Jewishness without god

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.

Two rabbis walk into a dialogue

I’m delighted to see that two rabbis have entered into a dialogue on religion. One is Jeffrey Falick, the Atheist Rabbi, whose blog is hosting the debate; the other is Frederick Klein, an Orthodox rabbi who took up Falick’s challenge.

Lately HuffPo, or PuffHo, or whatever it’s called, has been hosting various rabbinical voices attempting to talk sense to us new atheists. There’s David Wolpe and Adam Jacobs, and there was that debate where Hitchens and Harris were terribly rude and gnuish to Wolpe and his colleague Bradley Artson Shavit.

I’m thrilled about all this. As a Jewish atheist I’ve had endless discussions with Jewish friends about atheism, faith, God, morality and tradition. It’s been tough to find many other Jews who will stand up and say, “I’m an atheist.” My guess is that they would somehow feel un-Jewish, and that for them Jewishness is at some level sustainable only through passive acceptance of rabbinical tradition. Even if they don’t believe a word of it.

I remember once asking a Lubavitch rabbi what his position on evolution was. He sent me a link to another Lubavitch rabbi rambling on for an hour before a room full of Lubavitchers. His point was that anything that conflicted with the Torah was, well, unacceptable. End of discussion.

Let the Lubavitchers wall themselves off from reality until moshiach arrives. In the real world, the dicussion continues unabated.


The Jewish question in Southern Italy

Haaretz ran a long article back in April on the Jewish revival in Southern Italy. Long story short: once upon a time Italy’s south was brimming with Jewish life, from Roman antiquity straight through the Arab conquest of Sicily, which came to an end with the Christian Inquisition. But the Jews didn’t just disappear. They weren’t murdered off, though there was violence. They were converted to Christianity, their culture was appropriated by the Church (synagogues made into churches, Jewish books used to bind Christian ones, mikves [ritual baths] turned into pigstys, etc…) and all memory of them repressed for centuries.

So in places like Calabria or Sicily, places which almost everyone thinks of as cradles of traditional Catholicism, there are essentially huge numbers of marranos, or secret Jews, similar to what happened in Spain and Portugal during and after the Inquisition. This has led to a number of modern-day conversions back to Judaism, sometimes even of whole communities like that of Trani, in Puglia. Often informal groups sprout up, doing things like getting together on Friday evening  or sitting shiva after a death in the family. Many of them are surprised – but not all – to learn that they in fact are enacting traditional Jewish customs.

I interviewed Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italian-American of Calabrian-Sicilian descent, about her activism in the South two years ago. She runs Calabria’s first (legal) synagogue in 500 or so years, celebrating bar- and bat-mitzvahs and Jewish weddings in the Calabrian hills, and offering anyone interested an encounter – perhaps their first – with Judaism. The story is a very interesting one, of course, as is marrano history in general. History is a very amorphous thing at times, and notoriously difficult to pin down, especially when records have been deliberately erased and modified, and physical signs eradicated. The Church officials couldn’t get everything, clearly, and there still exist churches with Hebrew writing in them and Jewish quarters and ritual baths fallen into disrepair all over the south of Italy. In fact, an incredible number of small towns all over in Italy have “ghettos” where Jews once thrived, but haven’t lived for centuries, attesting to their once widespread presence on the peninsula.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the officially Orthodox Italian rabbinate isn’t really interested in Aiello and the other “new” Jews of the South. But I imagine if these small communities continue to grow and proliferate – regardless of whether all these people are or are not Jews in the rabbinic sense – at some point they won’t be able to ignore them any longer. They’ll have to admit that they alone cannot be the arbiters of Jewishness from Venice to Marsala, and will in fact have to open up to the possibility of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. It will be in their best interests. Otherwise they might be thought of as acting in imitation of the Vatican. And I know they wouldn’t want that.

