Tag Archives: Moment Magazine

Judaism without Belief in God? Moment Readers Say Yes

Moment Magazine is pleased to announce the winners of the inaugural Elephant in the Room essay contest. This year’s question, “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” elicited wide-ranging, thought-provoking responses. Essays covered a broad variety of ideas, but an overwhelming majority said it was possible to live a full, rewarding Jewish life without belief in any higher power.

This year’s winners are Craig Hanoch, an Orthodox Jew and author of a forthcoming book on Judaism and nihilism from Highland Park, NJ; Rebecca Van Horn, a 2009 graduate of Bowdoin College working in Chicago as a community and labor organizer; and New York-based Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and, previously, the inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University, where he wrote a soon-to-be-published book on Jewish memory.

“These essays were selected not only for their eloquence, but also for their clear and thoughtful voice and perspective,” says Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher of Moment Magazine.

“To be a Jew is to stand trembling in the embrace of the essential mystery of humanity, that we are possessed of questions we cannot answer,” wrote Hanoch in his essay. “The most secular physicist peering into the far reaches of the universe and the most devout Hasid, swaying at prayer, struggle daily with these same fundamental questions: Why life? Why this here and now rather than something else, rather than nothing at all?”

Wrote Van Horn: “I am the elephant in the room, the Jew who makes us question whether or not it’s possible to claim a monotheistic religion when you question theism.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish without a belief in God, but I know what it’s like to be me, Jew-ish, and not know if I believe in God. I have watered down a big, beautiful religion steeped in thousands of years of history and tradition into my own personal story that views its foundation as a choice. I stand in Rosh Hashanah services and bow my head, praying to no one. And yet, still I pray.”

Kurtzer’s response addressed the importance of the Jewish community moving away from belief as a “litmus test for serious Jewishness (and much less Jewishness altogether).”  He wrote: “Jewishness has always been about book, and not canon; tradition, more than authority; journey, rather than arrival. Our communities must model this, with fluid boundaries, fewer tests of belonging, and a kind of radical and desperate pluralism that we – in spite of more and more institutions that model denominational pluralism – still have yet to achieve.

The goal of the contest is to encourage conversation about topics that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss openly in traditional venues. “It is important to create safe places for people to explore their religious identity and spirituality,” says Epstein. “The response we received, both in terms of numbers and quality of entries as well as spontaneous discussion in social media, shows how much conversation is needed. We found that many people wrestle with this question alone and feel isolated because of it.”

Analysis of the 2011 essays as a whole revealed the following:

  • Ninety-seven percent of contest participants said (for a range of reasons) that one can be Jewish without belief in God.
  • Forty-eight percent said that they identified as a Jew despite their own lack of belief in God.
  • Thirty-two percent of them said that belief is a choice, not a requirement.
  • Sixteen percent identified something other than belief as the most important Jewish value. Family, religious practice, tradition and love of learning were identified as primary Jewish values.
  • Only thirty-two percent mentioned a denominational affiliation.

“These percentages show that this topic is truly an elephant in the room,” says Epstein. “One participant told me he asked the question of his rabbi and the rabbi said he wouldn’t touch this question with a ten-foot pole. Here is a major question of faith that the majority of American Jews (and a majority of non-Jews) confront, and many clergy in our country are reluctant to touch it. This makes it very difficult to have a true conversation. We hope that people will read these essays and be inspired to join the discussion.”

The winning essays, along with excerpts from the other finalists and interesting essays, were published in the November/December issue of Moment, available now.

Moment Magazine seeks to encourage a higher level of civic discourse and is committed to portraying intellectual, political, cultural and religious debates, ranging from left to right, fundamentalist to secular. Founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein in 1975, Moment is the premier independent Jewish magazine in North America. Today, Moment reaches more than a million readers through its flagship print edition, digital edition, weekly e-newsletter and “In the Moment” blog. Moment also sponsors other annual contests, including Publish-A-Kid, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest, and the Moment Magazine Memoir Contest.

For more information and to interview winners and finalists, contact Aubrey Lopez at alopez@momentmag.com or 202-363-6422.

Last day to send in your Elephant in the Room essays!

