Jews without God

What does it mean to be Jewish without God?

That was the question at the core of a half-day seminar Sunday on “Belonging Without Believing,” co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. It’s a question I have a good deal of interest in, as I’ve tried to meld my secular, atheist Jewish background with increased participation in synagogue ritual and life. (Case in point: Becoming a bat mitzvah.)

The keynote presentation was an on-stage conversation between KQED Forum host Michael Krasny and U.C. Davis professor David Biale. Both had recently published books related to the topic — Krasny’s “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest,” and Biale’s “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.”

Michael Krasny (right) and David Biale (blurry)

Krasny was even more erudite live than on the radio, with a prodigious memory for aphorisms and a tendency to drop names of an astonishing array of  major intellectual figures whom he’s interviewed.

(Example:  Recounting that his friend Jane Smiley says, “I used to be an agnostic, but now I’m an indifferentist.” And then seguing right into mention of a conversation with Julian Barnes, who said “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”)

Krasny talked mostly personally, about his own search for something to fill the place God had held for him as a child — “the certainty God was watching over my life, he was there for me.”

He posed a question to Biale: Given the dominant role that God plays in Jewish liturgy, with almost every line of prayer a glorification of God or a plea to God, is it really possible to have a Judaism without God?

I didn’t feel like Biale ever really answered that question directly, on its merits. Instead he focused on what is apparently the thesis of his book — that there is a long history of Jewish secularism that predates our modern era and grows out of organic roots within Judaism itself. He suggested that Maimonides was a precursor to Einstein with his argument that the only way we can know God is through God’s works, or nature. He found foreshadowings of Spinoza’s pantheism in 12th century Jewish neoplatonists in Spain.

“Starting with Spinoza, we have a tradition of Jews rewriting Judaism in a way that is not religious,” Biale said.

So Biale seemed to be defending secular Judaism from a historical point of view, as one of a number of legitimate streams of thought within Judaism. But I didn’t hear an answer from either him or Krasny on how they reconcile all those “Baruch atah adonai’s” in Jewish worship with their denial of or skepticism about God.

I know how I deal with it: I tend to do a little mental sleight-of-hand, saying “God” but thinking “the universe” or “life.” So when I say a blessing, the motzi or shehecheyanu or whatever, I am thanking the universe itself for its beauty and its miraculous existence.

(Or as I jokingly told a friend the other night: Whenever I reach a point in the liturgy that says God is great and God is holy and God rules over all, I just mentally cross out “God” and think “Bruce Springsteen.”)

Along with the Krasny/Biale keynote, I attended a fascinating workshop on whispers of secularism within the Talmud by another Davis professor, Moulie Vidas. Vidas was brilliant — engaging, informed, provocative. He used a couple of passages from the Talmud to argue that the authors were tacitly encouraging people to bring the mindset of a critical reader to Jewish sources  — to consider who is making an argument, and to question why they might be making it. 

“Secularism is a way of behavior,” Vidas said, suggesting that studying Talmud has similarities to modern secular studies of science and history.

Vidas would be a wonderful guy to get as a guest lecturer at Temple Sinai if we ever have a chance. There were also other workshops on the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, American cinema and secular Judaism, and Russian Jews and secularism that people seemed to enjoy.

But overall, I wish there had been a little more of a manifesto to the day. A little more of a declaration by someone that “I don’t believe in God, and I am proudly and actively and sustainably Jewish, and here’s why.”

Because I do believe that. I even feel kind of militant about that, since there is such a presumption in American society that religion means believing in a puppeteer God who smites enemies and rewards friends and helps you get rich or get well or pass the bar exam if you just pray hard enough.

I am confident you can be profoundly spiritual without believing in that kind of God. You can be profoundly ethical without believing in that kind of God.

So I would have liked the conference to address more explicitly — what does it mean to be profoundly Jewish without believing in that kind of God?

(P.S. This blog has touched on this topic before. For a non-puppeteer view of God that is close to my own, see this interview with Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. For some of my own thoughts on God, see posts like this one that are archived on the blog home page in the category called Belief (or not) in God.)

