Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Jewish Atheist?

For some, God is surely a part of the universe. For others, belief in God wavers over the course of a lifetime. Many people believe that the question of God’s existence cannot be answered. And for some, God does not exist.

The question of God’s existence is one of faith, not one of proof. We cannot demonstrate with absolute certainty that God is out there. God has not appeared to me or to anyone I know. There are people out there who claim to have spoken to God, but in our modern day and age, we regard them with skepticism.

We will never be able to prove scientifically that God exists. Science tells us how many miles it is from the earth to the sun, or how long it takes for a ball to fall from a window to the ground. But no mathematical equation will ever demonstrate with certainty whether God is real. And no matter how advanced our science and technology becomes, we will never prove that God does not exist. Our world will always contain mysteries that even the most powerful science will not be able to explain, leaving a place for the Divine.

Even though we cannot prove that God exists, Judaism affirms the belief that God is real. So what happens if you do not believe in God? Can you be a member of a religion even if you are an atheist?

I know plenty of people who are Jews and atheists. They belong to a Temple, they celebrate the holidays and they do all of the Jewish things. They also do not believe in God.

What would Judaism be like without belief in God? Much of the religion would still be relevant. All of the ethnic elements of Judaism would remain the same. We would still eat the same Jewish food, and use the same Yiddish expressions. The synagogue would still have an important place in our lives. Temple becomes a community center, a place to meet friends, share our lives together and help one another through hard times.

It is even possible to study Judaism and the Bible without believing in God. Our holy books contain great ethical wisdom such as the oft-quoted line, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We can talk about morals and ethics without God.

It is possible to be Jewish and an atheist. Yet the person who closes him or herself off to God neglects much of what is good, beautiful and elevating in Judaism. Prayer devoid of God seems quite difficult. For some, prayer is a time to sit with your thoughts. That is a wonderful thing. But to pray is also to get in touch with our own humility and to realize that there is a power greater than us in this world. And this type of humility makes us better people. I fear those who lack a sense of their own limitations.

Belief in God also makes us more ethical. Of course it is possible to be a good person and not believe in God. But God gives authority to our moral values. The fact that God demands ethical behavior makes us more likely to do the right thing. Our conscience may one day tell us to do something good, the next day to follow our most base desires. Yet God demands constant ethical behavior.

Must you believe in God to be religious? Perhaps the answer is that we must keep trying to believe in God. Our task is to continue to search for that power or force or being in our lives and in the universe. To be a Jew means to always be searching for the divine and to never to give up on God.


Allyson said...

The question of Jewish atheists has been one I have been personally thinking about for a long time. I'm engaged to a Conservative Jew, and of course there was some discussion as to whether or not I would convert. I ultimately decided not to because I am an atheist; I was raised in a secular household, and although I have thought about and studied different religions, I cannot "make" myself believe. Because I don't have any ethnic ties to Judaism, I felt it would be hypocritcal of me to convert if I did not believe in God and had no cultural ties either. Essentially, I would be converting for the wrong reasons. My fiance respects my choice; he understands my reasons. So it worked out for us, but I can see how it might be a bone of contention for other people

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Dear Allyson,

Thank you for sharing this wonderful comment with us. I think all that you said was very well thought out and has a great amount of integrity. I agree that you should not convert unless it is the right decision for you. Congratulations on your engagement!

Bette S said...

Without G-d one most assuredly finds it far easier to be a moral relativist. For some of us the country club of the synagogue isn’t enough reason to be involved. Substituted could be a charitable organization, political involvement or the Lion’s Club. The rabbi must walk a fine line to keep the edifice viable; to go too much one way or the other offends someone these days. Sadly, the loss of G-d belief will be the demise of religion.

Keep the faith,

Bette S said...

In my 25 years of life, accepting God has been a roller coaster struggle. As a child, the notion of God was strong - it reassured me of higher order and justice in a world that seemed complex, magical, and beyond comprehension. In my later childhood years, the magical foundation I built my understanding of the world upon began to shake at the hands of science and rationalism, and even more accutely by the painful lessons of life. When my mother's passed away from cancer, I was only 15, and I was angry at myself for believing God could exist. When I lost all my physical belongings to a flood in Houston, TX, I was only 19. These painful experiences of life challenged my capacity to continue embracing the God-related tenets of my Jewish upbringing.

How could a moral, and just God maintain relevance in a world full of so much pain? I have no answer, and hence am an agnostic Jew. However, to be an athiestic Jew, I believe, would be a an oversit, not only to my Jewish faith, but also to my rational mind. Athiesm isn't a product of science, rationalism, modernism, or pessimism - it is a product of faith, just as belief in God is. However, Agnosticism is a professed faith in nothingness. No scientist, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, or other scholar can definitely say God does not exist, and therefore to be an athiest, or believe firmly God is not existent, on must take a firm view that I believe is mostly an expression of frustration, of pain, or of cynicism.

Over the past five or six years, I have continued to question God, but my faith in the power of mitzvot, whether religious or secular, in the power of humanity, has brought me back to Judaism. Whether God has made a compelling case to me in my 25 years or not, the values of Judaism, and the integrity of the community have kept my Jewish identity intact.

Yet I have also strayed. After leaving for college, Judaism became a seasonal event market by high holidays, occasional Bar Mitzvahs, and a Birthright trip to Israel.

What's more, I begin to date a Woman of Irish Protestant ancentry who started to embrance Judaism more strongly than I had in the last decade. She embraced the faith professing that her conversion to Judaism was independent of our relationship, and that she would remain Jewish regardless of our relationship's status.

As I watched her undergo this transformation and journey of discovery, I began to realize again what a gift it is to be Jewish. She coaxed me to light the Shabbat candles, to attend services more often, and reconnect with the community.

It is interesting that all the life paths I take that seem like they should steer me away from Judaism bring me closer to it. Perhaps, one day, my path in life will also bring me closer to God - perhaps.

Allyson said...

and therefore to be an athiest, or believe firmly God is not existent, on must take a firm view that I believe is mostly an expression of frustration, of pain, or of cynicism

Speaking as an athiest, my lack of belief is in fact not an expression of any of the above. Being athiest at one point was incredibly difficult for me - when I was in high school, in a predominantly Catholic town, with classmates who would harass me for not following some form of religion. But my athiesm has never been about cynicism. I never had a falling out with a deity; I never believed in one in the first place. I actually spent a lot of my high school and college years more as an agnostic, exploring religion and seeing if anything fit. But I've always been an athiest, and an optimistic one at that. I often marvel at the world and what humans have accomplished. I know there are some things I cannot explain, but I'm fine with the mystery. Atheism for me is an expression of my belief in humanity. People make mistakes all the time, but we've also done some amazing things in history. Perhaps some athiests are "angry," but I have always found a great deal of joy in being able to celebrate the accomplishments of humanity.

(Hope this doesn't offend anyone too much; I just wanted to point out that most athiests aren't angry at a deity - they're usually more upset by people who refuse to take their lack of belief seriously)

Alan Maki said...

I am very content being Jewish and an atheist.

Randy Kadish said...

I have tried but I have not been able to believe in a Judeo-Christian God. Such a God is in the affairs of men and women, though in an unseen way. I don't see how such a God could have allowed the horrors of the world wars.

Yet I believe in a higher power: the laws of the universe, the techniques, for example, of casting a fly rod, the collective wisdom of other people.

And I strongly believe in Judeo-Christian morality, especially in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.

at the edge said...

May I suggest you read the letters written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, wherein he does prove the existence of G-d?