Are You There God? It’s Us, The Jews
Can religion, especially Judaism, work if you don’t believe in the Big Guy upstairs?
04/09/2012 - 20:00
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 

The latest turn in the New Atheist debates can be summed up like this: even if you don’t believe in God, religion still has a lot to offer. Public intellectuals like Alain de Botton and James Gray in Britain, and scientists like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt in America, all of them atheists, have made a similar case in their recent books and essays.

While their arguments differ, they all concede that religions —Christianity and Judaism, and ones from further East — have done a remarkable job creating harmonious communities, at least over the long haul of history. Moreover, religions have proved markedly adept at helping people cope with the agonies and ecstasies of human experience.

“God may be dead,” de Botton, an atheist born to secular Jewish parents, writes in his new book “Religion for Atheists,” “but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions. 

“The error of modern atheism,” he continues, “has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

To many Jews, this argument may seem unremarkable. In fact, it may seem eerily like a description of American Judaism today. It is not so much that most Jews in America define themselves as atheist — though, according to the latest research, almost 20 percent do. It’s that the question of whether God exists — in striking contrast to Christianity — is almost beside the point to how Jews define their identity.

“The religion has a lot of meaning even without God,” said Asher Lopatin, an Orthodox rabbi who leads the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Lopatin, a Rhodes Scholar recently named one of Newsweek’s “Top 50 Rabbis in America,” was not advocating for a Judaism without God. But he did think Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism, was getting along just fine without a strong emphasis on one.

He cited a 19th-century Talmudic commentary admitting a similar point, as if to suggest that his view was nothing radical. The idea was essentially that all rabbinic commentary, he paraphrased, “should be able to explain everything in the Jewish religion without having God in the picture.”

Interviews with rabbis of many denominations, as well as Jewish academics and intellectuals, elicited similar responses.

“The cliché is that Judaism is about deed, not creed. But there’s a lot of truth in that,” said Jay Michaelson, a prominent Jewish writer and thinker, who says he believes in a Spinozian-type God (“God does not exist; God is existence itself,” he said, summing it up.) “The innovation was Christianity, which said that if you believe in Christ, you are redeemed,” he continued. “In Judaism, questions of belief in God are secondary.”

Alan Mittleman, a professor of modern Jewish philosophy at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said, “I imagine many Jews go to shul, even Modern Orthodox shuls, and have doubts about God. But still they feel deeply committed to Jewish life and the mitzvot.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist who describes herself as an atheist Jew, put it this way: “Judaism isn’t a doctrinal religion. We do need community, and we do need these rituals that mark important times in our lives. But somehow it’s survived even having been cut off from theology.”  

Like several others interviewed, she dubbed American Judaism today, at least the most prevalent forms, as being “post-theological.” 

The latest statistics seem to fit these impressions. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey on American Jewish values, released this month, religious observance was a distant third in what Jews described as the most important quality of their Jewish identity. The most common answer, at roughly 50 percent, was “a commitment to social equality,” followed by support for Israel, at 20 percent. “Religious observance,” the closest quality to something like belief, was cited as the most important quality of Judaism only 17 percent of time.

The data also showed that, while about 70 percent of Jews define themselves through a religious movement — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — the other 30 percent see Judaism as more of a cultural identity, calling themselves “just Jewish.” And when asked whether Jews of any kind believed in God, 18 percent said they did not. (Forty percent said they believed in an “impersonal God,” while 26 percent said they believed in a God they saw as “a person with whom one can have a relationship.”)

None of this gives a clear picture of what Jews actually believe, or what they believe Judaism essentially is — a set of beliefs codified in laws, say, or a culture. But many of the rabbis and scholars interviewed for this article gave a similar description of the Jewish landscape.

Most Jews today, they said, tend to de-emphasize the question of belief in God, and instead focus on other modes of identity: a connection to Israel, or to Jewish history and culture or even with rituals and religious traditions — but understood as inherently meaningful, not necessarily because they connect to God.

This is not a new phenomenon, however. Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi who leads the Park Avenue Synagogue, and author of “Jewish Theology in Our Time” (2010), dated the idea of Judaism as a culture that includes religious practice — but is much more — to the early 20th century American rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

A prominent figure, Rabbi Kaplan argued in his landmark book “Judaism as a Civilization” (1934) that Judaism was essentially an ancient civilization. What mattered was ethics, not belief. Yet Jewish laws and rituals — that is, the stuff of traditional religion — were worth preserving as a means of sharing collectively in a rich and vibrant past.