Today is the deadline to submit your entry for the Elephant in the Room contest. Many voices have already joined the conversation, but it’s still not complete. Have a different perspective on the question than the ones you’ve seen here? We want to hear it. Here are a few more excerpts to get you started:

“To be Jewish without God means to be able to say ‘I’m Jewish and . . .,’ not ‘I’m Jewish but . . .’ It means I am able to affirmatively state what I do believe and not define myself in contradistinction to what others believe. No sheepish apologies, or defensive postures are offered as I do not need to explain what I do not believe in order to be Jewish.  I am Jewish and I believe in the power and authority of human beings over their own lives.  I am Jewish and I believe that it is incumbent on each generation of Jews to make Judaism personally meaningful.”

– Jodi Kornfeld

“Without our faith, we Jews are nothing. The Holocaust, support for Israel, bagels and lox, and Yiddish expressions cannot maintain a healthy Jewish people.   Without a strong belief in God, standards break down, and society deteriorates.  As the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz so aptly states, ‘Judaism without belief in God is like believing in humanity without human beings.’”

“…To be Jewish means not only to believe in God, but to practice His will: to follow and observe Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, family purity, and all the ethical or moral commandments.”

– Franklin Snyder

“I spent a good long time feeling lonely.  Homeless.  A Jew without God is a Jew without community.”

 “Here is where my Jewish ambivalence peeks out of the burning bushes; I am a self-professed atheist, yet I can’t stomach the thought of my children growing up without their cultural heritage. … This is a heavy burden to carry for twenty years.”

“There are others like me.  Most of them live in New York, not Kentucky.  I am still lonely without a congregation.  I am still riddled with guilt.  And I still don’t have answers for my children.”

– Amy Miller

“Being Jewish without belief in God did not thwart my life-long dream – that of becoming a rabbi. As a Humanistic rabbi, I am able to bring those who, in abandoning the belief in a supernatural deity and no longer willing to say words that they did not believe, felt that Judaism was lost to them. I am enriched by knowing that having a viable alternative brings them back home, into the Jewish community.  Being Jewish without believing in God has not hindered my continuous engagement in Judaism. I have raised my children, celebrated Jewish holidays and marked life’s moments within a Jewish context, consistent with my beliefs, and allowed me to guide others to do the same.”

– Miriam Jerris

“I believe my role as a Jewish mother is to instill in my children a strong sense of Judaism as part of  their personal identities.  I believe I have succeeded because at 4 and 6 they cheer for Shabbat, ask when Sunday School is, know our Humanistic rituals and sing to the Maccabeats on YouTube.”

– Alison Chalom

Neither of my grandparents made it through the war with an intact belief in God, though both of them came from religious families … Still, though neither of my grandparents ever expressed a belief in a supernatural power, both of them showed through their actions what they did believe: that it’s our job to take care of one another; that there is beauty in humanity, in the relationships that we make and the way we treat our fellow men; that ethical behavior exists even without the threat of punishment from an angry God; that there is much to laugh about and much to rejoice; and that even though sometimes terrible things do happen, sometimes there is beauty and kindness, as well.”

– Elana Arnold

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

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

From the Big Bang to Baseball: The Elephant in the Room

Responses to the Elephant in the Room contest have taken us on quite a trip, from the ballpark to the circus to the birth of the universe. Whether you are working on your own entry or just discussing among friends, these visualizations of Judaism may help on your own trip:

“The Big Bang occurred 13.9 billion years ago; the Bet that begins the Torah. At that moment everything was an undifferentiated colloid of infinite density and temperature. As the explosion unfolded in the first tiny fraction of a second, the laws of physics and chemistry became manifest and subatomic particles began their organized movement … The power that makes this all happen, that’s God.”

“Does this God have a human-like personality such that if we do things like pray or sacrifice goats or do compassionate actions God will be pleased and stick her proverbial finger into our daily causes and effects? I do not think so. As Jews, doing Jewish things, we insist that doing these things is good for us, that they sustain our community, that they ennoble us, that they tell our story and thus we participate in the God process. But God has no more first hand knowledge of our poor powers than we might have of an ant colony thriving in a distant corner of our backyard.”

