I don’t know whether it’s theologically kosher to be both a Jew and an atheist, but if it isn’t, half the Americans who call themselves Jews aren’t quite legit. Of self-identified Jews in the nationally representative surveys David Campbell and I did for our book American Grace, 50 percent say they have doubts about the existence of God. That figure is much higher among Jews than any other major religious group in America. (Among members of all other faiths, only 10-15 percent express any doubts at all about God’s existence.) Indeed, the fraction of atheists among self-described Jews is not much lower than among so-called “nones,” people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. Of the “nones,” 53 percent have doubts about God’s existence.
Jews are an ethnicity and a community, not just a religion. To be sure, that’s true of other religions, to some extent. Part of what it means to be an Italian, Polish or Irish American is being Catholic, and the Black church is at the core of the African-American community. So Jews are not alone in being partly an ethnic grouping, but community bonds play an unusually prominent role in our religion. I’m a Jew by choice—I converted 50 years ago, and I’m even more satisfied with that choice now than I was a half-century ago. That’s partly because being Jewish is mostly not about beliefs, but about connections with other people, sharing values and a collective destiny. Even for non-observant Jews, Jewish values are embodied in the Torah. Most Jews, unlike most Christians, don’t take the Torah literally, but it’s an exceptional account of the shared history and values of our people. Those values include respect for learning—we’re the “People of the Book”—respect for the individual, and pervasive concern about the fate of the community. It’s not an accident that Jews are among the most generous people in America philanthropically, and not just for Jewish causes; this trait embodies tikkun olam. Sociologically, Jews behave in a way that’s consistent with putting a high value on caring for other people, as well as on respect for learning. Even the atheists among us share those values.
Robert Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University.
Without question, there always has been Judaism without God. For one thing, who decides whether what we do is Judaism or not? Is there some court on high that says, “This is Jewish, and this is not”? Clearly, a large population of Jews in America do not believe in God, though they may not say so. It’s very taboo in America to admit you’re an atheist. We can’t imagine a candidate for president who doesn’t go around God-blessing everything. It’s almost a century since Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote Judaism as a Civilization, and the idea that Judaism has evolved over time is hardly a new concept. Even asking the question, “Can there be Judaism without God?” seems odd. Lots of people who don’t believe in God are going along living and being Jewish, so obviously they exist. People used to ask, “Can Judaism survive without halacha?” And it certainly has in the non-Orthodox movements. Same with God. If you say the community is only those who believe in God, you’ll have a pretty paltry community. What would they ask? Some kind of oath as to what you believe? Obviously that’s oppressive. At the bottom of these questions is a mindset that wants to appeal to an external authority saying what’s kosher and what isn’t. What are we asking for? Are we asking for permission?
Marcia Falk, a poet, translator and liturgist, is the author of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival.