Huffington Post has a short article up about the phenomenon of Jews who don’t believe in God. Turns out there are a lot of us:
Atheism is entrenched in American Judaism. In researching their book American Grace, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that half of all American Jews doubt God’s existence. In other groups, that number is between 10 and 15 percent.
Those figures have some in the Jewish community alarmed. A recent issue of Moment, a magazine of Jewish thought, asked influential Jews if Judaism can survive without God. The answers were split.
Half? Goodness! That’s a lot. Putnam and Campbell’s book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. Looks like I should read it.
Later in the article we come to this:
Shaul Magid, a professor of modern Judaism at Indiana University, said atheists may join synagogues because American Judaism lacks “a vibrant secular Jewish movement.”
“They go because they want some kind of ethnic identity,” Magid said. “They don’t care about the prayers. It allows them to feel a sense of Jewishness, but has little to do with religion.”
That’s what prompted Jennifer Cohen Oko, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, to join a Reform synagogue, her first. Neither Cohen nor her husband believe in God, but, like many Jews, they joined for their two children.
“I want my kids to understand they are Jewish, to be proud of being Jewish and to understand their heritage,” Cohen said. “And then they’ll have a choice. If they want to go that way (towards belief in God), great. If they don’t, they’ll have a sense of where they came from.”
That last paragraph well represents the view my parents held when my brother and me were growing up. We were members of a local conservative synagogue. My brother and I attended Sunday school, had our Bar Mitzvahs, and then attended our synagogue’s “Hebrew High School” program, in which teen issues were discussed from a Jewish perspective. But it wasn’t about belief or about getting right with God. It was about having a sense of Jewish identity, and of understanding something about Jewish heritage.
When I moved to Kansas I became a member of the local synagogue and even attended services regularly for a while. Eventually I stopped doing that, since the experience mostly reminded me why I hated religious ceremonies in the first place. But I did want to announce to the world that there was now another Jew in Manhattan, Kansas. I have not joined the synagogue here in Harrisonburg, but I’m happy that there is one.
Anyway, let’s have a look at that forum in Moment Magazine. Since, as HuffPo says, the intent was to ask influential Jews whether they thought Judiasm was meaningful without belief in God, I’m sure no one will be surprised that they asked me for my opinion. Well, OK, I was pretty surprised myself.
Alas, as often happens with these things my remarks got pruned down so much that I think my point got a bit garbled in the published version. Here’s a fuller version of what I said:
Judaism is a culture as much as a religion. When people describe themselves as Christians, they imply some element of belief–the beliefs may vary, but it would be hard for them to say, “I am a Christian” if they don’t believe in God. In Judaism, there is a vibrant Jewish community separate from the theological underpinnings of the Torah. You don’t have to believe God made a covenant with our ancestors where he gave us the land of Israel and commanded us to live by His teachings to be Jewish. On the other hand, if people don’t believe in God and everyone is merely going through the motions, is Judaism worth preserving? Even if it contributes to polarization and tribalization? I don’t have a sharp, cogent answer. The line that keeps coming back to me is from the Danny DeVito movie, Other People’s Money, where DeVito’s character says “Lawyers are like nuclear weapons. The others guys have theirs, so I have mine, but once anyone starts using them they screw everything up.” And to a certain extent that’s how I feel about religion–the other guys have theirs, so I have mine, but once anyone starts using them outside their proper place things start getting messed up. Right now, given the world the way it is, it feels very meaningful for me to be part of this community and for Jewish culture be preserved.
Not everyone has such a benign view of the matter. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz offers these cheery thoughts:
The question “What is Judaism without belief in God” can best be answered through similes. The simplest simile would be that it is like humanity without life: a collection of dead bodies, cemeteries and memorials. Judaism without belief in God is just like that: a combination of obscure historical notions such as the Shoah, a faint attachment to Israel and wonderful material for Woody Allen movies. … When one speaks about Judaism as an idea or a culture, it becomes quite ridiculous; it is like an attempt to write literature by using only three or four letters of the alphabet. It can be done as a gimmick, but the result will be neither important nor impressive. It is true, however, that in many parts of the world, Jews subconsciously define themselves as the void that remained after God had left–namely, empty shells, hollow puppets that continue to talk and preach despite having lost their contents long ago.
This guy’s hardcore! A collection of dead bodies? Empty shells? Hollow puppets? I won’t attempt a reply, beyond noting that understanding the Shoah, feeling an attachment to Israel, or appreciating Woody Allen movies is nothing to be trifled with.
Senator Joe Lieberman offers this:
There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it. I was raised in a traditional setting, to believe that we’re judged–and this comes from the prophetic writings–by our behavior, not whether we observe this or that ritual, though we should observe those rituals. Judaism without God, in my opinion, will not remain Judaism and will ultimately vanish. My somewhat circular logic is that I accept the truth of the promise that God made to our forefathers and foremothers: that the Jewish people will be eternal. But I also believe that the promise was conditioned on a continuing belief in God.
I’m wondering if maybe Lieberman’s remarks also got edited a bit too much, since that doesn’t really make much sense. The most intelligent version of the, “Judaism can’t survive without God,” thesis comes from Rabbi David Wolpe:
Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations. It can last a generation or two, but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. I don’t believe that people will continue to light Shabbat candles because it’s a cultural practice, but they will do it because it’s a mitzvah. Absent a connection to God, Judaism cannot sustain itself. For many people, it’s difficult to believe in God, and yet they feel deeply attached to their Judaism. Transmitting it, however, will be an insurmountable challenge. Judaism without God eliminates large and important sections of our tradition, like prayer. You start out with a lessened tradition and without a compelling reason to continue it. That’s a poor prescription for longevity.
There might be something to that. Perhaps my attachment to Jewish culture is parasitic on those who do it “for real.” Though it means something to me to be Jewish, the fact remains that Jewish practice plays a very small role in my life. I have a mezuzah hanging next to my front door, and I enjoy participating in the occasional Passover seder or Hanukah lighting ceremony, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, as sociologist Phil Zuckerman notes in Society Without God, even in Sweden and Denmark, where nonbelief is the norm, the church continues to thrive as a social institution. So perhaps things are not as gloomy as Wolpe suggests.
Anyway, most of the responses are pretty interesting, so go have a look! I’ll close with one more quote from the HuffPo piece:
Children are what brought Schrogin to Beth El, but he has stayed for the sense of purpose organizing its community service projects has instilled. “My rabbi said, “You know Maxim, God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. All that he cares is that you do the right thing.” Our action in the world is much more important.”
Well said! If only more religions took that attitude.