Jewishness without “God”

This goes back almost a month, but In the Moment excerpted my essay for Moment Magazine’s “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question was, “What does being Jewish mean without belief in God?” Entries are now closed. If I win, I get an iPad – so pray for me!

“In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like ‘Baruch Hashem’ and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. ‘Idolaters!’ I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

“Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.

“I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. ‘And how long have you been studying Talmud?’ the rabbi asks. ‘Five years.’ ‘Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?’ (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for ‘atheist’, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)’ 

“As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called ‘God.’ If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.”

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