–          William Blank

“What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God? I ask my students this question … I make the students draw extended metaphors for Judaism, placing God somewhere in the picture. For some, Judaism is a flower, and God the sun—without the sun, it wilts, and blooms no more. For others, Judaism is a car, and God the engine—without the engine, no movement, only idleness and rust. One student, a budding Humanist to be sure, drew Judaism as an onion, with God as a layer—without this layer, many other rich layers remain.”

–          Matthew Lowe

“When I was a child – before there was a State of Israel – I was taught that Judaism is more than a religion, it is a peoplehood. I learned that we Jews are part of a great civilization that has endured for millennia despite numerous attempts to destroy or change us. As an adult I have learned that internal divisions have threatened to tear us apart many times in our history. When I think about how the Jewish people have endured despite forces within and outside our community, I consider our survival as a distinct people nothing short of miraculous.”

–          Marge Kravitz

“Being Jewish is a passive genetic a state, over which I have virtually no control. Being a Jew is an active state.  Using my years of interest/study of Judaism I have set three standards that I have to meet to consider myself to be a Jew.  These apply only to me.  Each person must set his/her own standards.  I judge no one else by my standards.

  1. Religions have a basic tenant of the faith.  In Judaism it is a belief in god, as stated in the Shema, which I do not do, so the umpire calls STRIKE ONE!!!!!!
  2.  Of the Ten Commandment given to Moses at Mt. Sinai nine are moral commandments. One is a religious commandment, i.e. that of shomer Shabbat, keeping the Sabbath, which I do not do, so the umpire calls STRIKE TWO!!!!!!
  3. All religions have traditions, rules, laws, etc.  In Judaism these can be found in the massive Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. In the 1550s Rabbi Caro in Safad condensed them in to the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, which I do not follow, so the umpire calls STRIKE THREE, you may be Jewish but you are NOT a Jew!”

–          Howard Sands

“Who needs a god, or even ‘the God,’ when you have a good story. A good story is a current that can carry along a person, family, or tribe for a long, long time, providing entertainment, instruction, and identity. And for Jews, our tribe has an amazing story. It is full of magic and mystery, tragedy and triumph, heroes and heels, poetry and prose, and even some lively licentiousness.”

 “I like the idea of god, even “the God.” It somehow makes the story grander. I like to imagine this character even sits, unseen, by our campfires, listening to the story of the Jews. I imagine the character getting great amusement from the story. I have even heard a yarn about ‘the God’ choosing the Jews — maybe that would be like picking out a favorite serialized TV drama. If so, I hope the show gets its contract renewed; I would like to hear a few more seasons of it myself.”

–          Michael Chusid

“Forgive me dear friends, fellow Jews, religious some, atheists other.  If you haven’t yet figured it out – being a Jew is like taking part in a circus.  The Jewish circus is a one ring circus. … The acts call themselves Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Elephant.”

 “Is it so strange that I take what I need from within the Jewish tradition and say ‘this is what makes me a Jew?’  Isn’t that what you who worry about the Elephant in the Room have also done in the past; selecting, discarding – deliberately forming that which you now consider the immutable holy books?”

“In Yiddish we talk about “di golden keyt” – the golden chain of Jewish history.  The elephant has always been one of the links in the chain.  Do you dare continue to try to break the links?  You need the elephant.  He is strong.  He is loyal.  The circus is in danger of becoming a side show without him.”

–          Gerry Kane

Last Week for The Elephant in the Room!

There’s still time to get your essay in for the Elephant in the Room contest; the deadline’s October 7th, so be sure to send in your essay. To inspire you, here are a few more of our favorite passages:

“Now, in my humble opinion, a belief in G-d is central to a full appreciation and understanding of what it means to be a Jew, and is essential to the completion of a person’s mission in this world. And I feel this way for reasons that may or not make any sense or difference to anyone else. I never ask anyone to feel as I do – I just try and live my life as a reflection of my beliefs, and let things fall as they may.

But if you do not have that belief for whatever reason (right now, hopefully, as opposed to ‘forever’), that does not make you less of a Jew. There is nothing that can change that – a person is a Jew forever, no matter how hard he fights to the contrary (and some fight very, very hard).”

