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April 5, 2013 3:59 pm

Being Jewish Without God

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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What if you just do not believe in God? Does this mean there is no room for you in the Jewish religion? On the surface, yes, it does. God underpins the Torah. And the Torah is the essential core of Jewish religious life. But the question is what one means by “God”. If one thinks that God is an ancient man sitting up in the clouds casting thunderbolts at sinners and bestowing bounteous rewards on the good, or like Superman, He intervenes whenever bad things look like happening, then I am not sure how many so-called “believers” share such a view. Or what if your God had a physical presence or representation? Many Medieval rabbis thought so and many mystics think that way even now. Would that put you out of the official camp?

Most of us who do make God the core of our religious lives and the object of our spiritual yearning are constantly struggling. We move in and out of periods of profound conviction and then serious doubt. Each one of us creates our own framework of religious engagement in the light of our own mental characteristics. We are not unique in this. Our sacred literature is full of examples of great spiritual forebears who often felt lost, abandoned, and even alienated. They all needed reassurance. Yet they remain the role models of our spiritual heritage.

The Torah actually does not say, “You must believe in God.” The first of the Ten Commandments simply says, “I am the Lord your God.” It’s an invitation to engage, rather than a theological command to attest to something one may not be able to articulate. For all the Divine miracles in the Bible, the people kept on falling back to idolatrous ways and abandoned their God. So why isn’t there room nowadays for an honest doubter?

Many Jews have no interest in religion. Their criteria for Jewishness might be literature or Jews who contributed to the wider world. Their heroes will be people like Freud, Marx, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, or the host of acclaimed writers of partly Jewish heritage, with a measure of talent and brains but no claims to Jewish spirituality. Their causes will be civil rights. Their festivals will be musical and cinematic. They might possess a feeling of being defined by anti-Semitism or feel a shared historical destiny. But the life they lead will be no different than that of the liberal academically inclined people they mix with. That, of course, is their right, and if they are also ethical, caring human beings, even better.

There are other positions I can feel a kinship to even if I go a stage further. There is the heightened sensitivity to the Divine dimension, to feeling that there is more in this universe than our physical existence. Such sentiments have been articulated by Einstein, or more recently by the late legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. But neither would accept an idea of God as the creator, the great intervener in human affairs. And of course there are different degrees of commitment within “religious” Judaism itself.

The religious person I identify with (insofar as I identify with anyone) is one whose life revolves around a religious calendar, who spends time every day in spiritual activity, who tries to relate in practice to Torah values. It is not a profession of faith as much as a commitment to behavior and this behavior is not just rote but ethical. I take my lead from the Mishna; Rebbi Yeudah HaNasi says in Avot 2:1, “What is the right path for a man to choose? That which is honorable to him and brings him honor in the eyes of others.” Or as Chaninah Ben Dosa says in Chapter 3:9, “Whoever humans regard as a good person, God considers good too.”

I do not consider a Jew to be religious if his behavior towards other human beings is unethical, regardless of his confessed beliefs. And conversely I do consider someone a good human being if he or she relates positively and kindly to other humans, regardless of religious practice. The two principles of our religion are the relationship between God and Humanity and between humans themselves. If one part of the equation is missing there is an imbalance. But an imbalance is not grounds for dismissal. It is rather an invitation to engage more deeply.

The absence of religious ritual is a mark of how seriously or not a person takes his religious life. The value of ritual, of Jewish behavior, is that it helps stimulate and repeat certain types of spiritual encounters and experiences. If someone believes in the importance of being healthy or fit but never acts on it, the belief becomes vague sentimentality. That is why I am in favor of living a religious life, even if one does not believe in God. The rabbis say, “From doing something for the wrong reason one can come to do it for the right one.” They didn’t set a time limit. Perhaps that person might never be able to jump to the higher level. But they did not reject the honest doubters.

We have always been a “broad church”. Where Talmudic Judaism drew the line was at the person who ideologically, defiantly denied the possibility of God. That was what defined the person who cut himself off from his religious roots, the certainty of “not” as opposed to the uncertainty of possibility. The so-called Wicked Son we read about at the Seder, though even he kept the Seder ritual. When one encounters men like Noam Chomsky or Woody Allen, one sees where the process of religion-less Judaism is leading. I can respect them as humans, even if I do not respect them as Jews. Once, apostasy involved conversion to another religion. Now it is the gentle but certain disappearance from the ranks and from the causes that preserve us.

So here I am, unhappy about religious hypocrisy, worried about those of our family who are leaving us. Why shouldn’t I try to include anyone who manifestly lives a Jewish life, regardless of intellectual reservation? If an agnostic Jew wants to keep Shabbat, I say, “Good for you! Come join my minyan!”

