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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

Jonathan Zimmerman
March 07, 2013
(Illustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock)
(Illustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock)

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 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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Jonathan Zimmerman is a writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and IndieWire. Follow him on Twitter at @therealzimshadi.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and IndieWire. Follow him on Twitter at @therealzimshadi.