Questioning the Question: The Elephant in the Room

In proper Jewish tradition, many of the essays we received for the Elephant in the Room contest answered our question with a question:

“So there I was, firmly stuck back at the starting point. … I chose to believe in God. But what sort of God should I believe in? My rabbi’s response to this question was, ‘Ask yourself: Which God don’t you believe in?’

So I did.

Well, I don’t believe in a personal god, or a god who adjusts the odds of wars or quantum events. I don’t believe in a god that punishes or rewards our souls after the death of our bodies. … And I especially don’t believe in a god who cares if we put sour cream on chicken.

So I need my own personal dogma. Here’s what I came up with; what I choose to believe:

I believe in a single creation, all inclusive.
I believe that there is a purpose to that creation.
I believe that that purpose is good.

Recently I told a friend about my dogma. His response: ‘Oh, you’re Jewish.’”

-          Max Yaffe

“As a teacher of Jewish identity through the lens of history, I suggest we have a lot to learn about ourselves from the wording of this question. What is unspoken is equally interesting.  The assumptions behind the question reveal a lot about the way present day Americans limit thought and speech with language. What are we saying about ourselves through this question?”

“There are three key words in the question: ‘Jewish,’ ‘belief,’ and ‘God.’ Each word is propped up on an implicit binary frame … By asking this question, we’re saying the Jewish world is constructed of monolithic concepts that relate to one another only through binary opposition, and that one must occupy one state only, in perpetuity.”

“I’d like to offer a transformation of the original question: what does it mean to express Jewish identity through locally defined customs, and individual and communal behaviors, when notions of Divinity are complicated by variations in belief across life-cycles as well as epochs?  With such framing, the question becomes open to non-binary expressions of truth.”

-          Noach Dzmura

“The question at hand is not about indefinable and incomprehensible beings such as the Gods; it is about the value of maintaining separatist cultural identity in an ever smaller and interdependent global civilization. Identity borrowed from any group is fraught with risk for irrational pride, which goes against all modern concepts of causality and ‘emergence phenomena’ … which often leads to depression or violent attack. Where there is proud ‘inclusion’ there is always shameful ‘exclusion’. It is time to put Judaism, as well as all other concepts of genetic or cultural identity – colorful and successful though they may be – into the museums of history.”

-          John Brodsky

“To be Jewish without belief in God means to feel incomplete.”

“In my parents’ generation, materialism and the desire to succeed replaced their parents’ religion.  Beginning in my generation and continuing in my children’s generation, there is a growing need to finding ultimate meaning in life.  The only discipline that addresses that question is religion, and the only religion that I can relate to is my own.  Everything in Judaism stems from God.  The liturgy is centered on God.  The universe was created by God.  The moral order is commanded by God.  The Jewish community is God’s partner in the covenant.  Judaism without God seems inconceivable.”

-          Gary Walk

“One afternoon at a group brown bag lunch/discussion with the rabbi, a woman hauled out and yelled at me ‘What are you doing here anyway?’  What I had thought was my periodic invocation of the Talmudic tradition, as I understood it, to question, had finally prompted exasperation.  During the drive home, my initial hurt feelings gave way to honest self admission that she was right.  What was I doing there?  I didn’t believe in God, after all.  Why not just go with that?”

“That Temple woman, albeit a tad rude, had actually done me a favor.  Like a gay person who stops hiding, I stepped out of a different ‘closet,’ the atheist one.  I joined a Jewish Secular Humanistic group and never looked back.  It took me one secular service to acclimate to leaders not resplendent in authoritative long robes.  Exhaling into honesty, it was positively liberating.”

-          Sandy Citron

“Given the ferment of the 1960s, it should hardly have been a surprise that a radical form of Judaism would arise, led by a rabbi who considered the notion of God irrelevant to modern life.  Yet the Jewish establishment was shocked when, in 1963, headlines appeared about a young Reform rabbi who had established a nontheistic congregation, the Birmingham Temple, with eight Detroit area families.

That rabbi was Sherwin T. Wine.  Wine had boundless energy, vision, and chutzpah; he was a tireless worker, a charismatic speaker, and an organizational genius.  And he had a Big Idea.”

“Humanistic Judaism may never be a mass movement.  But it can be a significant voice and choice in Jewish life.  That is the legacy of Sherwin T. Wine.  Ours is his watchword: ‘Where is my strength?  My strength is in me… And in you.’“

-          Ruth Duskin Feldman

2 responses to “Questioning the Question: The Elephant in the Room

  1. Dr. Marlene C. Cohen

    What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?

    I grew up feeling like being Jewish was an obligation without joy, a group that separated me from the wonderful diversity of humankind. As an adult joining Machar, the Washington Congregation of Secular Humanistic Judaism and the Society of Humanistic Judaism of North America, felt like finding my real home.

    I reconnected with my family histories and Jewish history with new clarity, because I learned I could keep the many aspects of Judaism I valued and jettison the parts I’d been raised in that had no meaning for me.

    I love the High Holidays in a way I never did because we secular humanists celebrate them in a way that reinforces who I am, that merges with my style of life. I think about what I’ve done that I can do better next time and about ways I can help others. Then I take action. I don’t wait for others to do the work and I don’t pray for God to act for me. (How could one being have time for all of that?) I love the song that says, “May the work I have done speak for me.” And may the love I have given speak for me. That is enough to ask out of life.

  2. Heavenward Child

    Ms. Cohen,
    If the work you’ve done spoke for you, and that’s all – would you really be satisfied?
    I must say I’m surprised. After all, chances are, your work will not speak for you at all. Most people will never hear of you, and those who have been hurt by you will speak just as loudly as those who have been loved by you.
    Also, if you pick and choose what parts of Judaism you want to practice, and what parts you don’t, what is that saying about Judaism?
    Is Judaism about God, or about you?
    Who are you without God? Like a planet without the Sun, you cease to be a planet. In fact, you cease to be at all.
    Lovingly,
    Heavenward Child

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