So it’s the High Holy Day season again – the pious two weeks in the Jewish calendar connecting Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and that means that many American Jews are going to shul. For most of these religious observers, this will be their only trip to temple during the year (unless, of course, they’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah).
The one thing that always strikes me about spending time in a non-Orthodox temple is just how little God there is. Sure, His name is constantly invoked, but it’s always in a rather rote, ritualistic way. I never get the sense that most of the people crammed into the pews actually imagine a man with a white beard taking meticulous notes on their prayers. Look, for example, at my own extended family: everybody has a rather firm Jewish identity, and yet nobody believes in God. (We got this brand of agnosticism from my grandfather, who didn’t see the point of God after the Holocaust.) And many of my Jewish friends feel the same way. They find the whole idea of a Biblical Yahweh a little silly. This doesn’t mean that many of them aren’t vaguely spiritual – they close their eyes during Yoga, went through a Tibetan Buddhism phase, etc. – but they still find the paternalistic, fertility obsessed, punitive God of the Old Testament to be rather unappealing.
So here’s my question: can a religion without God exist? How long can a religious culture persist without the anchor of every religion, which is a belief in the divine? What will keep my kids from deciding that Christmas is better than Hanukkah (which it is), and since God is dead, why does it matter what we celebrate? And aren’t us non-believers indebted, in some way, to the Orthodox believers who keep the faith and literal traditions alive? If Judaism consisted entirely of people like me – people who go to shul twice a year, and consider watching a Woody Allen movie a Jewish event – it would soon cease to exist. Like many Jews of my generation, I’m largely tethered to the religion through cultural traditions, family rituals and guilt. I just worry about the long-term implications of such a faithless faith.