People have long come to terms with atheist Jews. But how about an atheistic Judaism? Well surely that must be oxymoronic. Judaism without God, many would argue, is like Christianity without Jesus or physics without Newton. Atheist Jews can of course celebrate aspects of Judaism, but no way can they claim that their beliefs and practices are authentic expressions of Judaism.
Atheist Jews are all around us. Some of our best and brightest were and are proud non-believers and secularists. Jews have one of the highest percentages of atheists amongst them compared to other groups. For example, the Harris Poll found that 19% of American Jews do not believe that God exists, compared to only 7% in the general American population. In the words of Lenny Bruce:
“Atheism is Jewish. Converting to Christianity is, of course, goyish. But so is converting to Judaism. In fact, it’s such a goyish thing, no Jew has ever done it.”
Jews are a sceptical nation. From our earliest days we are referred to by our prophets and leaders in the Tanach as an “עם קשה עורף” – “a stubborn nation”. We were never easily fooled by the promises and threats of our prophets and scepticism and disbelief is a common theme in Tanach.
But despite the prevalence and acceptance of atheist Jews in the wider Jewish community, there is still a feeling that Judaism itself comes with a God and an atheist Jew is someone who rejected that element of Judaism. It is not only theistic Jews who might have this sentiment. Atheist Jews themselves might agree that Judaism itself is not really compatible with disbelief in God.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, goes as far as claiming that “atheist Jew” is an oxymoron and refers to himself as an “ex-Jew” having abandoned Judaism for atheism. In a lecture for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle and FreeThought Arizona titled ‘I’m an Atheist and So Are You’ (which was by the way the inspiration for this session’s title) he strongly expresses his view that Judaism is nothing but a religion based on beliefs of which belief in God has a central and essential place.
But is he right? Is Judaism merely a religion? What does one need to do or believe in order to be considered a follower of Judaism?
In order to answer this question we need to go back to the origins of Judaism and have a look at its developments. There are multiple lenses through which we can do this though and they will all lead us to different answers. To compare and contrast these different approaches let’s have a look at two of those views from either end of the religious spectrum. First we’ll have a look at our history through the traditional/literalist lens and then we will come back and have a look at it through the historical/naturalistic lens.
So here is the traditional account:
The year is 3761 BC and God had just finished creating the universe. It had been a busy week. The task was not easy. But being super-powerful, God managed to finish all of His work exactly on schedule and now it was time for a nap. The rest was so refreshing that God decided that that day should be commemorated as a weekly day of rest and thus shabbat was born.
Fast forwards a millennium and God’s enthusiasm for Project Universe is on the wane. Creating AI is always risky and God had miscalculated the power of free will and it seemed to be spiralling out of control. In an uncontrollable fit of anger God floods the earth, which results in the extinction of the dinosaur species forever.
A couple of generations pass and finally the child who is soon to become Abraham is born. By smashing his father’s idols he becomes God’s favourite. God decides to choose in his descendants to come as His chosen people.
It takes another 400 years, 210 of which are spent in slavery in Egypt, for Abraham’s descendants – the Israelites – to cross the Red Sea and finally stand at the bottom of Mount Sinai. The moment which the whole of creation was intended for has finally arrived. On that day Moses received from God the Written and Oral Torah, which contains in extreme detail the laws by which a Jew must live, from what one may or may not eat and with whom one may or may not sleep, to the exact length of a woman’s skirt.
After entering Canaan and wiping out its population, the golden Jewish era begins. Under Solomon’s rule the male Israelites are free to spend their time learning Torah and serving God in His temple that Solomon erected. But as usual with us the good times do not last long. We sin again and we are exiled from our land. Being the chosen people, extraordinary things happen to us and they are not always pleasant. We sometimes find ourselves echoing Tevye the Milkman’s words addressed to God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
But there is some good news. Moshiach is on his way and it won’t take long before we are gathered back to the Promised Land, where the temple will be rebuilt and, once again, we will be free to serve HaShem to our heart’s delight.