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  • Agnes the agnostic

    I love this article. Not sure that I can respect Noam Chomsky as a human being, but all the more power to you, Jeremy, if you can do so. In any case, I love your emphasis on ethical living that flows (largely even if not exclusively) from our study of and commitment to Torah. Maybe that’s a slightly gawky sentence but it sums up the enterprise for me. And your article says it wonderfully well.
    One theological matter: True, the Torah does not explicitly command a belief in God. On the other hand, it does command us to love God and it does command us to revere God and it does command us to “walk in His ways.” Tough to do, if you don’t believe in Him! (Alternatively, it might be that the Torah takes it for granted that you believe in Him, and therefore there is no need to express a command. Similarly, there is no commandment in the Torah to breathe, but we are commanded to choose life and it therefore follows that we breathe willy-nilly.)
    Be that as it may, in this day and age it is difficult (for me at least) to hold any belief in God. I don’t mean God as old-man-in-the-sky, either. I mean, a supernatural being of any kind. I am a reluctant agnostic. But my Judaism is the core of my being, my identity and my commitment. And I am not simply a cardiac Jew — I am, in fact, a congregational rabbi. So I miss having my God as a consequential Being in my life…it would help a lot if He were a presence for me. But onward I go, striving to fulfill those things that you talk about in that article (that I wish I had written!!).

    • Jeremy

      Thank you rabbi Agnes
      Your ambivalence is palpable and indeed wonderful.
      I would only add that a command to love be it another human or God is an expression of intent, desire, or aspiration, like being a good person. We constantly strive imperfectly towards it and I think that is what the Torah meant, rather than some acceptance of a Credo, “Yeah, I believe now leave me alone and let me get on with my life.”
      IMHO your honesty as well as your desire to help others in a Jewish context means that the Almighty you might not know still approves of you!!!

  • Ze’ev Smason

    The point of this article is beautifully expressed, and provides not only hope but a point of entry to those Jews not perceiving themselves as ‘religious enough’ to begin to engage in a committed Jewish life. Thank you for sharing this vitally important message. On a smaller point: I agree with your statement that no where in the Torah does it say ‘Believe in G-d.’ However, the first of the 10 Commandments is considerably more than ‘an invitation to engage’; as Maimonides points out, it is a command to know there exists a Creator. His language is ‘Yediat Hashem’ ‘Know’, as distinct from ‘faith’, and even ‘belief’; a rational decision arrived at through a careful and thoughtful examination for the existence of a Creator.

    Thank you again for your important article.

    • Ze’ev Smason

      p.s. after the word ‘examination’, I should have included — ……of evidence for ….

    • Jeremy

      Thank you for raising the point about “Knowing God.”
      Remember the Torah was written long before Aristotelian Philosophy. When the Torah talks about “Knowing” it is more empirical than abstract. Adam “knows” his wife. This is not a theological statement!

      Yes Devarim talks about knowing God but knowing with ones heart is not the same as knowing intellectually or theologically.What Rambam meant by knowledge was in his day closer to what we would call scientific.That was why he thought you could prove it. I do not accept there are philosophically sound proofs.

      I personally am absolutely certain of God’s presence and I can feel it but that is experience rather than intellect.

      In other words Loving God which is something we should aspire to and is reached not by mental calculation but like all emotion, through feeling. You cant command someone to love. But you can encourage it.

      You might say its the difference in our language between believing IN and believing THAT and in fact Rambam uses both !

      Thank you again for stimulating this thought.

  • BH in Iowa

    People are too hung up on what “I” believe, when what is important is what “we” believe. It is about being part of something greater than one’s self – part of the community. Every individual believes differently but we all know the Sh’ma.

    • Jeremy

      Yes BH
      You are right it is indeed being part of community and a people that really matters. But there remains what Maimonides declares is the first and primary command to “Know God.” The challenging question is how one acquires such knowledg. Is it through belief, abstraction, or is it through experience? I take an existential point of view.


      • Michael

        I beleive Yigdal was written by Maimonedes. Am i correct? Thatis his opinion on belief as far as i understand it.

        • Jeremy

          Indeed Yigdal is based on the 13 Prnciples of Faith of Maimonides but they were compiled in response to Christian and Islamic pressure and highly controversialat the time even if they have entered the mainstream now.
          They are not mentioned in the Talmud or by the Geonim and you might like to to read Marc Shapiro’s “Limits of Orthodoxy” on the issue.


  • Paul Ringo

    Abraham was reckoned as righteous by faith. Why should we think anything would be different for us now? Not understanding His mind and purposes for the Holocaust is not reason enough not to believe. It’s called faith because it is beyond reason. It is a humble admission that we still may not comprehend the depth of His love and His ways.

    • Jeremy

      Perhaps I should address you as John George

      My point about our forefathers was that they each found their direct and personal way of connecting with God. It is very subjective.
      God is essential but how we get there may vary.


  • Paul Ringo

    Abraham was reckoned as righteous by faith. Why should it be any different for us now? Not understanding what His mind was behind the Holocaust is not reason enough to not believe. It is, in fact, a humble admission that maybe none of us really understand even now His heart of true love.