“So to be Jewish without a belief in G-d? In my opinion it’s unfortunate and a person is missing out. But that doesn’t make one less Jewish.”

– Philip Setnik

“I’ve been Jewish all of my life, and I’ve never had a belief in God. Being Jewish without God means being part of a historic family, living in the cadence of the Jewish annual and life cycles, and enjoying our status of being different than the mainstream. Over time, more traditional Jews have asked me, ‘What’s the point of being Jewish [if you don’t believe in God]?’ My response: it’s fun, it’s pleasurable.”

“I met my husband in politics. He was (and still is!) Jewish, raised traditionally but happy to leave that behind. We were married by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit and of the Humanistic Jewish movement. Having a rabbi pleased my husband’s parents, while having no mention of God in the service pleased me and my family.”

“In summary, I’m happy and proud to be a Jew without belief in a deity. I’m happy to be part of a movement where ‘we say what we mean, and mean what we say,’ with no pretense. We welcome everyone who feels the same way to join us. As I’ve said, it’s fun!“

– Patty Becker

“Being Jewish Without God? The question never came up!”

“Oh, we did have a kosher home. … Being kosher was chicken soup and Fridays and holidays with the whole family: My mother lighting candles on the white tablecloth, my father chanting in Hebrew and then drinking schnapps!”

“When my father died I did what other Jews did, I went to schul to say yiskor and I carefully read the section in English in the prayer book… and then I read it again.  Nowhere did it mention my father or that he candled his own eggs or told silly jokes or smoked camel cigarettes… it did not mention his name or that he put ketchup in his chicken soup… that was the last prayer I ever read. I was 10 years old.”

“The question of god never came up.  If there was a question it was ‘why did my father put ketchup in his chicken soup?’“

– Marilyn Rowens

“Fundamentally, this is not a Jewish question … A Jewish question is: What does God expect of me? … Jewish questions are: What gives meaning and purpose to life? How do I create holiness in my life?  How do I live the Covenantal Relationship?”

“Belief is the architecture of soul, and I am its designer – at least I think I am, hoping it’s OK with God, on a good day, as far as I know. It’s a buddy system; hard to get lost.”

“I don’t know about God; I’m still trying to believe in myself.”

– Moshe Dann

“I write this essay as a Jew who not only believes in God, but whose daily life is centered in God and spirituality. I wanted to step into the shoes of a Jew who does not believe in God, to transcend the either/or polarizing paradigm that has caused such acrimony and fracturing not only among Jews, but also between Jews and non-Jews. By imagining what it would feel like to be Jewish without believing in God, perhaps I can cultivate compassion and understanding in order to offer a new framework for embracing our theological and political differences with kindness and respect.”

“I welcome opportunities to talk openly with my Jewish friends, relatives, clients and colleagues about how they experience their Jewishness when they do not believe in God. I genuinely want to learn about how they translate the God-language into something that works for them.”

“Hostile, polarizing modes of communication don’t work for anyone. We can learn to listen from the heart, to ask questions that foster connection and understanding.”

– Karen Erlichman

“My relationship with God ended before it began. At age eight, I asked my mother, an airspace engineer at a Soviet military plant that built jet engines, whether God lived up in the sky. ‘People thought so in the old times,’ she explained. ‘Before we flew planes and learned the sky was layers of air.’”

“Despite the godless Communist upbringing, my family was fiercely Jewish, which in the USSR meant upholding your cultural identity while being mocked for your non-Slavic appearance or having your college exam answers altered to a failing grade.”

“When dubbed a Russian in America, I furiously protested. I was Jewish, no questions about it! No, I didn’t belong to a congregation for I couldn’t pray. No, I didn’t fast on Yom Kippur for I didn’t believe in atonement for one’s sins. But I believed in remembering my deceased grandparents and naming my children in their memory … My Brooklyn-born son wanted a Bar-Mitzvah and chose to take his Hebrew lessons with a young conservative rabbi. …  My fellow Semites were praying for my mensch to be a good Jew, an honest Jew and a happy Jew. And while I couldn’t join them in their petition, I bowed and thanked them silently.  An atheist among believers, I was nonetheless Jewish, and thus, I belonged.”