Now, I may have sounded cynical in my description of the literalist approach to our history and I absolutely was, but at this very moment there are communities of hundreds of thousands of people who know of no other Jewish history. In Charedi Judaism the biblical account as seen through the eyes of the Talmudic rabbis is actual history.
It is not difficult to see what someone with this view of Judaism would think of atheistic Judaism. Not only is it heretical and wrong, but it makes no sense either. What can possibly be Jewish about atheism? If you do not believe in God, fair enough, but you cannot claim to be believing in Judaism.
Ultra Orthodox Judaism takes this view to the extreme, not seeing any Jewish value in anything that is not directly related to the service of God, but it isn’t only Charedi Jews who believe that Judaism without God is a contradiction in terms. Many non-fundamentalist Jews from a variety of denominations would agree that the bare minimum required of a Jewish belief is the belief in God, whatever meaning that term may take. We may reinterpret what that term means, we may choose to relate to It in various ways, but the bottom line is that we need to be using theistic language to express our Judaism.
Even rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, an atheist himself, would not dare to remove theistic language from the liturgy and Jewish beliefs. Judaism, it seems, is about religion and no matter how much we may reform it and reshape it, a religion it must remain.
But is Judaism really a religion? Is theism really a fundamental belief in Judaism?
Let’s have a look at the history of Judaism through the naturalistic/historical lens. Perhaps we’ll find some answers to our questions which may lead to different conclusions.
The Jewish people appears to emerge as a distinct group, or rather groups, of Israelites sometime in the second millennium BCE in ancient Canaan. Do they have Jewish mothers? Unlikely. Are they descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Well, who knows? But since the different sources in the Torah seem to be conflicted about Israel’s genealogy themselves, the patriarchs are more likely to be mythical than historical. Do they have a leader Moses? Once again, who knows? We do know however that he probably did not take the Israelites out of Egypt, since they weren’t there in the first place. The Egypt narrative only appears in some biblical sources, but not in others, which indicates that the story is mythical, rather than historical. Biblical archaeology also indicates that the Exodus story most probably never happened.
The Ancient Israelites are pagans. They and their tribal chieftans and later kings worship a plethora of pagan gods and goddesses which they share with their Canaanite neighbours, as is well documented in the Tanach. They also have their own tribal deity, Yahweh, who fights their wars, takes their side in conflicts and dwells in the different temples and sanctuaries that they build for his needs.
The Israelites also have a whole collection of tribal myths. They have a mythological ancestry with patriarchs and a genealogy that hierarchically connects different sub-tribes to specific roles and geographical areas; they have mythological narratives to explain certain tribal practices that none of them remember how they started off and they celebrate certain tribal festivals which usually correspond to agricultural events.
Using the tools of Source Criticism it becomes very clear that the apparently monotheistic nature of the Tanach is one superimposed on older polytheistic texts by later writers. The writers known in the Documentary Hypothesis as J, E, P and D each have their own theologies and socio-political agendas based on their period and geological location and belief in one God is not held by them all.
It is important to remember that they are not Greeks and that they do not think like Greeks. This is a period before Socrates roams the streets of Athens probing people to think about the meaning of life. For the ancient Israelite, history, mythology, theology, philosophy and science are indistinguishable from each other. The priest is the doctor and the prophet is the historian. The natural and the supernatural are both equally mysterious and the rainbow is no more anomalous than a flying fiery chariot. The ancient does not believe in his gods, he worships them; she does not have faith, she simply lives with her unquestioned practices. The gods are as obvious for the ancient as earth’s sphericity and the solar system’s helio-centricity is for the modern.
The ancient Israelites, just like the ancient Cannanites, are not religious. Religion has not been born yet as it waits for the Greeks to come around. Only centuries later, when people start thinking about the nature of knowledge and belief, can religious ideas be formed, but at this point people just live and do, instead of think and believe.
