’re a concrete connection to the people who came before us. Participating in Jewish cultural life places us in a long line of people who are like us. It draws on the same emotional well that binds us to our family. As (Jewish) political philosopher Michael Walzer puts it:

The self-portrait of the lndividual constituted only by his willfulness, liberated from all connection, without common values, bindings, customs, or traditions-sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything- need only be evoked in order to be devalued: It is already the concrete absence of value. What can the real life of such a person be like?

We find value in the traditions we participate in, a value that’s independent of whether we believe the same things as the people who have participated in them in the past. The fact that my parents, and (one pair) of grandparents, and their parents, have all been Jews matters to me. Being Jewish in this sense is a feeling, whereas belief in God is a belief about the world, one that must (like all beliefs) be subjected to rational assessment. But the fact that God can’t pass the intellectual smell test doesn’t say a thing about whether I can find value in participating in the traditions that shape my cultural heritage. I simply do, in an almost prerational sense. It matters to me, and people like me, that we remain Jews. And I think that settles the question.

All of which is a roundabout way to say: Hi, I’m Zack, and I’ll be your guest blogger for the next day and a half. Hopefully, I’ll try to flesh out this secular Jewish identity I’ve carved out for myself implicitly in the news I cover rather than subjecting you to more ponderous reflection. But I hope it helps to get a sense of the sort of Jew I am and where I’m coming from.

Previously: The Rise of the “Partially Jewish” [The Scroll]

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“whereas belief in God is a belief about the world, one that must (like all beliefs) be subjected to rational assessment.”
I take issue with this assertion. My belief (or not) in God may have to do with my relationship to the world, to society, to individuals, and to myself. Relationships are not (entirely or even mostly) subject to rational assessment. And the only reason I can see to define it that way is to justify believing God doesn’t exist.
It’s a pointless discussion–one of the strengths of Judaism is that it focuses on what you do, rather than what you believe. Be an atheist or don’t, but either way, be a mensch–that’s what truly matters.

Surprised you did not mention the Humanistic Judaism movement,
https://www.shj.org/member.htm

I think it will be different for Muslims, Muslim to me means believing in god and submitting to him, the tradation has nuthg to do with god it’s a collection of heritage acquired by time and civilisations coming over each other for a thousand yrs, most of the tradation is things I wanna get rid of anyway ., I think we can remain Arabs but Islam to me at least is a faith not a tradation or a religion even, ,

Jacob Arnon says:

Judaism isn’t just a religion, hence belief in god is only one determiner of Judaism though these days some religious Jews think it’s the most important one, it isn’t.

Many very religious people during the persecution of Jews in Spain including rabbis converted to Christianity while other less religious people refused because they wanted to be loyal to their people.

I know loyalty these days is not taken seriously, but it should.

Zebulun Leslie says:

Do you not recognize that Judaism, deep and meaningful as it is, had to start somewhere? If our human ancestors had not created the culture that became Judaism, it would not exist to be our tradition. So how can you so flippantly dismiss a philosopher who sincerely wants to start over, and create another tradition?

good post. I too enjoy judaism without god, even more so since I discovered Humanistic Judaism, but unfortunately there is not a congregation near me.

The rest of the world…never forgets you are Jewish…no matter what you believe. I am a Jewish agnostic…whether I believe in a god or not..it doesn’t matter, I believe in GOOD.

Without even going into halachic definitions and theological arguments, this is not a sustainable recipe.

This may work for you on a personal level, but from the statistics I’ve seen the likelihood of your grandchildren being Jewish is pretty slim. At a certain point, when children are not given enough to hold on to, they move on to something else.

I have French ancestors and grew up with a French nickname from my grandfather, but I would describe myself as simply enjoying a few aspects of French culture— certainly not as being French in any meaningful sense. You descendants may consider themselves Judeophiles in certain regards (cuisine, humor) but that will most likely be the extent of their connection to Judaism or even ‘Jewishness’.

    Aviel Menter says:

    This is a different problem though. That doesn’t indicate an inherent problem with being Jewish without believing in God, it just indicates that, despite not believing in God, one must take care to ensure hiis children are raised as Jewish.

Jay Friedman says:

I am what you would call “Modern Orthodox”. Living in Israel…believing in the existence of a viable Supreme Being…serving in the Army…supporting myself economically by my own efforts. Can a person be a Jew while believing in Atheism? Is he/she born of a Jewish mother? Can an individual be an American while opposing democracy? Is he/she born of an American parent? Judaism is not merely a religion. It is a nationality that preaches interdependence of each individual Jew. Am I dependent upon the Jewish Atheist and is he dependent on me? Have any of you served in the Army? Our beliefs differ but our unity exists.

