These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Of Religious Atheists

Posted on April 30, 2012 by Barer

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“Why do you wear a Kippah?”

“What could you possibly get out of davenning [prayer]?

“Why grow an itchy beard for a month?”

These questions, and others like them, have all been asked of me, specifically in light of the fact that I do not believe in God.  They are all valid questions, and have occupied a considerable amount of my time since my formal renunciation of belief in the God I naively grew up believing in.  While the answers are not easy, and ever-changing, I knew immediately that, in living as a Jewish atheist, I wanted to live as a Jewish atheist.  I have spent most of the past two years studying Judaism full-time precisely because I reject the notion that belief in any God is a prerequisite to being a Jew.  I am not alone in this assertion, even if it is rarely spoken of openly.  Many would be comfortable saying, if only in more private spaces, that the foremost belief that determines whether you have a place under the tent of Judaism is not God, but (the modern State of) Israel.  Of course, I think that too is not a prerequisite, but that is a topic for another post.

Since I began to pay attention to this issue a few weeks ago (upon reading this), I have noticed an almost daily invocation of the assumption that there exists a dichotomy between ‘religious’ people and atheists.  In other words, it seems to be a widely held belief that one cannot be ‘religious’ without believing in God.  As someone who does not believe in God and yet considers himself religious, this is troubling.  Given the basic definition of ‘religious’ as “relating to or believing in a religion” (Oxford English Dictionary), I am puzzled as to why belief in God seems to be tacked on so often.  There are many Jews who have publicly declared, especially over the last century, that a belief in Judaism need not include God (not to mention that “relating to” Judaism certainly does not necessarily include God).

I think that this dogma must in some ways be tied to the questions I opened with.  Yes, you can be ‘Jewish’ in a shallow sense without believing in God — you were born and raised Jewish, you are a cultural Jew, etc. — but you couldn’t possibly want to interact with the richness of Jewish ritual without believing in God.  Why not?

While it is definitely true that many Jews experience divinity daily through prayer and other ritual actions, I am confident that there are many Jews who profess a belief in God who do not have such experiences daily, or even yearly.  I am not sure why those Jews continue to observe the rituals they do, but I know why I do, and God is neither in the picture nor felt as lacking from the picture.  Judaism is undoubtedly a religion in which God has played a central role throughout its history, but it is so much more than that as well, as it is a culture and a people as well (to name just a couple other ways to explain what Judaism is, in part or whole).

I think that, just as Jews who are vegetarian, Buddhist, and homosexual are accepted in Jewish communities without doubting their status as Jews and full participants in any of the conversations about topics central to life as a Jew today, so too should those of us who wish to be included in all aspects of Jewish life, but do not believe in the Jewish (or any other) God, be allowed to do so.  Being surrounded by young Jews who want to return to the canonical texts of our tradition and question all of the basic assumptions of this religion in order to ascertain where our places are within it, I see no reason why we cannot add God’s place in Judaism to that list.

[Cross-posted from my blog]