You Don’t Need God To Be Jewish

Are you there, God? Its me, Yehudis.
Are you there, God? It's me, Yehudis.

This is the topic of much debate when Jews decide they don’t believe in God. Can’t Jews be atheists, non-theists or anti-theists? Is there a discriminatory principle according to which Jews cannot not believe in a supernatural power, just like Jews once could not own property or hold certain jobs? Don’t Jews have absolute liberty of thought like everyone else?

Most people would say yes, of course they do, but once they stop believing in God (if they ever did) they thereby stop being Jews. Baloney. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to convey:

I’m on vacation in Virginia, where I went to college. Whenever I’m in the States I watch a good amount of television in order to tap back into the lifeblood of my countrymen and women. My sister’s television has six-hundred channels, and when I get tired of giggling at Fox News and ogling the Food Network I go channel surfing until I hit the Good News stations. Every evening I watch as faith healers knock down their congregations in the spirit of Jesus, heal blindness, exorcise demons and rearrange human bones in living bodies–all on television. Of course, I don’t believe a word of it, and neither should you. Tonight I even heard a preacher tell the devil to leave his congregation’s bank accounts alone. No shit. This is unbelievable stuff–not the least bit supernatural, but still kind of incredible.

There’s even a Jewish life channel (called, imaginatively, Jewish Life). By the above-stated rule that Jews are defined by their belief in a supernatural God (curiously, not the same one that defines Christians and Muslims), one would expect Jewish Life to be full of programs about Hasidism, Kabbalah, Talmud-Torah, or whatever might interest Jewish believers. Well, tonight I jotted down what they broadcasted in the three-or-so hours I was watching while flipping back and forth between the televangelists. Here’s what I saw: a concert clip by Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi, a documentary on Birobidzhan, an endorsement for a Jewish outreach network, and some arbitrary footage of Israeli life: windsurfing on Lake Kinneret, Tel Aviv by night, Masada and people walking, praying and looking generally suspicious in Jerusalem. Add to this last night’s documentary on the Exodus (the ship, not the book), and so far not a measly mention of the man upstairs on an entirely Jewish television network.

I don’t wish to make prophecies. I don’t know if the Jewish people can survive the next three-thousand years if they were all miraculously to go secular. Then again, I don’t know if any of us will survive that long. I doubt such a scenario is possible–though it may be desirable. I am making a case in the here and now for the Jews as a people with a very complex historical identity, of which the Jewish religion plays a significant–but not dominant–role.

You don’t need God to be Jewish.

4 thoughts on “You Don’t Need God To Be Jewish

  1. Then I’ll ask you the same question I posed to Tabatha: can a Jew adopt a different faith and remain Jewish?

    1. Well, that’s an excellent question for another post. I’m not sure there is a tidy answer, though. It’s just murky water all around. I know you’re miffed that Jews who accept Jesus as their savior are regarded skeptically (at best) by other Jews, and perhaps this is a “dangerous idea” that must be considered in some depth and with some seriousness, but let me just say that when I have something less routine to write about it, I will. See my Edgardo Mortara post for some background on why Jews are suspicious of Christian “infiltration.”

    2. Rachel,

      I would add that there is something about the Christian mission to evangelize that puts Jews off. There is a kind of double-edged sword involved: conversion or “fulfillment.” That said, anyone can believe anything they want. We live in a society where belief is a free market commodity like ketchup. If a Jew wants to believe in Jesus no one can stop him or her. But I would expect Jews to be a bit suspicious of the motives involved (“But belief in Yeshua is perfectly consonant with being Jewish, mom! Why can’t you see that??”) when their fellow Jews come at them with sophistic arguments.
      From an atheistic point of view, this is all silly. Why anyone would believe in Jesus, or a messiah, or salvation is a mystery to me. Case closed.

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