Twenty-seven percent of Jewish adults do not identify with the Jewish religion, according to the 2020 Pew Research Center study. They identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” religiously. That’s up from 22% from the 2013 Pew study.
It may not be a revelation that large swaths of the Jewish population have strong Jewish identity without belief. I personally hear it all the time: “I feel deeply Jewish, but don’t believe in God.” But it would be facile and inaccurate to assume that nonbelievers opt out of ritual, text study, acts in the name of tikkun olam, community involvement, even prayer. So even though the two recent Pew studies confirm that a large and growing number of Jewish Americans call themselves atheists, or say they have “no religion,” the picture is more complicated.
We set out to understand the real-world Jewish experience of self-described nonbelievers—including one Conservative rabbi (here using the pseudonym Aaron, because he is not publicly known as an atheist to his congregants)—who care deeply about being Jewish. Some were atheists from the start, some lost their faith more recently. The 12 participants in our discussion don’t necessarily love the label “atheist,” and might not ordinarily use it to describe themselves, but they were all comfortable enough to participate under that umbrella term for this roundtable.
We asked whether Jewish life is welcoming, meaningful, and interesting to connected, committed Jews—those for whom God doesn’t work?
Their ages and locations
Karen: 75, New York City
Lee: 50, California
Leah: 66, Houston
Nancy: 77, Los Angeles
Irene: 64, Chicago
Sxdni: 51. “I’m coming to you from occupied land of many tribes and nations, also known as Wisconsin.”
Francis: 42, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Jennifer: 44, Seattle
Marsha: 42, Hoboken, New Jersey
Aaron: 50, California
Judy: 55, New Jersey
David: 58, Deerfield, Illinois
How do you identify? Maybe the word “atheist” is what you use, maybe it’s “nonbeliever”—whatever language is appropriate.
Irene: I identify as a secular Jew. But if I’m talking with non-Jewish people, I may either identify as Jewish or atheist.
Nancy: I identify as Jewish. The word “atheist” I never used. It hasn’t really come up. But I’m very Jewish. Atheism doesn’t mean you’re not religious or have no religion or are not deeply committed to it.
Francis: I identify as Jewish, humanist, religious naturalist. “Atheist” is subject to definition, obviously, but certainly, if we’re defining God as some sort of conscious entity, then yes, I’m at least a teapot agnostic.
Judy: My word is mostly “atheist.” At times it’s been agnostic.
David: I identify as a very religious, secular, humanistic Jew. Occasionally, I also identify as ignostic.
Jennifer: Very similar to Nancy, I call myself Jewish. If I’m getting into deep conversations, I say atheist, but I rarely do.
Marsha: I use “atheist” or Jewish.
Aaron: I am a deeply committed and observant, traditional, spiritual Jew who questions just about everything about what might be behind the curtain.
Sxdni: My words are atheist, pagan, humanist, secular humanist, Jewish witch.
Karen: I tend to identify as a Jewish nonbeliever. I avoid “atheist” because it sounds just as dogmatic as anybody who touts God. But I don’t know what the word “God” means, and any definition I’ve heard doesn’t ring true to me. So I don’t go there; I stay in this space—which is very undefined—of “nonbeliever.”
Lee: I grew up as a socialist, secular humanist, but very culturally Jewish—in Israel and in America. And so I now say, “I used to be mostly agnostic, leaning atheist, and now I’m mostly atheist, leaning agnostic.”
I avoid ‘atheist’ because it sounds just as dogmatic as anybody who touts God … I stay in this space—which is very undefined—of ‘nonbeliever.’
Leah: I’m a gender-queer lesbian and I identify as Jewish because I’m ethnically 100% Jewish; it’s utterly who I am. And I can add that I spent 30 years of my life as a Hasidic Jew. I was a teacher in yeshiva for 14 of those years. As an atheist today and someone who departed from that life, I have to acknowledge how deeply I am imprinted by my experiences. That being said, I eschew labels and categories because they’re all too hard around the edges and they never define human experience.
What connects you all to Jewish life these days?
David: Judaism is as endemic to me as my physical self. I am Jewish because I am part of this family. I am also extremely involved—my wife would say too involved—in our congregation, and I have had a wide variety of roles, including—we don’t call it president, but president of the congregation. I taught Sunday school for 21 years, I sing in a choir, all sorts of things like that. And learning, study, and teaching—I’m very much aware of and connected to both Jewish and non-Jewish topics, but religion in particular.
