Can you be a Jew and not believe in God at the same time? Some people think so and that’s the subject on an article this week in USA TODAY. It’s a subject of interest to me because I was raised in a Jewish home and I’m an atheist.
The USA TODAY article offers the example of Maxim Schrogin, a 64-year-old, dues-paying member of Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Berkeley, California, who not only attends services regularly, but bar and bat-mitvahed his two children. He says, “atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, so to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn’t an issue or a challenge or a problem.”
I can understand Schrogin’s attitude… sort of. After all, most of the emphasis in Judaism is on living life as a righteous human being and that’s not as overtly religious as, say, the Christian emphasis on accepting Jesus as your personal savior. Still, Jewish prayer services do mention God and what God did, does and wants a lot. And I really wish USA TODAY had asked Mr. Schrogin if he had his boy-child circumcised for atheistic or Jewish reasons…
“It is par for the course,” Schrogin added. “That is what Judaism is. It is our tradition to question God from top to bottom.”
This is also true, but with an important caveat or two. Most Jewish questions are constrained within a religious framework. They are concerned with God’s Will; what He wants us to do in order to be righteous. When you come up with an answer that is outside that framework, such as God probably doesn’t exist and you can determine right from wrong through reason and experience, why do you still need to go to services?
There actually are a few reasons. One has to do with cultural identity.
My friend Stan K— is a retired schoolteacher and an atheist. He frequents atheist groups, backs humanist causes and was even a plaintiff once in a separation of church and state case that brought him a number of death threats from angry theists. Yet he still teaches part-time at a Hebrew school and often attends temple functions and services. He regards himself as culturally Jewish and he likes the sense of community he derives from the association. The rabbi and the staff know his religious views but aren’t worried about it (Reform Judaism is so darn accomodating that sometimes you wonder why even they go to services!).
I, on the other hand, don’t feel the tribal tug quite so strongly and rarely think of myself as anything other than an atheist atheist. Once in awhile though, I will still accompany Stan to some temple function (usually ones that involve dinner. One comedian summed up most Jewish holidays as “They tried to kill us. They failled. Let’s eat.”). They make me feel a little nostalgic for the family gatherings of my childhood, but otherwise don’t fill a real need for me.
There is one other group that has no problem believing in Jewish atheists, and that’s the anti-semites. For them, Judaism usually isn’t defined just by culture or by religion, but by race and by plots. I number a few anti-semites among my correspondants, including one who alternately twits me for being part of both atheist plots and Jewish plots. When I point out that he really can’t have it both ways, he begs to differ. “Both goals are the same,” he says. “You’re both working to destroy White Christian civilization!”
Sigh… sometimes it doesn’t matter what terms you use to describe your beliefs. There are lots of people around who are only too happy to tell you what you are whether you like it or not.
If you enjoy my articles, you can click on “subscribe” at the top of the page and you’ll receive notice when new ones are published.