The following short essay was written for Moment Magazine’s 2011 “Elephant in the Room” contest. The question put to all contestants was, What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? 500 words isn’t much space to elaborate in, but here is my entry.
I didn’t win the iPad 2, which was the main reason I entered the contest (truth be told). My essay was excerpted, however, under the heading “Finalists” on their website. You can read the three winning essays there as well.
I grew up secular and came to my Jewish identity as an adult. When my Jewishness first struck me, I regretted not having had a religious education. I was so unfamiliar with the Bible I didn’t even know it was about the Jews. There was much to catch up on.
The next four years were spent teaching myself to be Jewish. Living in Rome, my options were limited. I went to an Orthodox synagogue. I frequented a struggling group of Reform Jews. I studied Hebrew at the local JCC. I constructed an ad-hoc form of kashrut, which seriously damaged my relationship with a dying aunt. I read deeply in Jewish history and the history of anti-Semitism, which didn’t make me many friends at parties. However, I did feel I was beginning to understand what being Jewish was about: feeling uncomfortable in the world.
In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like “Baruch Hashem” (“Blessed be the Name”) 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.
First I began to notice how many fellow Jews were atheists. They were everywhere: Spinoza, Einstein, Freud, Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov and Amos Oz. Even the so-called “New Atheist” movement was brimming with Jews: David Silverman, Jerry Coyne, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Weinberg and Susan Jacoby. These Jewish atheists were sensible, creative, highly-motivated people. And free of the superstition that so annoyed me.
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.