– Lina Zeldovich

Jay Michaelson on the Elephant in the Room: “Belief in God” is not a Jewish Value

Judaism would be better off without the phrase “belief in God.”  First, it is a Christian phrase, not a Jewish one, and it suggests that the essence of religion is faith – a Christian value.  Second, the phrase implies a certain kind of God – a God in which one either does or does not believe, probably an anthropomorphic God, a cosmic puppetmaster who sorts the bad people from the good, and makes the rain fall.

This naïve God-concept may be popular in the media, but it is not the God of reflective Judaism.  Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a great theologian and Kabbalist, called anthropomorphic ideas of God “foolish,” and insisted that we think of God not as some Big Man in the Sky but as filling every atom of creation itself.  Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Judaism’s foremost philosopher, saw traditional God-language as a mere entryway toward more sophisticated philosophical reflection on unity and morality.

For these and generations of other Jewish theologians, God does not exist – God is existence itself.  “God” is the world personalized, addressed not as It but as You.  It is how we humans relate to the inexpressible mystery of being alive, which reveals itself not just in religion but in art, love, and delight as well.  “Belief in God” is a phrase we should consign to the lexicographic graveyard.  “Experience of wonder” (Heschel) is better.  So is Love.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, which conveyed some of these rarified philosophical and mystical notions in a contemporary idiom.  Most readers I’ve met have expressed gratitude and appreciation for the book.  Some, though, seemed to feel as though something had been taken away.  One newspaper asked “Is Jay Michaelson’s God too mushy?”  Another wondered whether the Ein Sof, the Infinite, the All, was enough of a father-figure to inspire morality.

But the contrary is true.  It’s not mushy to think seriously about God and let go of cherished myths.  Grown-up people need a grown-up God concept.  Imagine if you stopped reading at the age of thirteen – would you have any appreciation for literature?  Yet this is exactly what most American Jews experience in their religious education.  Just when they’re ready to start asking serious questions, the bar mitzvah is over and so is Jewish thought.

This has consequences.  In my new book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, I talk about how my naïve God-concept kept me from coming out until late in my twenties.  I thought God would hate me for being gay, and it was only after coming out that I realized that what brings me closer to the experience of “God” is honesty, openness, and intimacy.  It took a while for me to let go of stories I’d been told since childhood, but doing so helped me open to authentic spirituality and meaningful religious life.  Judaism without a naïve “belief in God” is stronger, healthier, and more open to the possibility of holiness than a Judaism which clings to it.  So am I.

Jay Michaelson is a writer, scholar, and actvist whose work focuses on the intersections of religion, spirituality, sexuality, and law.

Moment’s Elephant in the Room Contest

Entries are coming in for the Elephant in the Room essay contest (http://www.momentmag.com/elephant.html), in which we are asking for answers to the question “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” We have not picked a winner yet – you have until October 7th to send in your essay – but we wanted to share some of our favorite passages so far:

“In my Jewish excursions, one thing I never felt comfortable with was God. I disliked newly-learned expressions like ‘Baruch Hashem’ and the socially-driven piety I saw around me every day. (The Jews were behaving just like the Catholics, I thought.) The end came when, at Yom Kippur services one year, they brought out the Torah scrolls and the congregants began kissing them. ‘Idolaters!’ I wanted to scream. I left and never went back.

“Not long after this – and likely as a product of my voracious studying – I concluded I was an atheist. I spent some time thinking about how to reconcile my sense of Jewishness with my rejection of the Jewish God and, eventually, Judaism itself.”

“I sometimes hear that a Jewish atheist is an oxymoron. In such cases I like to tell my one of my favorite jokes. A young student reveals to an elderly rabbi that he is an unbeliever. ‘And how long have you been studying Talmud?’ the rabbi asks. ‘Five years.’ ‘Only five years, and you have the nerve to call yourself apikoros!?’ (Apikoros is a rabbinical term for ‘atheist’, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus.)’ [Editor’s note: To read more about this term, check out the Jewish Word from our new September/October issue.]

