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A place for atheists in Judaism

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The late Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum was my teacher in rabbinic school and the spiritual leader of a congregation in suburban London. Speaking from his pulpit at one Kol Nidrei service, he reflected that if he had asked worshipers as they were coming in if they believe in God, they’d have every right to tell him that it was none of his business. They had tickets and were card-carrying members of the congregation. That’s all that mattered.

I thought of this when I read about the late Peter Lipton, a distinguished philosopher of science who died suddenly a decade ago at age 53. His obituary in the Telegraph commented on his Judaism: “A self-confessed ‘religious atheist,’ Lipton was fully engaged with his religious culture, taking his family to synagogue on Saturdays and teaching children at the Sabbath school. He did not think it was necessary to believe in God to recognize the value of religion in providing the individual with a moral compass.”

Along similar lines, in an article published earlier this year, Rabbi John Rosove asked: “Do you have to believe in God to be a Jew?” He answered in a way that both Rabbi Maybaum and Lipton would have approved: “The search, whether or not we use the world ‘God,’ pulls us into the deep and vital current of Judaism. And it doesn’t demand that the atheists and agnostics among us suspend their doubts and disbelief.”

Rabbi Maybaum served as a Reform rabbi in Germany and in Britain. Rabbi Rosove is a Reform rabbi in California. He’s also the chair of the board of ARZA, a U.S.-based organization of Reform Zionists. Lipton was described in another obituary as “a practicing Reform Jew.”


But it’s not only some Reform Jews who practice the religion without believing in God, though many of their adversaries would like us to think so. In my previous column, I cited a Hasid who told me that he was an atheist. Though it seemed to have troubled him enough to tell me about it, it didn’t prevent him from living as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi who has worked in Europe and the United States. Writing about Lipton, whom he seems to have known personally, he said: “Peter was not an Orthodox Jew, and his position on God and Torah was not mine. But we can take his idea of how one comes to think about religious issues in particular ways and adapt it to Orthodoxy.”

Perhaps exponents of the various streams in Judaism should spend more time on this and other issues that unite us, than on divisive communal politics disguised as manifestations of piety.

Judaism is not a confessional religion, perhaps not even a religion in the usual sense of the term. We judge each other and, hopefully, are judged by God, by our actions, not our beliefs. Though Moses Maimonides, arguably the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, formulated the Thirteen Principles of Faith, they were never widely adopted. Rabbi Rosen suggests that “Judaism has lost too many intellectuals because Jewish thinkers are still locked into the Maimonidean model.”

Lipton and the rabbis cited here have gone beyond the teachings of Maimonides and identified different ways of being Jewish, which are no less authentic than those who live by all the 13 principles.

Israel provides the most compelling illustration. Most of its Jewish citizens tend to describe themselves as secular, yet they observe many traditions, study Torah and identify with the Jewish people and their history. Though some attend synagogue services, at least on special occasions, and mark Jewish festivals, they’re most likely to react the way Rabbi Maybaum expected the members of his congregation to respond.