The Tanach, rather than being a book of instruction, is the collection of the tribal mythology of the Israelite people. It contains real history, pseudo-history, mythology, theology and much more, intertwined with each other without any distinctions between them. The Hebrew Bible is thus a tribal text rather than a religious one, as are the practices and beliefs of the ancient Israelites tribal rather than religious.
Judaism only starts turning into a religion during the rabbinic period driven by two factors: the rise of Greek thinking, and the decentralization of the Israelite/Jewish people in their sovereign country. Tribal rituals and mythologies usually do not survive the application of Greek patterns of thought to them. The Greek wants to categorise, characterise and canonise, whilst the pagan needs spontaneity, flexibility and creativity. Critical thinking is lethal to the paganistic worldview, as the pagan is unprepared to take on the challenge. The thought that his assumptions might not reflect reality has never crossed his mind and the question “why” is not in his vocabulary either.
Likewise, the growth and decentralization of the tribe means that it can no longer evolve in unison, posing a danger to the unified nature of the tribal identity. Without the royal court, the institution of prophecy and the priestly cult of the temple, the tribal rituals and narratives have to be canonized into something substantial and defined, or they will not survive.
So starting from the later Biblical authors, around the time of the Babylonian exile, the Bible starts being radically reinterpreted and reformed to reflect these needs. By the time the Talmudic rabbis are around, Rabbinic Judaism is no longer comparable to Biblical Judaism, which some Jewish sects – most notably, the Sadducees – try to uphold. By the law of Natural Selection, the other forms of Judaism do not survive, as they were not capable of adapting to the needs of the time, and Rabbinic Judaism emerges victorious becoming the mainstream – if not the only – stream of Judaism until the Karaites come around.
According to this view of our history, Judaism cannot be seen as primarily a religion. It of course has religious aspects and it indeed turned into a religion during our long exile, but that is not what it originally was. Belief in God cannot be an essential belief in Judaism either, given that the biblical authors themselves seem to be conflicted on the matter.
A far better model of Judaism is to see it as a civilization, a national or tribal identity and a culture. What made us Jews in biblical times was not a specific theology or worldview, but an identity of belonging to the Israelite tribe and later nation. We were Jews by virtue of a common culture, which included our national myths, our national practices and yes, our national gods too.
In the same way that Judaism went through periods of polytheism as well as monotheism in biblical times, it can have a period of atheism in modern times. National identities are not contingent upon any specific beliefs and just as british values and beliefs have changed over time, so have Jewish values changed and evolved to reflect contemporary beliefs and values.
Judaism is not defined by books, but by its people. The Jewish people define what Judaism is at any given point in history. We are Jewish not by believing in specific dogmas or keeping specific practices, but by seeing ourselves as the result of millennia of Jewish history and by identifying with the ancient Israelites as our national ancestors and foreparents.
We may be eating different foods than our ancestors, using different modes of travel than what they used and believing in different things to what they believed, but they are still our actual or mythological ancestors and we are the Jewish people of our times.
As humanistic Jews, our Judaism is humanistic and our Jewish practices are humanistic. Refraining from eating certain foods or wearing certain clothes for no good reason, is not Jewish if it does not reflect contemporary Jewish values. In the same way that slavery is not a british value despite it being common practice in this country at some point in our history, belief in God may stop being Jewish if it stops being the popular Jewish belief.
For example, the concept of “tikkun olam” is now widely seen as a Jewish value, despite it not being a Jewish value in any talmudic or post talmudic literature, at least not in the humanistic sense of caring for the wellbeing of people regardless of their race or belief. Nevertheless, social action is definitely a contemporary Jewish value, as Jews tend to deeply care about these issues. This just shows that it is the Jewish people who define Judaism and not Judaism that defines the Jewish people.
Humanism, which is a naturalistic world view, is arguably already a Jewish value and given the current trends, atheism may after all turn out to be Jewish in the future.