Being Jewish Without God
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!”