    • Jeremy


      We believe each one of our forefathers encountered God in a very personal way. We don’t know the mechanisms Avraham used to get closer to his Maker. Yet we ourselves, each one of us, is obliged to go down the same path but in our own way.
      That is the challenge.

  • Wei Wei Fang

    God is not for or against man! The Jew that thinks that God can solve a problem which was create by man to man behavioral conduct is not a real Jew thinker. The Jews got and will get what was and what will be, and for were they lived among Christians which they do fear Jews, fear a king of disease that will remind, because this king of fear is rooted in mans wrong believe in god. After all man get according to what man do, and not according to what man says. Here by an example. A. Einstein get a Nobel Prize on something minor and he hold a lecture about something he did NOT get the prize for at the Nobel Prize conference building in Sweden ! Spinoza was named by Christian disease envy Spay – Noza. The Nordic barbarians Odin god of war will remand infiltrate in Christianity as a tool to destroy everything that is real and good. The coward Nazis did indeed lost when they had to confront man to man fight on ground battle in Russia, otherwise the Nazis did kill defenseless people which in return the German mind is killed for ever and ever. The unseen shadowed Nazis movement are in new try under media manipulation, they are friendly with the targeted person, group, countries individuals, governments, to blind man’s mind and in the same time they are working against them All! Creating chaos in mind that actually do recruit individual jews to leave their believes, whatever, this will not work in the long run, why? Because those shadowed Nazis are of coward roots and of boring life! Jews will remind whatever will be, because each generation a Jew will be born to solve the unseen problem on earth!

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    A very reasoned and intelligent response that I am going to circulate to my own family. I appreciated as well your remarks on Haym Soloveitchik’s response to Talya Fishman’s book, and the value of controversy.


    • Jeremy

      Thank you Mark
      So thoughtful of you to take the time to respond.

  • Ethan Coane

    So well said. Like many Jews the Holocaust was a defining historical event in my alienation from the concept of God I was raised with in Hebrew school right through my Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation at Keneseth Israel congregation: omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. These days I self-identify as an atheist although my bumper sticker reads, “Militant Agnostic; I don’t know and you don’t either”. Still I identify strongly and proudly as a Jew. I’m certain there were many like me among the 6 million.

    • Jeremy


      I like your bumper sticker! The older I get the fewer the things I am prepared to say “I know”!
      Of course Wittgenstein would challenge the very notion or at least meaning of “knowing.” But I can say I enjoy being Jewish and living a Jewish life!


  • pinchas baram

    a thoughtful article, but the subject (the nature of Jewish belief and the concepts of God), like a door which opens to other doors, is too complex to pin down into one article. I will raise only one specific point: many Jews would probably agree with the writer that a Jew can be a good Jew, even if he’s not a believer or practioner, so long as he’s a nice and kind person, a mensch. Ok, but let’s change the scenario from middle class America to say, Judea and Samaria, and the little bastard Arab “juveniles” are throwing rocks at me and my sons and my car window— hmmm, shall I be a nice suburban humanistic fellow, or should I act in self defense and perhaps shoot the little punks? But that isn’t nice and kind, is it? My point: reducing Yidishkeit to being a nice guy is perhaps okay in middle class America, but definitely not okay in others contexts today, esp. in Israel.

    • Jeremy

      You raise a good point.
      But being good does not mean tolerating evil. Just as one may kill in self defence. As Shlomo Hamelech said, there is a time for war and a time for peace.

  • Andrea

    As a highly ethical non-believer, I take issue with the statement “I do consider someone a good human being if he or she relates positively and kindly to other humans, regardless of religious practice.” The Torah instructs us in many different contexts and ways to consider the suffering of animals.
    In addition to behaving kindly and ethically toward humans, we must behave that way toward all G-d’s creatures. We do not have free reign or “dominion,” we have responsibility toward them. Given the horrors perpetrated upon animals exploited for food (and in some ways, they are treated even worse in Kosher facilities) an ethical person must refrain from supporting that. Many authorities agree Jews should be directed thus. http://www.jewishveg.com/schwartz/index.html

  • Rabbi Pinchos Woolstone

    Well, as a Frum Jew you have given me food for thought.
    As Chabadnik, many of your ideas I have seen in the writings of the Rebbeim of Chabad, all be it in another style.
    I would like to hear more you.

    • Jeremy

      Of course you are right. Whether it is the Seven Noachide Commandments or the specific laws in the Torah, you cannot be a follower of Torah or Jewish Ethics and be cruel to animals.

      But vegetarianism is another kind of argument. I happen to be on your side and I look forward to a day shortly when artificially cultured protein from cloned sources will remove the need to kill animals for food and save the billions wasted on cattle rearing. But you can still be a humane carnivore and be a good Jew and a good human being.

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Rabbi Woolstone
      I cant think of a better example of a great leader who encouraged Jews to stay within the community regardless of their level of belief or practice. And look what an amazig legacy he has left.