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
As a Jew, I was quick to reject the aspects of atheism that labeled religion entirely unnecessary or pernicious. I knew that there was much richness in Judaism that I had no interest in abandoning, and I found some atheists’ glib dismissal of religion laughably reductionist. But at the same time, as I embraced my disbelief, I found myself slowly but perceptibly slipping in my Jewish observance. I tried a number of new synagogues and communities, opening myself up to all denominations, from Reform to Reconstructionist. I was dismayed to discover that the less-traditional services often had an even stronger God-focus than my Conservative upbringing—they had simply removed conventional ritual and substituted a vague spirituality in its place: talking about “God’s presence,” or turning off the lights during prayers so we could “feel God.” I couldn’t find a community that felt “just right.”
Daniella, my wife, took a position of patient indifference toward my journey. A committed believer, she smiled and nodded through my strident epiphanies and discursive rants, only cutting in to make sure I wouldn’t try to brainwash any prospective children we might have. Accompanying me from one dissatisfying service to another, she was the one who first recommended I search online to see if there were any congregations dedicated to serving Jewish atheists.
That’s when I learned about one fringe denomination that sounded fascinating: Humanistic Judaism. Unfortunately, there was no congregation in Los Angeles, but when Daniella and I moved to New York last fall, I found that one of the most active Jewish Humanist congregations existed in the city: the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, which meets at the Lower East Side Y. Many of City Congregation’s talking points, presented at a fall open house by the congregation’s Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, fell right in line with the same ideas that had been brewing inside me for so long as a Jewish atheist. I could not wait to try out my first Humanist service.
After attending that first Shabbat at City Congregation, and laughing uncomfortably with my wife at the revised Shema, I was dismayed by my inability to feel any connection with this group of fellow atheist Jews. Schweitzer agreed to speak with me, offering an explanation that I found challenging and persuasive: My giggle-stifling reaction was natural, he explained, because I remained beholden to the customs and traditions that nurtured me, from Hebrew school to Jewish summer camp. I still found comfort in these words even though I no longer believed them, just as a child finds comfort in the myth of his parents’ protection long after he’s discovered that they are fallible. Part of maturity into adulthood—for myself and for Judaism as a whole—was learning to abandon these comforting fallacies and reconcile our beliefs with our actions: “Say what you mean, mean what you say,” one of his guiding tenets of Jewish Humanist belief.
What gives us the right, I asked, to change the words, and the meaning, of prayers and sacred texts? This was yet another kind of superstition, he contended, an unhealthy fetishizing of certain words while ignoring their troubling moral and historic fallacies. How can we claim to be humanists, let alone atheists, if we allow our reverence for archaic texts to outweigh our most deeply held beliefs? In his view, it is our duty as Jews to remove anything from our traditions that we do not believe in, as assuredly as one would remove a splinter.
The more I argued with Schweitzer, the more I realized I was actually arguing with myself. I could no more find fault with his logic than I could talk myself into believing in God. I left our meeting even more conflicted than when I began. Was my inability to find meaning in his God-free service a reflection of my latent superstitions? Having heard Schweitzer’s challenge, could I ever practice traditional Judaism again—with its innumerable celebrations of God, angels, prophets, biblical violence, and sexism—without feeling like a complete fraud?
I reached out to the closest person I have to a spiritual adviser: my former camp counselor, Rabbi Joel Seltzer, now the new director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He listened with growing excitement as I explained the predicament I found myself in. Not only had he wrestled with these same questions as a rabbinical student, but he continued to wrestle with them to this day. He spoke of his conception of God as one that vacillates constantly, stretching from the biblical understanding, to “Godliness,” to certified atheism. Yet, he contended, none of this impeded his ability as a rabbi; it informed and strengthened it.
As I considered and compared the words of both rabbis, it became increasingly difficult to tell who was the skeptic and who was the believer. The only difference I could find was that while one chose to sublimate his doubt to serve his religion, the other chose to transform the religion to conform to his doubt.
I’d gained much respect for Schweitzer and his beliefs, but I didn’t belong in the congregation he leads. Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it? Who wants to follow only rituals that make intellectual sense? It seemed so shortsighted to me. If I hadn’t been given a God to wrestle with growing up, I wouldn’t be half the cynical, pestering, relentlessly questioning nudnik I am today. In other words, I wouldn’t be Jewish.
I needed my experience with Humanistic Judaism to relearn what I intuitively understood from a young age: There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.
Although I am still unsure how, I know at least that I will continue to act out this fiction. And if that associates me with a God and superstitions I do not believe in, I accept that, because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.
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