Aaron: Nearly everything in my life is informed by, limited by, enhanced by, amplified by my Jewish identity, Jewish connections, Jewish sense of obligation. My Judaism informs how and where I do my work, how I organize my family’s time, my fears and hopes for the future of the world and the Jewish people.
Francis: I maintain a membership in my local Reform synagogue. I keep kosher and observe some of the major holidays. In a deeper way, I try to filter philosophical issues and current events through Jewish literature, which could be the Tanach, Felix Adler, or Jerry Seinfeld. The word “Israel” means wrestling with things; wrestling and thinking deep, that’s a very Jewish thing. That’s the biggest way I’m Jewish.
Karen: I find that at this stage of my life, my connection to Jewish activity is a little more tenuous. I live alone, and without others around me engaging in ritual and observance at home, it doesn’t feel right doing it all by myself. So I arrange, when and if I can, to have some together-activity with family or friends. I maintain membership at a synagogue. I watch hours of JBS, which is the Jewish television network, and last night, for example, I went to the Center for Jewish History for a lecture on Jewish citizenship in the United States. I do Torah study at least once a week. I find that the Torah provides me with a kind of a Rorschach test: where I’ve come from, where we’ve come from, dysfunction that we deal with, hopes and aspirations. I leave out the beliefs.
Leah: Abby, is your question how do I engage with my Jewish life?
I’m asking, essentially: How do you do Jewish?
Leah: First, I’ve allowed my Jewishness—background and history—to inform almost all of my creative work. Second: Being a product of a family of refugees, I wanted to know who we were, so I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research. Third: I have struggled to find a place where I can comfortably acknowledge how my deep religious training in the Hasidic community shaped me in so many ways—in Jewish core values, and the fact that ritual, even as an atheist, has enormous power. Rituals are powerful, myths are powerful. I have allowed myself to go back to them.
Ritual, even as an atheist, has enormous power.
Jennifer: I teach Sunday school. I’ve been learning more about Jewish history, Israel’s history and its current events—and trying not to get them clouded by varied biased sources. I work in the Jewish community and have worked in Jewish nonprofits for a long time.
Nancy: I see that my deeper Jewish education is happening more now than it ever has before. Though I have long been a Reform Jew in LA, with a lot of wonderful community and synagogue participation, my husband and I are big supporters of a new congregation in Los Angeles called Nefesh; it’s quite wonderful. I find myself going to services online a lot, I take Mussar classes with the rabbi. There are also classes happening that bring the Jewish people to anti-racist work. I also run a foundation and we just gave an anniversary party for all our grantees, many of whom are not Jewish, but Judaism is very important in how we do our work in the foundation. I have a lot of connections to the arts in Israel, and that’s really important to me as a way to connect with Israel, because it’s fraught.
Marsha: Until very recently I have been disconnected from not just Jewish life, but connection to the Jewish world. I’m an atheist in New York, which is a very popular opinion among most people I know. But I would say that since having my son two years ago, I’ve definitely been trying to connect more to the traditions rather than religion. So I started implementing—over the last couple of years—celebrating the holidays with him. I don’t believe in saying blessings, but, for instance, we sing songs when we light candles. We like Jewish music. Another way I connect is that my best friend is studying to be a rabbi, and I have a lot more conversations with her nowadays about the history; I’m much more curious about it. I’m feeling much more confident in my position as an atheist Jew these days, so I’m much more comfortable trying to learn more about it without feeling the religious aspect of it shoved down my throat.
Sxdni: I am a member of a Reform shul locally, and I help edit, proof, and write for the shul’s newsletter. I was just at midrash class earlier today. I just recently started getting involved with Respectability, which is a national Jewish-centric nonprofit focusing on disability and health conditions. As someone who has always been marginalized, as a person with an invisible disability, as a neuro-queer, gender-queer, trans and nonbinary Jewish person, I’ve always been kind of on the outside, and my Jewishness is also a part of that. All those things meld together with me. It’s just part of who I am and also my social values: tikkun olam, repair the world. That’s very important to me as someone who is a member of many marginalized groups, including being Jewish.
I’ve definitely been trying to connect more to the traditions rather than religion.
Judy: I believe in the Jewish concept of repairing the world. So I do charity work, and I try to help people I know around me who are struggling. I like to make the holidays in a very culturally Jewish way; I do Rosh Hashanah, Passover, I make hamantaschen for Purim. And I enjoy being culturally Jewish.