While the movement Rabbi Kaplan founded, Reconstruction Judaism, has only a nominal place in American Jewish life today — 1 percent of Jews identity as Reconstructionist, according to the survey — his other legacy, Jewish community centers, was more successful. More importantly, his conception of Judaism as civilization, re-branded today as “culture,” is perhaps his most resounding legacy.

But not everyone sees the idea of Judaism as a culture — or “Judaism without God” — as good for the faith. When asked whether Judaism can remain a coherent entity — even one defined as a culture — without a strong belief in God, some were ominous.

“Without God playing a central role, Judaism will collapse,” said David Wolpe, a Conservative rabbi who leads the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. (He is also a regular contributor to The Jewish Week and topped this year’s Newsweek list.) He dismissed the idea of preserving religious rituals as merely valuable “traditions” — a common description since “Fiddler on the Roof,” if not Mordecai Kaplan.

“In the end, traditions are hard to maintain unless there’s an attempt to understand the traditions in a deep way, and that God is central to those traditions.”

His argument cannot be described as generational. Rabbi Wolpe may be in his 50s, but some younger rabbis serving mostly youthful populations made a similar case. Dan Ain, a 35-year-old Conservative rabbi and the 92YTribeca’s rabbi-in-residence, said a Jewish identity that pays little attention to theology “isn’t going to cut it anymore in the 21st century.”

“What we’re really experiencing now is a real crisis in Jewish life,” he said, referring to both the divisive debates over Israel — once a pillar of Jewish unity — and financial hardships stemming from the economy. Both individual Jews and Jewish institutions, especially ones that foster Jewish identity through cultural experiences, have suffered because of the downturn.

Because of this, he said, Jews want to tap into religious faith, but Jewish leaders have left them ill equipped. “People are looking for God in their lives,” but rabbis and Jewish organizations have not given them the ability to connect with God on a spiritual, and Jewish, level.

That lack of strong belief — or confusion over what it is Jews believe — stems in part from Judaism itself. From a historical perspective, rabbis have often come up with competing notions of what God actually is — from mystical, kabbalistic ideas that stress a God who created, then removed himself from the world, to the Maimonidean notion that any attempt to understand God through human faculties — language, say, or reason — ultimately fails because God is beyond all understanding.

“Depending on how you look at it, it’s either really liberating or really confusing,” said Rabbi Cosgrove. On the one hand, the diversity of theological ideas about God might create a larger tent for religious belief. But for others, it might be profoundly frustrating: so many Gods, which one to choose?

But like many others, Rabbi Cosgrove said that part of the problem was with Jewish institutions today — synagogues, Hebrew schools and JCCs alike. They do a poor job educating Jews on what God may or may not be.

“For many of us,” said Michaelson, “our concept of God stopped evolving when we were 13. If you believe ‘the old man in the sky’ is idiotic, odds are you’re not going to continue believing in God as an educated adult. So our God concept needs to grow up like we do.”

Leora Batnitzky, a professor of religion at Princeton, said, “I think the answer is better Jewish education that teaches all the main ideas about God. Then Jews can decide for themselves what they believe.”

Batnitzky has recently argued in her book, “How Judaism Became a Religion” (2011), that the idea of Judaism as a religion, rather than a culture, is actually a modern one. Prior to European emancipation, in the late-18th century, Jews lived in autonomous communities where all aspects of life were regulated by rabbis. That effectively made Judaism an entire culture. It is only as Jews entered an increasingly secular world that Judaism began to be conceived as a religion to be separated from all other aspects of life.

And yet she comes to the same conclusion as rabbis like Ain and Wolpe. “I think belief in God will be more important in the future than in the past,” she said in an interview. Given the difficulties other secular Jewish identities have had sustaining themselves in the past century — Zionist, Yiddish socialist, secular humanist Judaism — she believes a more traditional Jewish identity, one centered on religious practices and belief in God, will become more important.

Moreover, partaking in religious rituals without having a firm belief in God as their foundation doesn’t bode well for Judaism’s survival. The rituals, conceived of only as “traditions,” won’t hold up to scrutiny unless they are backed by a more powerful concept like God. “What the question of God is about is truth,” she said. “So people will begin to ask, ‘Is there any truth in this tradition?’” 