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6 Responses to “Jews without God”

  1. Janice Dean Says:

    Ilana, I am more curious about how one might reconcile shared worship/prayer/fellowship of Jews who believe in God and Jews who do not believe in God. (I could ask the same thing about Muslims and Christians.) I think this question comes to me now because I sometimes feel at my own church that I am in the minority when I say *and mean* the words of the Nicene Creed. How can we be in religious fellowship with people who do not hold similar beliefs as us about God but who want to participate in a life of faith founded in the rich traditions of the Abrahamic religions? How does being with people who do believe in God make you feel when you are at shul?

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Wow! This question could turn into a really interesting hours-long discussion, especially with a glass of wine. :-)

      Speaking strictly personally, I never really think about what others in the congregation are thinking or believing during services. I enjoy being in the company of other Jews, and I enjoy singing together and taking part together in rituals that are very,very old, and it has actually never occurred to me to worry about whether they are thinking the same thing I am thinking. To the extent that I worry about things during services, it is much more about my own relationship to the text — what am I saying, what does it mean literally, and what meaning do I choose to give it for myself.

      There may be an element here that is one of the differences between Judaism and Christianity. As I understand it, Judaism places much less emphasis than Christianity on what people BELIEVE and more emphasis on what they DO. In Judaism, one’s thoughts or belief in God are much less important than following the mitzvot (commandments) and leading an ethical life. As one of the speakers at yesterday’s conference pointed out, there is hardly anything in the Talmud about the nature of God but there are hundreds and hundreds of pages about how to live with our fellow humans.

      In addition to this underlying difference, I’m part of the Reform movement within Judaism — one of whose key tenets is to be a “big tent” when it comes to God concepts and interpreting Jewish tradition. My little study-grup of adult b’not mitzvah just had a discussion last week with our rabbi about this. As he described it, the major principle of the Reform movement today is freedom of choice — individual choice whether or not to keep kosher, how to observe Shabbat, whether to stand for the sh’ma during services. In our congregation, some people wear a tallit and yarmulka during prayer and some don’t. Some people keep kosher and some don’t. “A Reform Jew should be one who makes choices out of knowledge,” Rabbi Chester said.

      So you might get a very different answer to this question from someone in the Orthodox or even Conservative movements of Judaism — they might have more of a problem praying besides someone who doesn’t share their beliefs. But I suspect that they too would put more emphasis on deeds than on beliefs.

      Anyone else want to weigh in on this? I am hardly a definitive expert. :-)

  2. johnmangels Says:

    The kind of “god” you don’t believe in I would have to say I don’t believe in either — at least as you describe that “god” (a puppeteer God who smites enemies and rewards friends and helps you get rich or get well or pass the bar exam if you just pray hard enough). On the otherhand, I do believe I am in relationship with someone … And I do believe that someone, somehow, shapes creation …

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Yes, I would be much closer to your conception than to the puppeteer concept… it at least makes intellectual sense to me, even if I don’t quite subscribe to it myself.

      I have an interview waiting to be transcribed and posted on the blog with one of the rabbis connected to our congregation, where she talks about her conception of God and how she, like you, feels very much in relationship with God. Her view is quite different from that of the rabbi I interviewed back in November. It’s interesting — we have three rabbis and each of them has a VERY different conception of God. That’s Reform Judaism!

  3. Gabby Says:

    I thought it was a really interesting conference as well, but I wished that they defined what secular is.

    According to dictionary.com, it’s:
    1. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
    2. not pertaining to or connected with religion ( opposed to sacred)

    This was my understanding of it, but at the conference everyone I spoke to seemed to have a different understand of what secular means. Some said they were agnostic, or atheist, and used the term secular to mean that. To others it meant that they were cultural Jews, and had nothing to do with religious practice or organized religious community. Others belonged to a spiritual and religious community, but took out any mention of God by rewriting the prayers coupling them with traditional melodies, and called that secular.

    I think that they could have done a better job of defining the term and focusing the discussion.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      That’s a really good point, Gabby. We could definitely have benefitted from some discussion of what “secular Jew” means.

      I don’t think I would call myself a secular Jew (regardless of my God beliefs or lack thereof) because I belong to a synagogue and thus participate in the religious aspect of Judaism. I think that if I didn’t belong to a shul — but I still read Jewish books, celebrated holidays etc. — I might consider myself secular. But that’s just one person. You’re right that there were probably 200 different definitions there on Sunday.

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