Lee: I’m an actor, poet, and writer, so even my work that is not Jewish content is Jewish content—in terms of the values. I look at the idea of tikkun olam and social justice as being woven together in a way that is uniquely Jewish in my work. While I was in the arts, when I was much younger, I was a civil rights lawyer and I was almost always the only Jewish person in the room. I wasn’t that identified with being Jewish at the time, but the reason why I was doing that work came, in part, out of Jewish values and Jewish culture, so I started actually sharing my Jewish identity with people. It really connected me to a whole community that I’m still part of, even though I no longer practice law. I’ve also spent many years teaching, and my style, my way of talking, thinking, my humor, all of those things—who I’m showing up as in those rooms—is as a Jewish person.
Irene: One of the big ways that I do Jewish is I belong to a humanistic congregation, and I’m fairly involved in that. I was on our steering committee; I taught Sunday school for a couple of years. I celebrate Jewish holidays. I always do it my way: I wrote my own Haggadah back when I was in grade school, and I kept revising it, because the one my grandfather used just didn’t really speak to me. I always seek out the Jewishness wherever I am; it resonates with me.
I don’t understand how there could be a Holocaust and 6 million Jews be murdered and there be a God.
Please raise your hand if you go to synagogue—not necessarily belong formally as a member, but go?
[Ten out of 12 raise their hands.]
How many keep kosher?
[Aaron and Francis raise their hands; David and Karen raise their hands halfway.]
David: I’m an ethical, moral vegetarian, so I am a default kosher.
Karen: I maintain what’s called eco-kosher. Which, I think, is basically the same thing that David is talking about.
How many of you belong to, or go regularly to, a JCC—for Jewish events, not just the gym or the pool?
[No hands are raised.]
Now to a tougher question: Why do you believe there is no God?
Judy: Simply: the Holocaust. I don’t understand how there could be a Holocaust and 6 million Jews be murdered and there be a God.
David: The question of whether there is or is not a God is an irrelevant question to me. If there is a God or if there is not a God, our behavior, our choices are our own. And we know the kind of choices that are pro-social—that help people get along. Human beings create pain, pleasure, progress, or destruction. And so my belief or nonbelief is really—I get very Jewish on this—it’s about behavior rather than belief.
Aaron: Everything I study from within the religion points me to attaching to a heavenly being, a sentience, a will, a plan. And nearly everything I study from science and anthropology and cosmology helps me understand that nearly everything that any person—in particular, a Jew—would or could say about God is some kind of a projection, much of it motivated by the highest and loftiest aspirations for what a human being could possibly aspire to, but crafted deep within the human urge to make meaning and not necessarily to reify what is actually out there.
The question of whether there is or is not a God is an irrelevant question to me. If there is a God or if there is not a God, our behavior, our choices are our own.
What’s the projection?
Aaron: I think that it emerges from the need to make sense of a chaotic universe—to make something that is impossibly large feel containable, and then to project the impossible largeness of it onto another being in whose presence we might feel properly humble and small. I think that it ultimately gives a lot of order, meaning and tremendous amount of beauty to the world. And I live with all that in mind and try to do it better the next day than before, but with healthy dollops of cynicism about the origins of those ideas.
Leah: I had lived many years in the Hasidic world with a really intimate sense of God as a friend, in conversation on a daily basis: “What do you want of me? Let me do it.” But I had to confront the fact that if I believed in that God, then I didn’t really have a right to exist as a lesbian, as a gender-queer person. I could be sort of tolerated, and that was about it. Coming to understand who I was and that my sexuality was the most joyous, real, and self-fulfilling thing in my life, it was the most holy thing. It wasn’t something to be tolerated. And that threw everything else into question.
You also told me that you became uncomfortable with what you described as Judaism’s “denial of death.” What do you mean by that?
Leah: Everything around me in my Haredi life was a denial of death: We were taught the soul lives forever; don’t mention the C-word (cancer) or anything about death. Funerals were always an assurance that the person didn’t really die. A lot of religion was about avoiding that sense of being a blip in the universe and being irrelevant. And I decided that what I really wanted to have was the courage to live honestly. And that meant walking around with a question mark in front of me all the time; that became my replacement for God. I decided that when you say there is a clearly defined God and God becomes a sentient being, then people want a relationship with that sentient being, and they say, “How can I please you? How can I not please you?” And they start to use human biases to define that. And people like me start to be hurt and denied, put aside. So I committed to no labels and to no clarity as to a being.
