Last year, American blogger, lawyer and politician Jay Lefkowitz wrote an article for Commentary in which he described himself as “an observant Jew [who] began each day by reciting the morning prayers but wasn’t really sure how God fit into [his] life.”
He argued that many Jews who identify as modern Orthodox would be more aptly called “social Orthodox,” as they’re committed to leading halachically aligned lives, but are often less sure of Torah as the literal word of God or of where they land on questions of faith generally than their ultra-Orthodox counterparts.
Lefkowitz’s argument is bolstered by findings from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of American Jewry, which showed that 77 per cent of modern Orthodox Jews, compared to 96 per cent of ultra-Orthodox respondents, believe in God with absolute certainty.
The report also found that more American Jews overall are identifying as atheist or agnostic, with two-thirds of those who identify as “Jews by religion” saying it isn’t necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.
While equivalent data hasn’t been collected in Canada, one can surmise that similar trends exist here.
“Belief that the Torah was literally transmitted from God is common among Orthodox people, including modern Orthodox, but I think disagreement with that is also growing,” said Rabbi Michael Whitman of Adath Israel Poale Zedek, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Montreal. “I think there are many Jews who call themselves Orthodox and don’t believe, for instance, that God cares what they eat.”
The religious doubts of outwardly pious Jews may be troubling for those who consider ideology and practice to be inseparable or view the Pew report – which shows increased secularism and intermarriage among American Jews on the whole – as a portent of doom for Jewish continuity.
For secular Jews, it might simply seem strange: why practise Judaism without belief?
Lefkowitz points out that doubts about God don’t necessarily translate to apathy. He writes that the survival of the Jewish People is the “raison d’etre of the modern Orthodox” and, “because religious practice is an essential component of Jewish continuity, social Orthodox Jews are observant – and not because they are trembling before God.”
Indeed, the Pew report found that modern Orthodox Jews are more Jewishly engaged in terms of membership in Jewish organizations and attachment to Israel than adherents of any other denomination, including the ultra-Orthodox.
Carl (not his real name), 69, is a Jewish educator in Toronto who identifies as “very observant.”
God is an important part of his life, he said, and he takes Torah seriously, but not always literally.
“When you study Judaism academically, you end up knowing too much. You can’t be a complete fundamentalist anymore,” he said, adding that he’s religious partly because he feels “the yoke of the commandments… but also because to be part of a spiritual culture that’s survived not only through time but space – and that’s human – is as important to me as the divine sense of commandment.”
Of course, Jews of all denominations may opt for lives that are at least partially guided by mitzvot, despite their agnosticism or misgivings about the God of the Torah.
Hannah (also not her real name), 29, a lawyer in British Columbia, said she was raised in a household that was “traditional without a lot of reverence – we did Shabbat, went to shul, were kosher, but didn’t talk about God ever.”
She currently identifies as “loosely agnostic.” The God of the Torah “literally has no resonance for [her],” but she mostly keeps kosher and, until recently, recited the Shema daily.
The latter she did out of habit and because, she explained, “I believe in the power to have transcendent experiences, that there’s divine in the world.”
There’s also the guilt factor: “I don’t eat pork, because I feel like my grandparents would be disappointed. I don’t think ‘God’ cares,” she said.
Danielle (not her real name), 32, was raised more religiously, in a Toronto home she referred to as “yeshivish.”
Nowadays, she considers herself religious only in some senses, and while she’s reluctant to categorize herself as agnostic or atheist, the depictions of God “espoused by most rabbis and Jewish books” don’t resonate with her.
Yet she keeps aspects of Shabbat and kashrut, because they add meaning and comfort to her life.
“I do feel spiritually connected to a higher purpose… but I don’t attribute that to any specific conception of God. I don’t believe it would be possible for us to do so and be correct,” she said.
According to Rabbi Adam Cutler of Toronto’s Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation, this worldview is not uncommon.
“For most, the decision to behave Jewishly is founded upon a matrix of God, Torah, tradition, family and community,” he said, adding that for many Jews, the desire to be part of the Jewish People is a stronger motivator for engagement in ritual and communal activity than divine commandment.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of the City Shul, a Reform synagogue in downtown Toronto, emphasized that agnosticism or atheism is not denomination-specific.
While the Reform movement is a theistic one, with God at its centre, agnostics and atheists can be found across Judaism, she said.
“People come [to Jewish life] for other reasons: community, general spirituality, intellectual stimulation… social action… people turn to Jewish ritual whether atheist or not at times of death, bar mitzvahs, baby namings… [the Reform movement doesn’t] place expectations on people’s personal beliefs,” she said.
While observance without faith seems to be a common reality – one acknowledged by rabbis across the religious spectrum – how does it square with Jewish law?
Rabbi Cutler said he stands by the position of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that an avowed atheist cannot properly represent the community before God during prayer.
That said, he noted, “I’m a strong believer that rote actions can lead to meaningful actions. One doesn’t need complete faith to fulfil a particular commandment.”
Rabbi Whitman argued that it’s a common misinterpretation of Talmud to believe Judaism accepts action without belief.
The Talmud says a mitzvah without intent is permitted, he explained, but this refers to fulfilling technical requirements without emotionally tuning in, such as eating matzah on Pesach without giving it much thought. It doesn’t refer to an absence of faith.
“Belief in God is a mitzvah in the Torah, and a person is obliged,” Rabbi Whitman said.
And certain mitzvot can’t be done without belief.
“If you’re praying, but don’t feel like you’re speaking to God, you may be practising your Hebrew, but you’re not really praying,” he said.
“At the same time, if you asked if there’s value to a person who doesn’t believe resting on Shabbat or eating kosher, I’d say yes, because being in the practice of doing those actions could lead to belief.”
While he allowed that mitzvot have multiple layers of meaning and value, such as creating community, helping others or raising the prestige of Judaism in the world, Rabbi Whitman emphasized that observance without faith “is not the ideal.” The “socially Orthodox” are to be credited for doing mitzvot, but “we should try to help them get to the next level, to see how connecting to God will deepen and enrich their actions.”
For someone like Hannah, the latter may never be possible, but the sense of spiritual enrichment she gets from the parts of Judaism that appeal to her – the communal gathering, scholarliness and emphasis on caring for others – are motivation to continue observing in the way she does.
After all, she argued, “Social organizing and community shouldn’t be the sole province of the devout. It should be for everyone.”