Judaism without Belief in God? Moment Readers Say Yes

By | Dec 13, 2011

Moment Magazine is pleased to announce the winners of the inaugural Elephant in the Room essay contest. This year’s question, “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” elicited wide-ranging, thought-provoking responses. Essays covered a broad variety of ideas, but an overwhelming majority said it was possible to live a full, rewarding Jewish life without belief in any higher power.

This year’s winners are Craig Hanoch, an Orthodox Jew and author of a forthcoming book on Judaism and nihilism from Highland Park, NJ; Rebecca Van Horn, a 2009 graduate of Bowdoin College working in Chicago as a community and labor organizer; and New York-based Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and, previously, the inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University, where he wrote a soon-to-be-published book on Jewish memory.

“These essays were selected not only for their eloquence, but also for their clear and thoughtful voice and perspective,” says Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher of Moment Magazine.

“To be a Jew is to stand trembling in the embrace of the essential mystery of humanity, that we are possessed of questions we cannot answer,” wrote Hanoch in his essay. “The most secular physicist peering into the far reaches of the universe and the most devout Hasid, swaying at prayer, struggle daily with these same fundamental questions: Why life? Why this here and now rather than something else, rather than nothing at all?”

Wrote Van Horn: “I am the elephant in the room, the Jew who makes us question whether or not it’s possible to claim a monotheistic religion when you question theism.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish without a belief in God, but I know what it’s like to be me, Jew-ish, and not know if I believe in God. I have watered down a big, beautiful religion steeped in thousands of years of history and tradition into my own personal story that views its foundation as a choice. I stand in Rosh Hashanah services and bow my head, praying to no one. And yet, still I pray.”

Kurtzer’s response addressed the importance of the Jewish community moving away from belief as a “litmus test for serious Jewishness (and much less Jewishness altogether).”  He wrote: “Jewishness has always been about book, and not canon; tradition, more than authority; journey, rather than arrival. Our communities must model this, with fluid boundaries, fewer tests of belonging, and a kind of radical and desperate pluralism that we – in spite of more and more institutions that model denominational pluralism – still have yet to achieve.

The goal of the contest is to encourage conversation about topics that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss openly in traditional venues. “It is important to create safe places for people to explore their religious identity and spirituality,” says Epstein. “The response we received, both in terms of numbers and quality of entries as well as spontaneous discussion in social media, shows how much conversation is needed. We found that many people wrestle with this question alone and feel isolated because of it.”

Analysis of the 2011 essays as a whole revealed the following:

  • Ninety-seven percent of contest participants said (for a range of reasons) that one can be Jewish without belief in God.
  • Forty-eight percent said that they identified as a Jew despite their own lack of belief in God.
  • Thirty-two percent of them said that belief is a choice, not a requirement.
  • Sixteen percent identified something other than belief as the most important Jewish value. Family, religious practice, tradition and love of learning were identified as primary Jewish values.
  • Only thirty-two percent mentioned a denominational affiliation.

“These percentages show that this topic is truly an elephant in the room,” says Epstein. “One participant told me he asked the question of his rabbi and the rabbi said he wouldn’t touch this question with a ten-foot pole. Here is a major question of faith that the majority of American Jews (and a majority of non-Jews) confront, and many clergy in our country are reluctant to touch it. This makes it very difficult to have a true conversation. We hope that people will read these essays and be inspired to join the discussion.”

The winning essays, along with excerpts from the other finalists and interesting essays, were published in the November/December issue of Moment, available now.

Moment Magazine seeks to encourage a higher level of civic discourse and is committed to portraying intellectual, political, cultural and religious debates, ranging from left to right, fundamentalist to secular. Founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein in 1975, Moment is the premier independent Jewish magazine in North America. Today, Moment reaches more than a million readers through its flagship print edition, digital edition, weekly e-newsletter and “In the Moment” blog. Moment also sponsors other annual contests, including Publish-A-Kid, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest, and the Moment Magazine Memoir Contest.

For more information and to interview winners and finalists, contact Aubrey Lopez at alopez@momentmag.com or 202-363-6422.

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