The Borderlands of Jewishness

A few thoughts from a thoughtful reader (I’ve regularized some of the punctuation and uncapitalized the “A” in Atheist for obvious reasons):

Halacha, Jewish religious law, is the only thing that determines Jewish identity. And the issue is very clear indeed, and always has been. The Tanakh tells us that a Jew who adopts any other faith, is an ex-Jew. An Apostate. Now this does not – as in Islam – necessitate nor involve negativity towards this ex Jew. Not at all. But it’s just a statement of fact: a Jew who becomes a Christian = a Christian, just as a Jew who becomes a Muslim = a Muslim.

As for atheism:

Rabbis and Halacha are very clear on this too. Atheism doesn’t involve embracing another, conflicting faith. An atheist Jew, is simply a non practising Jew. Simple as that. Or, if the person prefers not to identity as Jewish, then the atheist is, well, an atheist, who was born into Judaism but has now left. But according to halacha, the atheist is still part of the Jewish family whereas the ex Jew turned Christian, or ex-Jew turned Muslim, is not.

Historically, Jews that converted to other faiths, and then later wished to return to Judaism, had to formally “convert” back to Judaism. I’m slightly concerned that your poll gives the impression that popular opinion can determine who is and is not Jewish. It can’t.

Also, as I’m sure you know, there is a specific Christian Evangelical movement, whose members were never Jews to start with, yet who pose fraudulently as ‘messianic Jews’ and who knowingly lie and misrepresent Judaism and Jews. This group provokes a lot of conflict between Jews and Christians.

For my part, I tend to be skeptical when any debate over Jewish identity is resolved by invoking the overriding authority of halakha. That’s part of what got us into this mess in the first place, and since non-Orthodox Jews are the majority these days (and the source of all that Jewish pride we feel when we talk about Spinoza, Freud, Einstein and Mel Brooks) I think we should have some say in the matter.

There are no easy answers. Nothing is “simple as that” about Jewish identity. Invoking the Tanakh–a collection of ancient Jewish literature otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible–as the fount of all wisdom on matters of personal or collective cultural identity is a push in the wrong direction. We all seem to agree that non-observant Jews are nonetheless Jews, and this fact alone proves the weakness of this argument.

I’m tempted to say that all of this is a matter of opinion. That we celebrate Spinoza (who was given a hearty herem, or  rabbinic excommunication, for heresy from Europe’s most liberal and enlightened Jewish community) as one of our greatest sons only points to the fallability of halakhic law. It is malleable, elastic even, and all it takes is a shift in the way we think about ourselves to tame the once mighty voice of the the Law. God, in the end, is as subject to shifting cultural sands as the marketplace.

From a non-theistic point of view, this all borders on silliness. We know that the Bible was written by men (and likely even women) and believe that there is no supernatural authority whose word is eternal and unchanging. If there were, where is such a word to be found? The Talmud itself would be heretical as it meddles with the Torah on almost every page, adding and subtracting according to the wisdom and convention of the day. Wouldn’t the Torah itself have been enough without the addenda of the prophetic and hagoigraphic books that round out the Tanakh? I hope this brief gloss will suffice to convince the reader that there is nothing simple or clear-cut about Jewish identity.

The poll I posted (Are Jews Who Believe in Jesus Still Jews?) seeks opinions to what is one of the taboos of mainstream Jewish discourse. It does not seek irrefutable answers. Why can a Jew be a Buddhist and not a Christian? Perhaps there is something “conflicting” is the idea of a Jewish-Christian, though the earliest Christians were without exception Jews. So, clearly, this is another cultural-historical construct with no guidelines grounded in religious absolutism. Such is the nature of cultural identity.

We know there are Jews who have embraced Christianity throughout history for various reasons, ranging from personal belief to the threat of death. We also live in a society in which religious and cultural identities are a smorgasbord. There may indeed be excellent reasons why a modern Jew cannot believe in Jesus Christ and still be considered a Jew by fellow Jews (and I believe there are) but let’s not defer our reasoning to the divine think tank to understand why this is so.

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.