It is difficult to conceive of Judaism as a long-term, sustainable tradition without belief in God, or, at the very least, belief in the Jewish people. For example, one of the questions about Zionism is whether or not, as a belief in the Jewish people outside of God, it is sustainable over the generations. I’m not sure it is. I’m not saying that all Jews do believe in God, and I don’t think God fills a void in any kind of easy way, but the notion of God gives some kind of trans-historical, or trans-subjective dimension to why we think we ought to do what we ought to do. The question comes down to what it means to sustain a belief in God in Judaism, and that’s a complicated issue. One interesting example of someone who struggled with this issue is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. He rightfully recognized that defining Judaism just in terms of God was problematic, and he also claimed that, in many ways, modern science made notions of God obsolete. But he continually struggled to think of a notion of God that infused Jewish peoplehood with meaning.
The question is, why be Jewish? One thing I think most Jews would agree on—and there aren’t many things—is that it’s not easy to be Jewish alone. It’s communal. So what sustains the community? Answers about history and culture are important, but without a God that somehow transcends human history, Judaism becomes just one cultural option among many. It becomes like ice cream flavors; different people like different flavors, but why should we force our children to like our flavor? Without God, arguments for Jewish continuity—that there should be Jews in the future—end up resorting to ethnic chauvinism.
Leora Batnitzky is chair of the Religion Department at Princeton University and author ofHow Judaism Became a Religion.
Jack M. Sasson
Especially before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, belief in God was generally not a troubling issue for Mizrachi Jews in the Middle East, as there was little differentiation between the religious and social spheres. People simply believed, sustaining behavioral norms that were shaped distinctively by the ways Jews, Muslims and Christians interpreted the will of God. Some within Judaism were doubtless driven to sharper modes of devotion than others, but these were not cultures in which individuals agonized about the existence of God. Rather they tightened family bonds and kept hope for a safe and more fulfilling future alive through that God. That world of Mizrachi Jews ended a generation or two ago, with the emptying of Jewish communities in all but Iran and Morocco. However, these Jews have worked hard to maintain close-knit and energetic diasporic communities: for example, the Syrian Jewish community in Deal, New Jersey and the Persian community in Los Angeles. The Latin word religio (from which we derive “religion”) has to do with connectives, attaching people together. In that sense, an increasing investment in communal acts—synagogue worship and joyous occasions such as engagement, marriage, bar-mitzvah and brit milla—give moments in which members of the community renew their commitments to each other as well as distribute rewards to loyal members.
Jack M. Sasson is the Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Vanderbilt University.