Jay Friedman says:

I am what you would call “Modern Orthodox”. Living in Israel…believing in the existence of a viable Supreme Being…serving in the Army…supporting myself economically by my own efforts. Can a person be a Jew while believing in Atheism? Is he/she born of a Jewish mother? Can an individual be an American while opposing democracy? Is he/she born of an American parent? Judaism is not merely a religion. It is a nationality that preaches interdependence of each individual Jew. Am I dependent upon the Jewish Atheist and is he dependent on me? Have any of you served in the Army? Our beliefs differ but our unity exists.

Christopher Reiger says:

Polls of American Jews suggest that a similarly high percentage (as in Israel) do not believe in G-d or are uncertain about the existence of G-d. Interestingly, the percentage dips but doesn’t plummet when considering only members of Reform and Conservative congregations. (Not surprisingly, you’ll find relatively few atheists or agnostics in Modern Orthodox and Chasidic congregations and communities.)

In other words, a significant portion of American Jews, whether synagogue affiliated or not, do not believe in or doubt traditional conceptions of G-d. I’d like to stress the word traditional, however, because, there are many of us who lay tefillin, attend shul, observe Shabbat, and otherwise adopt and embrace traditional practices who nevertheless conceive of G-d as a non-sentient, non-theistic sum of the parts — the All, the Everything, the Ein Sof. This conception is one that even the celebrated biologist and outspoken New Atheist Richard Dawkins admits he finds no fault with (although he complains that it’s misleading to label such an amorphous concept G-d).

All this to say that there are many ways to be an observant Jew, and almost all of them don’t necessitate a belief in a traditional god. Myths and metaphors are powerful tools, however, and they complement rationality and science.

    surfer_dad says:

    I think you’ve articulated very well what I believe — the G-d of Ein Sof, of everything. While I personally see the value of falling into a system (Torah and Judaism) that attempts to address living an ordered and uniquely human existence that ties into that (and with great empirically proven success), I get that for many people not having a G-d that looks down in anger at you for eating a bacon cheeseburger let’s you just do what you want.

    THAT is where Judaism, or at least one branch of Judaism, needs to define itself. Living a Jewish life, using mitzvah on an as need basis depending on your own spiritual needs, BUT/YET having real standards to at least do certain things as a group, that I think would be powerful and relevant to many of us.

My mother was a Jew – of Polish descent with a nasty legacy of her mother(s) before her in WWII Poland. I was raised as a survivor with vows – Yet, being a Jew, I am mistaken as just another hillbilly in my area – a redneck if you will – when seen on site.

Not so much on the East Coast – where I have been called Hebe and Kike screamed from passing cars – much to my delight – to be recognized on site as a Jew – it meant so much to me. “More more” :) – Ironic, that it would take bigots to call me names to reaffirm my knowledge of my own race – JEW.

Just like one can be English withut following the precepts of the Church of England, one can be Jewish without believing in the precepts of Judaism. In fact, the Orthodox attitude is: as long as one born of Jewish Mother is Jewish (some say: as long as he has not adopted an alternative faith). The Jews are both a people descended from Jacob, and a religion following the Talmudic precepts

Richard H says:

You can be American without doing anything “American” but you cannot be Jewish without doing anything “Jewish”. The essence of Judaism is behavior and action. But this requires effort. Why bother if you’re only doing it for tradition’s sake, especially if you’re in America where tradition counts for so little? For example, that seder that you love – what is its meaning to your kids? Is it different from Thanksgiving, which Dad loves but which the kids can skip from time to time when they have other plans?
So my personal opinion is that Judaism relies on a core group that fundamentally believes in a covenant between the people and something outside them, call it God, that invests life in meaning and obligation. That core group is the fire that keeps Judaism going. I just can’t see us surviving without them.

David Weisman says:

You say you can’t change the fact that you’re Jewish. Perhaps that’s how it seems to you, but as an aside, I know many people who call themselves recovering Jews/Catholics/Christians. And whatever label you use on yourself, it has very little impact until you have kids. Without kids there are very limited consequences, and the hand wringing remains in an Ivory tower. With kids, and you’re bringing an unstained human into the world. So what do you stain them with? 2500 year old superstitions? Labels? Or do you stain their thoughts with skepticism, the way your father did?

Personally, I’m happy my own father recovered enough to change the fact of his Jewishness. He raised me without this ‘fact’ and somehow I never missed it. The link is broken and my kids are without a label. Perhaps they will later lament the “fact I am secular,” but I can’t see they’re missing anything. At that time, perhaps they could pull a Botton and join a Unitarian Church.

elizeh says:

“When a group of people share such a rich set of
experiences and history, it really doesn’t matter whether or not they
all believe the same things about God. The role of Jewish tradition in
shaping our beliefs is so powerful, so primal, that it transcends the
question of theology and becomes a simple fact about who we are.”

