An Atheist’s Synagogue Search
In a congregation that didn’t focus on God, I discovered the value of reciting prayers I don’t believe
Though I grew up in a typical vanilla Conservative synagogue, I have been fortunate to attend services that reflect many flavors of Judaism, from centuries-old Sephardic congregations in Spain to reggae-infused hippy-dippy “prayer gatherings” in Los Angeles. Still, none of these services ever came close to expressing my own beliefs, or lack thereof, as a Jewish atheist.
I thought I might have finally found that place when I attended my first Shabbat at a Humanistic congregation in Manhattan this winter. At Friday evening services, my wife and I sat on plastic folding chairs in the back of the Lower East Side Y’s multipurpose room. We were the youngest people by a couple decades in this group of about 20. The next youngest sat in the back with us, sipping something from a brown paper bag. Everyone else was praying.
Turning to the Shema in our prayer books, my wife and I glanced at one another uncomfortably. We had heard and chanted the Shema thousands of times in our lives, and it was always exactly the same. This time, though the tune was familiar, the words were jarringly different: Shema Yisrael, echad ameinu, adam echad. Hear, O Israel, Our People is One, Humanity is One. Hearing God replaced by “humanity” in this version of the Shema—authorship was credited in the prayer book to Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Humanistic Judaism movement—felt something akin to hearing Christian heavy-metal: The words and the music were so incongruous, it was impossible not to giggle.
I’d come here hoping to find that Humanistic Judaism felt like home: After years of trying to reconcile my Jewish identity with my atheist beliefs, I’d discovered an entire Jewish denomination dedicated to addressing the very issues I’d been struggling with; its guiding principle, according to the congregation’s mission statement, was to “celebrate the centrality of human reason and responsibility from a uniquely Jewish perspective.”
I looked back down at this new Shema’s words, which still seemed so profoundly odd, and then checked other prayers I knew—only to find that they, too, had been reworded, with God’s name replaced by such notions as “humanity,” “life,” and “nature.” Of all the prayer books in the world, this was likely the only one with which a Jew-who-happens-to-be-atheist could find not a single word to disagree. For perhaps the first time in my entire life, I literally believed every prayer I read.
And yet, even though every word was true, the prayers rang false.
I was raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a bastion of committed East Coast, Conservative Judaism: large synagogue, summers at Camp Ramah, and a social life based around USY dances. My Jewish upbringing allowed me to develop a strong Jewish identity without having to think much at all about God. While I kept kosher, observed Shabbat, attended services, and engaged with Jewish texts and rituals, I scarcely gave second thought to my own beliefs about the protagonist around whom all of it was based: this “Hashem” character.
As a child, I experimented with various immature conceptions of God—the old man in the cloud, Ariel’s father from The Little Mermaid, the booming voice in The Ten Commandments—but I always abandoned them quickly and without much concern. Neither my parents nor my Hebrew school teachers ever tried to impose a singular God explanation on me, so I felt free to largely bypass the issue.
Growing older, my questions about God interested me purely on a philosophical level: Why did God flood the earth? Why didn’t God allow Moses to enter Canaan? Why does God allow good people to suffer? On a theological level, the accepted aphorism that “God is everywhere” seemed innocuous enough that I didn’t have to spend my time looking for Him. Over time, without even knowing when it happened, I began to view God in the same way my overripe teenage imagination viewed all other fascinating literary figures: as a fictitious character full of symbolic importance.
My first clear moment of atheistic thinking came at camp shortly after my bar mitzvah. In an informal learning group, one of the counselors professed that she considered God her “best friend.” She spoke to God every day, she said—not symbolically, or through prayer or actions, but literally; in her mind, she spoke to an unseen-but-real-being she called God. To my surprise, she was not the only one who admitted to this belief. It seemed nearly everyone in the group had developed something they called their “personal relationship with God.” I believe this was the exact moment of my first teenage eye-roll.
As the conversation played out, I realized that my practiced disinterest in God as a being—as opposed to a concept or metaphor—made me somewhat of an outsider within the Jewish community. Though I continued to pray, read Torah, and practice Judaism as before, from that day forward a tiny ember of skepticism burned within me. My skepticism was further fed and nurtured by a burgeoning knowledge and appreciation for the deep history of Jewish doubters; from Elie Wiesel to Albert Einstein to Woody Allen, I read their work and marveled over the richness of their disbelief.
Judaism, I found, was a remarkably easy religion to engage with skeptically: It’s been coded into our DNA ever since Jacob literally wrestled with God. When I was a teenager, teachers and religious leaders alike approved of and even encouraged my harsh interrogations. As I moved from one Jewish community in high school to another at Brandeis University, I remained steadfast and secure in my identity as an “engaged Jewish skeptic.” It wasn’t until I truly fled the nest and moved to Los Angeles for graduate school that I felt challenged to decide, once and for all, what my answer to the “God question” was. Oddly, it was being around a vast majority of non-Jews for the first time in my life, and seeing myself through their eyes, that caused me to realize I was still carrying around this unresolved issue from my childhood. And so I thought and read, replacing the Jewish skeptics with the truly polemic standard-bearers—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell—and finally emerged from my incubation period as a fully realized Jewish atheist, an identity I maintain to this day.
Because my Judaism was handed down by birth and is not contingent on any personally held beliefs, I feel comfortable continuing to identify as Jewish and even practicing Judaism’s rituals without compunction. However, being that from the earliest years of maturity my belief in God was basically metaphorical, and that any conception of God I might have held is probably more akin to a healthy spiritual awe for both science/nature and humanity, the most accurate and appropriate label for my beliefs would have to be atheism. And so there I am: a Jew by identity and practice, an atheist by logic and belief.
As Israeli cuisine focuses on locally grown food, cooks turn over an old leaf: mallow, a weed with biblical roots