Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Jews without God

February 6, 2011

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.)

Oh God – Part 3 (An atheist in shul)

November 19, 2009

My friend Melissa in Sacramento has a knack for getting to the heart of things. She wrote after one of my recent posts: 

Since I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to synagogue because I am alienated by a service full of prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe. And I don’t envision a Bat Mitzvah, because it surely would involve worship of same. I wait with great anticipation to see how you reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs (non-beliefs?) Carry on!

I’ve spent the past two blog posts more or less talking about what I don’t believe.

So let’s give a little time now to why I in fact love the Reform Jewish liturgy – why I enjoy going to services even if they are full of God God God – and why I’m studying to become a Bat Mitzvah.

Services are a rare place in our modern American world where people talk about the big stuff. Mortality. The meaning of life. Forgiveness. Becoming a more loving, generous person.

Most of the time we run around completely preoccupied with daily life. There’s the whole materialistic drumbeat of buy! buy! buy! But even those of us who don’t buy into all the buying still get caught up in the scramble to get dinner on the table, hold on to our jobs, volunteer at our kids’ school, fix the broken toilet, keep up with the latest convoluted turns of the health care debate.

We don’t talk about death. (Well, except for those famous death panels.) We don’t talk about how precious life is. We don’t stop to remember how utterly long-shot miraculous it is that our temperate, water-filled, oxygen-filled planet with its millions of forms of life even exists.

But in services we do that. And for me, all those “Gods” in the liturgy are a stand-in for life, or for our universe. For creation.

When I say Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu – blessed are you, Adonai our God – I am expressing my awe that all of this exists.

I am reminding myself to feel awe that it exists.

I am reminding myself that I am just a minuscule piece of a very big picture.

Going to shul (synagogue) gives me an opportunity to do this on a regular basis — even if I haven’t had a particularly awe-inspiring day, even if I have just spent the last four hours fighting with traffic jams or a moronic boss or a sulky teenager.

And it lets me do this in public, out loud with a bunch of other people, which is more powerful than thinking it silently by myself.

One reading that I love within the Reform siddur (prayer book) cites a Chasidic leader from Poland around the year 1800, Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said:

Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”

Wow! I don’t think you need to believe in God to find that profound.

So yes, sometimes all the God-language in shul (synagogue) gets to me like it would get to Melissa. But most of the time I take it as a metaphor.

And there’s a lot in the Reform siddur – like the Rabbi Bunam saying – that speaks to me with a depth and “big picture” perspective that is missing from other parts of my daily life.

P.S.  Want to read a Yom Kippur sermon by a modern rabbi on that saying by Rabbi Bunam? It’s here.

Oh God – Part 2 (An atheist without a foxhole)

November 17, 2009

So why am I an atheist?

There are two ways to approach this kind of “why do I believe xxx” question. One is to address its substance – to articulate the reasoning behind my conclusions. 

The other is biographical or psychological — more of a novelist’s approach. No matter how much we might admire Spock or Lt. Data, most of us don’t reach conclusions about things like God on a purely logical basis. We’re products of our families, our experiences, the things we cherish and the things that cause us to run from the room screaming.

I pretty much grew up an atheist. I’m not sure my father or mother would have used  that word to describe themselves, but religion was a non-factor in our home. We didn’t belong to a synagogue or go to Hebrew school. We were Jewish, and we had a Passover seder and lit Chanukah candles, but we also decorated a Christmas tree and dyed Easter eggs and cooked a Thanksgiving turkey and watched fireworks on July 4th. These all seemed like secular, cultural holidays – excuses to be happy, eat, exchange gifts, and see relatives. God never entered into any of it.

When I got older and claimed a Jewish identity for myself, it was a cultural and political one rather than a religious one. My most wonderful experiences as a teenager were in a socialist-Zionist youth group called Hashomer Hatzair, which had ties to the kibbutz movement in Israel.

Hashomer at the time was a quirky mix of early 20th century European socialism and American 1960s idealistic radicalism. Religion was the opiate of the masses. Passover and Chanukah were holidays of freedom and national liberation. Zionism was an effort to create a state where Jews could live securely like any other nation, not an effort to fulfill a divine mandate.

God, once again, never entered into any of it.

