It’s All About Culture: The Elephant in the Room

Many writers approached the Elephant in the Room contest by discussing Jewish culture, both as a social and legal community:

“What [Maimonides’s] list did was ensure that, whether we believe in God or not, God would remain a central element in the Jewish experience. Law, ethics, traditions are all there as topics to sort out. But God, and  our belief in God, is at the head of the line of Things To Sort Out … Some Jews (and Jewish movements) may ascribe to a lack of belief in God, but that hasn’t gotten them off the hook of needing to address (and sometimes debate) their position.”

“What we do personally with any aspect of faith … is a deeply personal response. What we can’t do is will it … out of existence. We can’t behave as if it’s not a tenet of our collective tradition at all. We named our people in the purest moment of truth and insight. We are the people Yisrael. We struggle/wrestle/contend with The Divine.”

“Can someone be Jewish and not believe in God? Of course.
Can someone be Jewish and not ever talk about God? Probably not.”

- Leon Adato

“It must be recognized that religion is a major element of a culture, and so we may choose to adopt a broad or a narrow definition of what religion is.  A functional definition of religion is that it performs several important functions: enunciating and reinforcing ethical values, providing a close community, celebrating life-cycle events, offering occasions that are inspiring or inspirational (spiritual?), giving us a sense of roots in a culture, and imparting all of these things to our children.  The remaining function is worship; and minus worship, all of the other functions can fill a need for “Godless” Jews whose integrity demands that they say what they believe and believe what they say.”

- Jane Goldhamer

“It was around halfway through college that I adopted a different view of Judaism. It wasn’t belief, that wasn’t commanded. It wasn’t observance, that was only needed to be a “good Jew”. It was identity, simple as that. The concept of god isn’t even an intrinsic part of Judaism. Look at the ten commandments. The first commandment is to not hold any gods in higher regard than the god of the bible. The second is not to worship idols. All atheists have those down by default. It’s identifying as part of a group. Look at the ten commandments again. Those were handed from god to Moses to the Jewish people. That means there were Jews before we had the bible and all the laws that came with it. That alone seems enough to show that Judaism is first and foremost a community. Within that community there is a subset of religion but it cuts off a lot of shared social history to only accept that one facet of the tribe.”

- Adam Pober

“To be Jewish one needs grit. Judaism is the culture of my grandmother – who could nearly murder with a stare. It is the culture of the comedians – quick, biting. It is the culture of the intellectuals – wry, probing. It is millennia of tradition – weighty, deep.”

“Most Jews I know are comfortable with yelling, with banter, with hair-splitting of Talmudic proportions. Most Jews I know express their deepest selves. Most Jews I know give in to the power of their own emotions with a certain frequency. We can make ourselves depressed because we are critical, insightful, and aware. But we find ways to laugh at the perfect insanity that characterizes our busy and modern lives. We delight in chutzpah, irony, and beauty. We love passionately. To be Jewish is to embrace this world, this life.”

-          Denise Handlarski

“At Sunday school we learned about the six points of the Jewish star as a way to describe Judaism’s six elements. One of those elements is belief. … The other five points are history, language, culture, values and rituals.”

“Jewish culture is based around one thing … food. … If you think about it, the way you know that there’s a Jewish celebration is there’s food and dancing.”

“Being Jewish  for me isn’t just about pleasing a higher power but rejoicing in one’s self and having a community of people who care about you who can hold you up when you fall and vice versa. Judaism is a key to learning and if I wasn’t an atheist Jew I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

- Libby Otto

“In my experience, two kinds of Jews dominate conventional thinking about God. Bagel Jews … are Jews whose identity is expressed through Woody Allen films, smoked meat sandwiches, and an occasional Israel trip for an obligatory Dead-Sea-floating postcard shot. … The second group, Torah Jews, are by turns respected for being “keepers of the faith” so the rest of us can drive to the mall on Saturday, and sometimes resented for being overly fundamentalist in their Judaic practice.”

“But there’s a third group that we ignore at our collective peril. This is a group that I call ‘minding-the-gap Jews.’ These are Jews for whom God is not a concept that speaks to them. They may even call themselves atheists. But at the same time, ‘mind-the-gap Jews’ desire Jewish literacy, communal connection, and even rich Judaic ritual practice.”

“My mind-the-gap Jewishness means that I am aware of living in the contradiction between lacking a personal God concept and serving as a public vessel through which my community can worship, and serving as a lay leader attempting to shape a synagogue community in nourishing directions.”

- Mira Sucharov

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