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


Religion is useful without god? What an absurd concept. With or without a god, religion has been the scourge of mankind.

Most of the problems of the world have been caused by religion. Think of the crusades, the inquisition, the dark ages, the witch burnings, the restrictions on learning, free speech, instilling guilt and shame into children, and the wars fought in the name of religion.

More recently, think of family planning clinic bombings, oppression of gays and non-believers, murders of doctors and homosexuals, imposition of religious beliefs by force of law, and illegal use of public funds to promote particular religions.

Mankind will never truly be free until the black yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of truth and rational thinking.

While I agree that without a belief in a god and without an adherence to the Torah, the Jewish religion may not survive, I believe that's besides the point. Though I was raised and lived most of my life as Orthodox, I don't believe in god (probably never did). Thus to me, adherence to a fictitious Torah and even the practice of traditions such as the Seder, just perpetuate a lie and why do it? Sharing customs is nice but the message of these customs lacks any basis. Why commemorate the splitting of the sea if it never happened? Silliness to me. Giving up on my "heritage" may be a tough pill to swallow and takes a lot of courage. But it speaks true to me.

Yes, you can be Jewish and not believe in God. There are many non-theistic aspects of Judaism that allow for a rich Jewish life. I celebrate holidays and Shabbats in a secular Jewish congregation, raise my children Jewish, know my people's history, delight in Jewish culture and tradition, visit Israel and, most important, try to live according to Jewish values. These values include intellectual honesty, and I don't believe my religion would want me to profess words and ideas, i.e., recognition of a supernatural deity, that I truly cannot accept.

A recent poll found that 80% of Israeli Jews believe in God. Not much more than 20% believe that they are bound to keep God's commandments. Most think that the belief in God is an essential part of being Jewish. Furthermore, those who do not keep the commandments nevertheless agree that the government support the Hareidi Ultra-Orthodox - because these Hareidis in some way represent "authentic Judaism" in the minds of the non-observant.

I am very hopeful that the Reform forms of Judaism DO manage to re-establish contact with the Jews who have lost all interest in the Jewish part of their existence. And I am happy with the return to somewhat more traditional observance in many Reform communities, despite the fact that this return is NOT due to belief that the traditional forms are best in the eyes of God, but because the traditional forms represent "authentic Judaism" - and the younger Reform community feels the need to identify more with "authentic Judaism". Rabbi Jaffe also wrote that the younger generation need more "spirituality" in their Jewish lives, and do not think that social policy is the proper subject for the sermons they want to hear from their Rabbi - they can get social policy in the newspapers.

A remark was made that religion "serves no objective function in helping mankind understand the natural world". I observe that the phenomenon of religion encompasses all of humanity, thus it is part of the natural world.

Perhaps the writer meant to say that religion "serves no objective function in helping mankind understand the PHYSICAL world". The physical world is only a part of the natural world. Man seems to be not only Homo Sapiens but also Homo Religiosus. And just as religion does not help to understand the physical world, so does Physics not really help to understand the spiritual world.

Without demographic critical mass, the Torah, broadly defined, will become an artifact of antiquity. Without the content, values and practice of Judaism, there would be little to distinguish a Jewish people from any other.
I admit to hypocrisy in my response to this article. I am an infrequent participant in the rituals of Jewish practice. However (much like the respectful atheists cited in the article) I have high esteem for those who profess strong belief in God, whether it is the god who intervenes in history, the god of creation, the god of the Exodus and Mt. Sinai or some amalgam of these. I may be more comfortable with the Spinoza’s god of nature mixed with a very strong connection to our history and commitment to the ethical precepts of TaN”Ch.