That’s the biographical back story. But shifting now from background to substance…  the common conceptions of God just make no sense to me.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of the recent spate of books on atheism, and don’t have a battle-ready arsenal of reasoned arguments. No Christopher Hitchens here!  But on a gut level: 

  • Science is able to explain so much of our world these days – including many of the mysteries that people traditionally ascribed to God. Even those near-death experiences where people talk about seeing a tunnel of light – there’s brain research that suggests such visions may be a neurochemical phenomenon.
  • The concept of God changes whenever humans’ need for a God changes. In ancient times, we needed some way to control rain and crops! So people prayed to rain gods and fertility gods. Well, now we have weather maps, fertilizer and  even GMO seeds. And we don’t pray to rain gods any more. To me, it seems so obvious that people create God rather than God creating people.
  • Then there’s the Holocaust. (As simply the most extreme example of unprovoked evil.) If there were a God that acted the way the Bible says – a God that rewards good and punishes evil, a God that cared enough about the Jews to take them out of Egypt — how could such a God have let this happen?

Recent take on the pilots who overshot the Minneapolis airport by the S.F. Chronicle's wonderful Don Asmussen

Honestly, I don’t think you need God to be spiritual. I don’t think you need God to be a good human being.

It is totally possible to be in awe of the miracle of existence — this planet, this universe, life, nature, human beings, love — without believing in God.

You can strive to do justice and love mercy without God.

When asked to sum up the teachings of Torah in one sentence, Rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Law, the rest is Commentary.” No God in there.

Of course, someone far less eminent than Rabbi Hillel also said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” And I must admit that my own atheism has never been tested in any foxholes.

I’ve never been in war. I’ve never starved. I’ve never watched a child die. I’ve never faced a deadly disease or extreme pain. I’ve never (yet!) been old and felt death tiptoe closer each evening.

I’d like to think I would be able to maintain my principles –  could live under duress and not turn to the theological equivalent of Superman or Batman for help. I’d like to think that I would be able to acknowledge the pointlessness of suffering and the end of consciousness that comes with death and the limits of my own power without blinking.

 But who knows? I haven’t been there. I wouldn’t presume to say how I would respond.

And I suspect that facing adversity, just as you can have a crisis of faith, you can have a crisis of no-faith.

 Next: So why go to synagogue? Why become a Bat Mitzvah?


Oh God – Part 1

November 13, 2009

Oh God. I need to write a God post. 

I want to set down, soon, while I am still at the very beginning of the Bat Mitzvah process, what I think about the idea of God. 

Maybe my ideas will change during this process. Maybe some of you will respond in ways that challenge my thinking. (Yes, that’s an open invitation. Especially to the Episcopal priests among you, ahem, Jim!) In any event, I’ll have a record of what I thought at the beginning and it will be interesting later to look back and see what, if anything, has changed. 

But how do you write about something like God in a blog? When every convention of the medium calls for you to be short, sharp and snarky?

I’m going to try and do this in multiple posts. So I may not be sharp and snarky, but at least I can be short. Or short-ish.

In a nutshell: I don’t believe in God.

Let me list the concepts of God that I don’t believe in, which will probably deeply offend half of you along the way:

  •  I don’t believe there is an old white man with a long white beard sitting on a throne up in the clouds, chatting with angels and running the universe. 
  • I don’t believe there is a super-powerful being who decides whether it rains on the night of the Julia Morgan School auction or whether someone’s child gets cancer.
  • I don’t believe there is a being that listens to and answers people’s prayers.
  • I don’t believe there is a being that judges us and sends us to heaven or hell when we die.
  • I don’t believe there is a being that had one-to-one conversations with Abraham, Moses or any other Biblical figure. (Nor a being who set desert bushes on fire or parted the Red Sea.)
  • I don’t even believe there was a being that created the universe, then stepped back and left us on our own to muddle along and sort out good from evil.

(Maybe I should create my own radio show: Instead of NPR’s “This I Believe,” it could be Ilana’s “This I Don’t Believe.”)    

Now, I accept that there might be some kind of cosmic life-force or spirit that sparked the universe and resides in all living matter. It’s plausible to me that people may have “souls” or some kind of intangible essence inside them that is part of this cosmic thingamajig. I know there’s more to the universe than we were taught in 1970s Newtonian high school physics, and the little bit I know about quantum physics (which is so little as to be virtually non-existent) leaves a lot of room for mysteries.

So I’m totally open to the idea that out there, amidst the dark matter and theoretical strings and hypothetical multiple universes, there might be souls. Or a force. (May it be with you!) Or something along those lines.

Does that make me an agnostic rather than an atheist?

Maybe. But  “agnostic” seems to me like a wimpy cop-out. Frankly, the kind of life-force I’m imagining is so broad and impersonal as to be a “what” rather than a “who.” It’s not something with a mind or a will or a purpose. It’s not something you can talk to or petition. It’s not something that cares about us, one way or the other. It would be kind of like gravity, or the wind. So even if it exists, it doesn’t fit the common conception of “God.”

So I’m an atheist.

Next post: Why?

P.S. I started discussing this on the way to synagogue tonight with Sam and totally missed our freeway exit. “More driving, less quantum physics,” he said.