Entries are coming in for the Elephant in the Room essay contest (https://www.momentmag.com/elephant.html), in which we are asking for answers to the question “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” We have not picked a winner yet – you have until October 7th to send in your essay – but we wanted to share some of our favorite passages so far:
“In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like ‘Baruch Hashem’ and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. ‘Idolaters!’ I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.
“Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.”
“I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. ‘And how long have you been studying Talmud?’ the rabbi asks. ‘Five years.’ ‘Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?’ (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for ‘atheist’, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)’ [Editor’s note: To read more about this term, check out the Jewish Word from our new September/October issue.]
“As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called ‘God.’ If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.”
– Marc DiMartino
“If the only ways to be Jewish demand a belief in God, Judaism is in trouble.
Consider if surveys of Jewish behavior were tabulated in the other direction: 85% of Jews DO NOT keep kosher; 80% of Jews DO NOT light Shabbat candles, let alone observe Shabbat restrictions. Why do we continue to consider those primary determinants of Jewish identity on a par with Passover seders or Hanukkah candles (both done by 80%)? Why make God the defining focus of Judaism, when that will cut off enough of us to harm the whole body?”
“My Judaism has never depended on or revolved around god-belief. My Judaism has always been my family culture, my personal heritage, my calendar and holidays, my ceremonies of life. The fact that my parents raised me in Humanistic Judaism, living our cultural Judaism and humanistic philosophy without apology or compromise but with creativity and courage, may be the exception. The reality that my Judaism today is based on my connections with the Jewish people and its civilization, rather than supernatural belief, is far from uncommon.”
– Rabbi Adam Chalom
“The God reflected in Torah and the liturgy is not a God that I can easily identify with. I belong to a Conservative congregation because Hebrew provides me with a buffer. I can enjoy the communal experience of prayer and feel one with the Jewish People without having to dwell on the language of supplication I find so grating. It is difficult for me to relate to a God that demands to be, or needs to be, worshipped in this way.”
“My Jewish identity stands apart from God and encompasses so much more than belief in God. My Jewishness is grounded in belief in the Jewish people. In an age when we are all Jews by choice, why should anyone question that choice by people who find their Jewish meaning without God?”
– David Shtulman
“It means a belonging. It means acceptance when rejection laps around you like water in the ocean. It means a history connecting you with time before civilization, before even time itself. It means acknowledgment of belonging to a community that spans the course of recorded history. It means participation in rituals because of community, feelings, and family. It means strangers that are family. It means family that are strangers.”
“It means learning language. It means learning tradition, It means learning history. It means learning morality. It means learning community. It means learning politics. It means learning genealogy. It means learning.”
– Kirk Kirkpatrick