A wise colleague of mine has advice for anyone advocating a cause before a skeptical audience: when deciding whether to engage in discussion or politely move on, he says, consider if the question is being asked in order to start a conversation or to stop one.
So it is with the debate whether there can be Judaism without God.
If it is suggested that Judaism without a deity is by definition an empty shell, a mockery, a path to meaninglessness, those of us who believe otherwise can only beg to differ and point to the richness of our lives as Jews and atheists (or agnostics), and the impossibility of relinquishing either position. The conversation-stopper response might be that non-believers are living in ignorance, and that our lack of faith shall forever deliver a “do-not-pass-go” card on the Monopoly board of authentic Jewish life.
A pity, but there’s not much more to be done here.
There is another position worthy of a deeper dive. Some have argued that Judaism cannot be sustained without God because God is the connection that binds together the generations. Without an understanding of God as the key player in all the narratives of Jewish history, there is nothing to link us to our past, nor to a Jewish future. It is the same fear, perhaps, that would see intermarriage as a threat to be pushed back at all costs with a people’s survival – our survival – supposedly at stake.
Hold that thought for a moment. First, a quick reality check. While some in more traditional Jewish communities might prefer to dismiss the atheist Jewish position outright, the reality is that, like it or not, we’re in this together. Belief can’t be turned on or off like a light switch. Surely those who find great meaning and purpose through their relationship with God wouldn’t want others to profess similar devotion when their heart and head tell them otherwise, simply because it’s the “right thing to do” for ancestors and grandchildren.
The fear of fading away as a people without God as our common backbone overlooks the very thing that makes Judaism so compelling as many of us experience it, day-to-day: its humanity. Jewish traditions and culture and community and identity all matter on a deeper level than we can adequately articulate. They’re more than enough to sustain us.
Those who actively embrace Judaism as atheists are making a very deliberate decision to live as authentically as they can. That in itself should be a source of encouragement for those worried about continuity.
But still, is it really Judaism? You be the judge.
I grew up an hour west of Toronto. After my sister graduated high school, I was (to my knowledge) the only Jew left in a high school of 2,000. We belonged to a small Reform congregation and had Shabbat dinner on Fridays. I went to Hebrew school on Sundays and was as proud on my bar mitzvah day as a 13-year-old could be. I explained what matzah was to curious classmates – some grew to like it – and proved to a world religions high school class that Jews didn’t have horns (yes, a student really asked the question). When I went to a Jewish summer camp for the first time, it was the biggest culture shock of my life. I had never before been in a room of 10 Jewish kids my age. Formative and lasting experiences, all of them.
And what of God in all this? God appeared in the prayer book whose words I chose to read selectively as a boy (because after all, I didn’t commit any of those sins). I didn’t particularly like the idea of a chosen people either, so maybe I didn’t believe in God at all.
One year during Passover, my father was reading energetically from the Haggadah: “And God said,” my father read – at which exact moment our dog, banished to the basement, interrupted with a defiant “Woof.”
To this day, I’ve never heard such laughter at a seder table. That’s my memory of God.
And that experience – and countless others like it – are why I’m Jewish. Being an atheist hasn’t prevented me from adopting values that the Judaism of my upbringing gave me: ideas about equality, tolerance, debate, intellectual curiosity, trying to take the side of the persecuted and marginalized, tikkun olam. I may talk with friends or family about the Middle East, about Israel, about holidays, our kids and their upbringing, our affiliations. About God and belief, not so much. I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience.
Is that Jewish enough? You decide. But if it turns out there’s no room in Judaism for atheists or agnostics, my guess is there will be plenty of empty seats in the synagogue.
Mark Brender is a board member at the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism.