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.”
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.)