I can get what the idea of God is to some: our world and the beauty around us. Well, I don’t think that’s really God. That is an appreciation for us existing in this world. But this world is one thing, God is another: It is a story that we’ve created.
Jennifer: Language and storytelling is a human creation. The idea that most people have about God is a story. I don’t know how humans could have really figured out how we all got here. I think that people were sitting around a fire and throwing out ideas of how we got here; that is the story that we all now believe is God. I know some people say God is all around us, so they’ve changed the interpretation of what the word God means. And I can get what the idea of God is to some: our world and the beauty around us. Well, I don’t think that’s really God. That is an appreciation for us existing in this world. But this world is one thing, God is another: It is a story that we’ve created. If you ascribe to this God that many of the world agrees with, and you get on board with the stories that come along with it—then all of this is “meant to be,” a predetermined thing by this God, God is leading us. If you think that God is the answer to why—so that, in addition to the beauty in your life, God also explains the bad things, the inequality … If you exist in your home because God blessed you with it … I’m sorry, I hate the word “blessed.” Everybody thinks they’re so “blessed.” Well, no. It’s luck. It is so obnoxiously privileged to believe that you were blessed with your good fortune and that other people who live in poverty or who are dealing with injustices, they somehow aren’t good enough to be blessed. The ideas that come with that God, to me just seem bonkers, unfair, and wrong. So even if I somehow maybe believed in God, it’s not something I’d want to ascribe to.
Marsha: What Jennifer was saying kind of triggered the way that I feel about this: I cannot square God with the injustice—having some people be lucky enough because God is watching over you and taking care of you, making sure you’re blessed versus other people living in poverty—well, they’re not blessed by God and have to suffer because there’s a greater purpose to all of this? I was engaged to a guy in my early life who decided, after some time of us being together, that he wanted to become a religious Jew, and started changing everything about our lives and wanted me to have lots of kids and stay home from work. I often asked him, “How are we going to afford this?” He said, “God will provide.” That’s sort of the beginning of the end of my religious beliefs. “Show me proof that God is going to provide for us. Show me proof that God is watching over our house and therefore we’re making all these stupid decisions for our lives because you have a feeling that somebody’s speaking to you from above.” I’ve never—in a single moment in my entire life—felt any being greater than myself, than my morals, my values. The reasons why I do things have nothing to do with God. It’s not to say anything bad about people who believe, but to me it’s blind acceptance of something that you have absolutely no proof of. That bothers me.
Karen: I was once with a group of people who were very religious-minded, talking about God and prayer and God’s will for them, and I sort of zoned out. And I don’t typically have psychic experiences, but all of a sudden, in that state of nothingness, I heard a voice. And the voice said to me in my head, “So you don’t believe in God?” And I said, “No.” The voice said, “But if you believed in God, would you believe that God has a will for you?” I said, “No.” The voice said, “But if you believed in God and believed that God had a will for you, what would that will be?” I said, “I don’t know.” And the voice said, “God’s will for you is the same as God’s will for every other human being on this planet. Deal with it.” And it was like, OK, that’s my job. Life is a roller coaster, and I’ve got to hang on, deal with the ups and downs, ins and outs, injustices, and everything else that goes along with the trip.
The reasons why I do things have nothing to do with God. It’s not to say anything bad about people who believe, but to me it’s blind acceptance of something that you have absolutely no proof of. That bothers me.
Aaron, you said in our pre-interview that God “seems to be a manufactured mythology that can go very, very wrong.”
Aaron: I have a sensitivity to the way God, and the God concept, is abused and made all too facile. I sometimes describe it to people as “The Football God,” that at the end of a game, the wide receiver catches the touchdown in the end zone and being interviewed afterward, is asked by the reporter how was he able to catch the ball, and he says, “I just focused, and God was with me.” The obvious implication is that God was against the defensive back, who is probably just as good of a person and probably thinks of his prayer life as just as powerful. So it’s, in some ways, the abuse of a magnificent, if always mysterious, transcendent idea brought down to the most mundane of things that worries me most about how God is operated in the world, even though I think that if you’re going to live a God-centered life, it’s actually in the small moments that a notion of a theology can and maybe should be interesting, but not in the way it’s trotted out as if it’s a divinity on your side and therefore necessarily not on the other person’s side.