“As an atheist, my Jewishness is rooted in a shared historical identity and not belief in a popular idea called ‘God.’ If I thought for a moment that lacking this belief disqualified me as a Jew, I’d have no trouble saying goodbye to Jewishness forever. But I feel no pressure to make this choice. Jews have always been heterodox in their beliefs, despite attempts by zealots to unite them under one banner or another. It’s a bit like herding cats, or atheists.”

– Marc DiMartino

“If the only ways to be Jewish demand a belief in God, Judaism is in trouble.

Consider if surveys of Jewish behavior were tabulated in the other direction: 85% of Jews DO NOT keep kosher; 80% of Jews DO NOT light Shabbat candles, let alone observe Shabbat restrictions. Why do we continue to consider those primary determinants of Jewish identity on a par with Passover seders or Hanukkah candles (both done by 80%)? Why make God the defining focus of Judaism, when that will cut off enough of us to harm the whole body?”

“My Judaism has never depended on or revolved around god-belief. My Judaism has always been my family culture, my personal heritage, my calendar and holidays, my ceremonies of life. The fact that my parents raised me in Humanistic Judaism, living our cultural Judaism and humanistic philosophy without apology or compromise but with creativity and courage, may be the exception. The reality that my Judaism today is based on my connections with the Jewish people and its civilization, rather than supernatural belief, is far from uncommon.”

– Rabbi Adam Chalom

“The God reflected in Torah and the liturgy is not a God that I can easily identify with.  I belong to a Conservative congregation because Hebrew provides me with a buffer.  I can enjoy the communal experience of prayer and feel one with the Jewish People without having to dwell on the language of supplication I find so grating.  It is difficult for me to relate to a God that demands to be, or needs to be, worshipped in this way.”

“My Jewish identity stands apart from God and encompasses so much more than belief in God.  My Jewishness is grounded in belief in the Jewish people.  In an age when we are all Jews by choice, why should anyone question that choice by people who find their Jewish meaning without God?”

– David Shtulman

“It means a belonging. It means acceptance when rejection laps around you like water in the ocean. It means a history connecting you with time before civilization, before even time itself. It means acknowledgment of belonging to a community that spans the course of recorded history. It means participation in rituals because of community, feelings, and family. It means strangers that are family. It means family that are strangers.”

“It means learning language. It means learning tradition, It means learning history. It means learning morality. It means learning community. It means learning politics. It means learning genealogy. It means learning.”

– Kirk Kirkpatrick

This Week’s Links

BrunoBy Michelle Albert

  • The Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have threatened Sacha Baron Cohen’s life because of their inclusion in his latest film farce, Bruno. Fashionistas of the world, unite: Save Sacha! [Jewlicious]
  • Persian Jews live the high life in Los Angeles. [W]
  • According to cartoonist Rich Tenorio, the right beverage can solve even the stickiest problems. [TheDevilMadeMeBlogIt]
  • Iranian protesters meeting to honor the people killed in the post-June 12 presidential election fracas were met with violence and tear gas. [NYT]
  • Jewish author Michael Chabon dislikes circumcision. [Jewcy]
  • Haaretz examines the rumors that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is a “self-hating Jew” and is turning the Obama administration against Israel. [Haaretz]

This Week’s Links


By Michelle Albert

  • Woody Allen speaks to NPR about his newest movie, the difference between life and fiction, and what he’s like off camera. [NPR]
  • While religious hatred dominates the headlines, a rabbi reminds us that peaceful interfaith exchanges are, in reality, more widespread. [StarTrib]
  • Moment columnist Gershom Gorenberg traces racism across Jewish lines, in both America and Israel. [SouthJerusalem]
  • An American Al-Qaeda member reveals his Jewish background. [ynet]
  • Hamas reportedly prevented an assassination attempt on former president Jimmy Carter during his trip to the West Bank. [Haaretz]
  • Tel Aviv hosts a wedding for five gay couples. [JTA]
  • How Jewish is your summer camp? This graph tells all. [MyJewishLearning]
  • The best way to make zombies even scarier? Make them Nazis. [Forward]
  • The Bible is on Twitter. [Heeb]

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