These principles, while emerging from our particular history, are the gifts of the Jewish people to western civilization, Christianity and Islam, and the main feature of our uniqueness. This article suggests and I agree that peoplehood and culture do not offer the critical mass for the survival of the Jewish people, much less flourish. The communal sense of peoplehood has enabled us Jews to survive two millennia of catastrophes. However now, especially outside Israel, the prevalence of political freedom, individualism, pluralism, tolerance and intermarriage, disaffiliation from organized structures (mainly synagogues), and small families (only the Orthodox and Hasidim buck this trend), demographic reality may make peoplehood an insufficient basis for Jewish continuity. A rump Jewish community that identifies as such and practices as such could become a rare oddity like today’s Zoroastrians.
Without a significant popular return to practice, if not belief, Judaism cannot continue to exist as a major world religion. It is possible for the Jewish people to continue in existence as a communal culture in Israel even if most people are secular, much as Albanians do in Albania. But if the content of the culture is not defined by the Jewish values and practices that have gotten us to this day, then even in Israel and certainly in the Diaspora, peoplehood will not be enough. Without the content that makes us Jewish, peoplehood would be an empty shell.

this article articulates clearly the distinction between Jews who where head-coverings and Jews who don't. yes, a little deed, wearing a kippah, sets the creed.

Judiasm can be a religion without including God. Buddhism and Confucianism are religions that don't require a belief in God. You don't have to have a god to have a religion. Here's the Wikipedia definition of religion: "Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values." No god, God or gods.

"They" will see, in 30th cenury..... how all that stuff evoluated.....
if you trust God; so, no problem...HE will make it!
if are atheist like me; no problem neither, the Humanity (of Jews and Non Jews) will experience it..... by Success or Death....
I shall not see it anyway. I don't really care: it is over my ability.
In 5 billions years all is over.....
Nevetrtheless, keep conterversy! it is the best stimulus...
A french polish atheisic Jew
PS/ Henri Atlan (neuroscientist and talmudist) wrote/ Judaism is the best atheistIC WAY OF THINKING as it is the only one faith which HAS NOT ANY REPRESENTATION OF GOD.

Good article overall. I wonder, though, why the author did not contact anyone from the Society for Humanistic Judaism or the Association of Humanistic Rabbis. It seems to me that if you're talking about whether or not Judaism needs God, you would want to hear from the movement that answers that question with a definitive no.

My two cents here:

God as imaginary friend. Works for me.

The books reviewed surprise me in that they set up a straw man scenario in which
Atheists supposedly do not accept that religious belief serves a prosocial purpose. Quite a few Atheist argue that religion has a psychological function in providing a subjective sense of security against the indifference of nature. The argument against religion is that it serves no objective function in helping mankind understand the natural world. It has no method to do so.

Rabbi Schweitzer writes: "Rather than exit the fold, we (secularists) are finding ways to bring people back in – on their secular terms."
Yes, "we", as in "a tiny minority of secularists".

Thank you for writing this article and to the posts from everyone. Since our numbers are very small, what 0.2% of the worlds population?, we cannot afford any further dilution. Judaism means Torah and belief in Hashem. You are jewish because of that and nothing else. Sure we have free choice. The existence of Hashem will always be debated but more recent writings 17th century onward from Rabbis and Kabbalists such as the Arizal and the Baal Shem Tov have re-ignited belief in my opinion. Take the time to do some research and visit orthodox shuls of all types including Chabads and then tell me what you think.

Robert Rubin: "Take the time to do some research and visit orthodox shuls of all types including Chabads and then tell me what you think."

I've done so.

You don't want to know what I think.

Throughout Jewish history there have always been theists and atheists as well as those who were observant and those who were not. The great kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria is reputed to have said that the Hebrew word for community/congregation (tzibur) is an acronym for the words tzadik (the righteous), baynoni (the commoner), v'rasha (and the wicked). Similarly, the Passover seder has both the chacham (the wise son) and rasha (the wicked son) seated at the same table. Rather than looking for some definitive set of beliefs and practices for each and every Jew, it might be more useful to explore the range of beliefs and practices necessary to ensure not only our physical and spiritual survival, but also our growth. Maybe what keeps us strong and has allowed us to persevere at different times and in different places has been our ability to draw on the strengths of different beliefs and practices. And maybe what keeps us intellectually honest and emotionally alert is the conviction that nobody has a monopoly on the truth!

It appears that the quintessential Christian epithet applied to our Jewish ancestors - hypocrite - may well be justified.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wrote above that "somehow (Judaism has) survived even having been cut off from theology.”
This kind of sloppy thinking is irksome. First of all, is that our goal, survival? We're looking to thrive, not survive. Secondly, there are groups of Jews that have thrived -- generationally speaking -- and some that withered (a net "survival", I suppose). Isn't it the case that in general, the groups that thrived are the ones in which Judaism was NOT cut off from theology?