Sxdni: For me, the monotheistic concept, as it’s classically understood by so many people around the world, feels very limiting, very human-centric, and doesn’t fit with me. The universe and the mystery is too big to be reduced to this monotheistic, singular concept. And even though more of us have learned about—and have awareness of—the idea of multiple genders in our classic texts, the way that the monotheistic God is used against queer folks, trans folks, and various other marginalized populations, really affects me as someone who is part of that grouping.
I’d like to see a show of hands: Who would say they previously had serious belief in God?
[Four raise their hands: Francis, Aaron, Leah; Lee is in between.]
Francis: I’m a Jew by choice. I converted to Judaism with a Conservative synagogue here in Massachusetts. I leaned more humanistic even before I got into Judaism, but I was raised in this fundamentalist Christianity, which I could write a book about—it was crazy. But I remember when I was 17 in 1998 I watched a livestream between Peter Atkins and William Lane Craig. Atkins was atheist and Craig was a theist, and I just knew in my heart I agreed with Peter Atkins, even though I couldn’t say that out loud, because that would have been horrible, I would have been disowned. I later came out as bisexual, and that was easier than coming out as an agnostic or a humanistic person. Finally I had to follow the courage of my convictions, and I came out as humanistic. It doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters what you do. I read Felix Adler and I arrived at Judaism. You have to follow your heart, you have to follow your reason—above all else. And if you don’t have your reason, you’re nothing. As Sinatra sings, what is a man? What has he got if not himself? He has nothing, right? That’s my situation.
Aaron, can you explain why at one time you had more belief than you do now?
Why do people have to externalize their goodness? Their response is human goodness; why can’t we own it? Why do we have to say that it’s an external being that causes this motivation to care for one another?
Aaron: I grew up in a family that was comprehensively Jewish, culturally, ritually, culinarily, calendrically. And the notion of the people of Israel and the rituals, holidays, and State of Israel were, and still are, everything to us. At some point, as I continued to grow and get more involved, the God of Israel became more prominent—a commanding God that had requirements and obligations. And at some point, even though God is the connective thread to the Jew and his or her purported obligations, I became nearly as connected to the obligations without the intervening ligament of the God figure. That is, and I say this with a healthy amount of humility: Do I really know that there is or isn’t God? No. But it has not really hemorrhaged much of my commitment to the practices, prayers, concepts, and structures of the obligating Jewish God. It’s just that some of the intervening material has gotten much more Swiss-cheesy.
Lee: When I was very young, I was raised in Israel as hiloni—a secular Jew; you don’t really have this category in the U.S. Anything that seemed magical or miraculous, I had this idea in my head when I was very young, that was God. Organized religion wasn’t telling me that; it was just what I understood. But there have been so many terrible things that have happened, where the existence of God for me just seems like a ridiculous concept. The existence of goodness and love in the world—I really resonated with what Marsha was saying about where you get your values from. What does it mean to be a good human in the world? It might come from Jewish culture, in part, but it doesn’t come from belief in God.
What I hear often in the Jewish world is an idea that God shows up in people’s actions—God is in the response to the tragedy, injustice, or adversity. Not that God is operating marionette strings and deciding who lives and who dies, but that God is evident in how people take care of each other, mourn with each other, repair what’s broken. Does that resonate at all?
Irene: I think that almost diminishes the response, to be honest. I think about the Paul Stookey song, “There is Love”: “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in his name, there is love.” I think it’s diminished by saying that is the presence of God or that action is where God comes in. It doesn’t work for me. For me, atheism was a factory setting; I came this way. But even if I hadn’t been atheist at the start, once I’d learned about the Holocaust, I would have said, “That’s it.” If someone comes back and says, “No, God isn’t actually the puppeteer, but He’s among us,” well, no, no. This is us. We’re doing this.
We see beauty, connection, community and love—even divinity—in other people all the time. But to me, that’s not God.
Marsha: I think of another example of a “response”: There’s a tragedy and somebody responds by drinking heavily and driving. Is God in that response—in that guy who killed five people? So which responses is God in? I definitely push back on that.
Jennifer: It’s selective to say God is in the response. Everything is a response to something else. So the person who shoots up the school, that’s a response to maybe being bullied. It just feels very selective. I also believe we all have a responsibility, Jewish or not, to be a good person and to choose how we respond to that.
Leah: I take great issue with the idea that God is in the response. I ask again and again: Why do people have to externalize their goodness? Their response is human goodness; why can’t we own it? Why do we have to say that it’s an external being that causes this motivation to care for one another? Why can’t we say, “We are Jews and we try to fight the evils in our own nature and in humanity by cultivating our communal mutual responsibility”?