This feels consonant to me as well, but I’m curious where you think messianic Jews, et al., fit into this. How would you define the line between *being* Jewish and *acting* Jewish? (It’s a question I struggle with myself, being secular and atheist but raised Jewish and still quite attached to that heritage.)

phill2012 says:

I am tired of all these New York 20-something jews (small j) stumbling and bumbling all over themselves with identity problems and writing these sophomoric musings. Like a bunch of woody allen clones. Yeah, true, you can be a Jew even if your mother was a tramp but born Jewish. Yeah, you can be a jew even if you are for the anti-ZIonist BDS. Yeah Zack, you can be a jew even if you are angry with God whom you have chosen not to believe in. Yeah, you can be a jew even if you don’t know aleph from bet and refused to have a bar mitzvah. Yeah, yeah, yeah— isn’t that great? We’re one big tent, everyone’s equal and welcome to join our inclusive and boistrous tribe- oh, wow, such diversity, how exciting!
Personally, I think it sucks. First there is no e pluribus unum (out of many, one) with Jews. We are polarized and at each other’s throats half the time. So the big happy tent thesis is a joke. And second, more and more we see that there are less and less standards– which there must be; otherwise, as Yeats’ phrase has it, the center won’t hold. For just as America is becoming transmogrified due to a collapse of its borders, language and culture (a hat tip to Michael Savage), so Jewry worldwide is FALLING APART because there is no consensus about the primacy of a basic commitment and loyalty to, and belief: in God, in Torah, in the centrality of Eretz Yisrael, in the concept of Am Yisrael Chai.
Too much diversity
leads to disunity
which makes the big tent
philosophy
a nullity–
some would even say
a perversity.

biomuse says:

“Being Jewish in this sense is a feeling… I can find value in participating in the traditions that shape my cultural heritage. I simply do, in an almost prerational sense.”

A feeling, eh Zack? Almost prerational? You don’t say, Zack!
That used to be called “religion.”

Your error is your thin (to borrow from Walzer) conception of what religion (including God-belief) is. It’s not “a claim about the world,” any more than your feelings of love for and attachment to your family are “claims about the world.”

Making religion into a competing science is now and always has been a mistake, especially when the “religious” were the ones making it. Don’t double the stupid by accepting that premise.

elixelx says:

You’re not unique buddy. You won’t be the first “poker’ to think that your “Jewishness” belongs to you.
It was a privilege to have been born Jewish, just as it was for your father and all your forefathers; You have sold that birthright for a mess of intellectual pottage! You have convinced yourself that you don’t have to be what you are!
You can be just like that proverbial fish which doesn’t need a bicycle!
Good luck!
Please don’t circumcise your kids, Eat drink and be merry on Yom Kippur, bolt down your hametz on pesach (don’t choke!) and don’t even think about being Shomer Shabbath! Oy! and please don’t make Aliyah!
See. you’ve proved that you don’t need G0D! You’re not doing what he told you to and that demonstrates your independence!

Indeed, “the center does not hold.” Speaking strictly as a 40-something non-Orthodox Jew, I can honestly say
that I have next to nothing in common with the writer of this blog and
the majority of non-Orthodox posters on here. At best, we have a common
ancestry (at least some of us), and maybe I can relate to your less
assimilated immigrant grandparents.

But I am also intellectually honest enough to say that your touchy-feely
salad “Judaism” (along the lines of, “Judaism” is what I feel it to
be”) just isn’t enough to make me feel like you are somehow connected to
me as a Jew. In all likelihood, our children will have even less of a
connection.

And before you start questioning the existence of G-d, you should be
more clear about not making any category errors in defining the religion
of “Judaism” according to classically German and Protestant criteria.
Does “Judaism” really exist? I know that Jews exist, and that, at least
for 2,000 years after the fall of the Temple, they were defined by
Halacha. And if you no longer practice Halacha, I can assure you that
you no longer practice the religion of your ancestors, regardless as to
how you might “feel” about that.

In the meantime, I wish you all the best of luck in feeling connected to
your “Judaisms.” It just doesn’t make you connected to me as Jews –
we’re all ships (and most certainly, our descendants) just passing in
the night.

Edward Cohen says:

“It matters to me, and people like me, that we remain Jews. And I think that settles the question.” It may settle the question for you, but probably won’t for your children, and for sure not for your grandchildren.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

There is no way to believe in miracles if one is completely rational.The world is not entirely rational. Miracles are part of being Jewish. They are its salt and pepper. But how can one accept and hope for miracles without taking to Gd?

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Chekhov: Everyone has the same God; only people differ. [The Duel]

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Judaism Without God

How your new guestblogger remains Jewish while letting go of faith.

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