Jay Michaelson, if you're reading this, I'd really like to thank you for writing Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism. Thanks to you, I've become a panentheist, a viewpoint which has deep roots in Jewish mysticism. Because of this book, I've begun to explore the writings of Rabbi David Aaron and others who share this philosophy.

For anyone out there who has doubts, please explore these and other writings in Jewish panentheism. If you really want to get into it, study Kabbalah. It feels so natural, and it makes so much sense. Jewish panentheism was (and possibly still is) considered to be out of the mainstream, but thankfully, it is making a comeback.

I know this is a really old thread so just taking a shot in the dark. I've only found limited information on jewish penentheism outside of the (great) works from David Aaron who has many books. Are there any other resources you could direct me to on the subject?



"from mystical, kabbalistic ideas that stress a God who created, then removed himself from the world"-

If you don't mind, I would like to see which source you are referring to, there is a vast difference in mystical understanding between G-d hiding himself and the Aristotelian idea of G-d removing himself from the world

It always amuses me – when it doesn’t anger me -- that some Jews seem to know better how others must live their lives and what beliefs they must embrace. Secular cultural Jews, for whom God is, indeed, “beside the point” when it comes to defining their Jewish identity, don’t spend their energy bewailing what they might perceive as archaic and misguided beliefs of traditional Jews. But traditional Jews are quick to bemoan, with purported sympathy, the loss of belief and faith of us secularists. Then they go even further and really step over the line when they predict that the future demise of Judaism – tantamount to the destruction of the Temple! – will be brought on because of our so-called apostasy.

But we secularists see it differently. We see that we are reinvigorating our Jewish heritage and identity with new life and vitality. By creating secular versions of traditional rituals - bar and bat mitzvahs, haggadot and High Holiday services - we are providing a way for contemporary secular and cultural Jews to partake of our tradition and remain consistent with our philosophical point of view. Rather than reject, we adapt, modify and innovate. Rather than exit the fold, we are finding ways to bring people back in – on their secular terms.

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York City

Rabbi Schweitzer: "Then they go even further and really step over the line when they predict that the future demise of Judaism – tantamount to the destruction of the Temple! – will be brought on because of our so-called apostasy."

Failing that, they predict the demise of the liberal denominations with their 200 year-old battle cry: "Your grandchildren won't be Jewish!" Meanwhile, it's two centuries later, and we're all still here - but Orthodoxy is now at a watershed..

The Orthodox love to tout their "success", but what they really have is an irresponsible rate of reproduction. Due to sheer number, the Haredim now control the franchise, and they are self-destructing; they're succumbing to pressure from without, deteriorating from within and can no longer provide for their exponentially growing constituency. When they go, they'll be taking most, if not all of Orthodoxy with them.

The long-anticipated schism has already taken place. We now have two religions, each calling itself "Judaism". We should acknowledge it, and move on. What a frum person thinks of my chances for survival matters to me not at all - but frankly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about it from them. If they were really all that secure in their beliefs, they wouldn't feel the constant need to be trumpeting them.

you are re-invigorating your own ego --- which clearly doesn't need re-invigorating.

It's OK to ignore that every Jewish movement away from Orthodoxy has predictably gone down in flames.
Each time, it's been an urge to avoid persecution at the hands of gentiles but under the guise of making Judaism 'more meaningful'. In other words, hiding.

Exploring your Jewish roots is a catch-all phrase for: 'I-just-can't-buy-that-Jewish-practice'. Fine: just call it
what it is and what you are doing.

Rabbi, you can't even take on your Jewish name as a Rabbi! What kinda Rabbi!? Are you trying to be American first, English speaking first, left-to-right first? What IS it?

Just don't point at the Orthodox for your exploration-cum-escapism.

Judaism without God is not Judaism. It's merely Jewish culture or ethics. Ethical Culture is Ethical Culture and not Judaism. If you keep removing pieces from a car, you no longer have a car, only pieces of one. As some predicted, those who tried to make Judaism soley about culture or ethics like Mordechai Kaplan, have seen both their movements and adherents move further and further from Judaism. Redefining Judaism is a recipe for disaster in terms of its survival.The fastest growing Jewish movement especially among the young is orthodoxy because they sense that belief, in addition to ethics or culture leads to Truth.

Have A Comment?

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.