Leah, you described to me a sense that “a scrim lifted” when you left Hasidic Judaism—and you reckoned then with the reality of human responsibility.
Leah: When that scrim was in place, there was a certain passivity every day, because responsibility was externalized on God, obligation was externalized onto God’s command. But when I left, it was now on me to act, on me to have a sense of obligation, on me to cultivate the goodness in me, and on me to build community.
Lee: We see beauty, connection, community and love—even divinity—in other people all the time. But to me, that’s not God. I’ve read the Tanach many times and I use it in my literary work. That God is interventionist, constantly acting to punish, help, teach us something. If that’s God, I’m not a believer.
I want to talk about prayer—whether you do it, and what that activity means to you.
Aaron: I pray every day—formally using the liturgy, and it’s in the crevices of my mind. Sometimes I pray successfully, meaning I don’t consider prayer to be successful just by getting through the page and articulating syllables. It’s successful when I feel like I have, through the liturgy, curated an intentional spiritual elevation, which sometimes does and sometimes does not push up against my ongoing questions about whether or not there is anything behind that curtain. But I can find meaningful, exalted, lofty prayer experiences without even going near the question about whether or not the God or the name of God that I’m articulating in the prayer has to be there in order for the experience to be real, meaningful, beautiful, and pushing me toward the good.
I can find meaningful, exalted, lofty prayer experiences without even going near the question about whether or not the God or the name of God that I’m articulating in the prayer has to be there in order for the experience to be real, meaningful, beautiful, and pushing me toward the good.
Nancy: I participate in our services. I’ve been reading our new very beautiful prayer book. When I read the God passages, what I’m loving is the community, the music, the Jewish experience, the touch. And usually there’s a value somewhere in there—emet [truth] or ahava [love] or something that doesn’t require me to have belief. I’m trying, actually, to get a little more spiritual feeling, but I don’t think that means I have to believe in God to get that feeling. In the prayer setting, I can do that, but it’s not really praying. It’s useful to be in the space, but God isn’t there. I actually meditate in the morning and I feel closer, in some ways, to that spirituality—that I see and recognize in other people. And by the way, I respect a lot of people who really believe in God. If they’re good people.
Sxdni: I follow along with the sound of prayers. I just kind of ignore the God-language or put my own words in there. Hearing the Hebrew feels very visceral, powerful, it touches something deep within me. Even though I made the choice not to be a B-Mitzvah, not to be involved when I was a child, it’s still always a very visceral thing for me to hear that Hebrew and see the Torah, those letters. So I will pray, but I either substitute, take things out, or ignore. I have written some of my own prayers. I have Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings, and I use that. But it does feel important to me to experience—Jewishly—the bigger sense that I’m connected to other Jewish folks, and to the ancestors. It just feels very Jewish to me to be involved in Jewish things.
David: The congregation with which I’m involved does not pray. And part of that is a question of integrity: I say the words I believe in. And if I don’t believe in them, I don’t say them. One of my Sunday school students—the daughter of atheist, secular, humanistic parents—at one point told the story of finding her sister at her bed doing this [he demonstrates hands together in prayer] at night. She asked her sister, “What are you doing?” And the sister said, “I’m doing my begging.” After that conversation, within our small little Sunday school class, we referred to prayer as “beg, beg, flatter, flatter, beg, beg, flatter, flatter.” This was a group of kids I took to 10 different houses of worship, only two of which were Jewish, and they started to say, “You know, a lot of these prayers are beg, beg, flatter, flatter.”
Jennifer: That really rings true and is something I hadn’t thought about. I will say the counter, which is that when I was in Israel for a Birthright trip, some of the Israelis who were also atheists, said, “You really have it easy over there in America because a lot of you Reform Jews don’t speak Hebrew, so when you say these prayers, you have no idea what you’re saying.” I think about that a lot. I don’t pray. However, every once in a while, we’ll light the candles on Shabbat and we say those prayers. I sing the Shema with my daughter every night. It connects me to the Jewish tradition. But even though I know what the translation is, because it’s in Hebrew, I’m able to kind of mentally separate it from God, saying something to God. It’s just this little song that my ancestors thousands of years ago were also singing. So I actually really appreciate what David said, although I will continue to do what we do because the language is connecting me to my roots and to Judaism.
The last two Pew studies on Jewish identity have found a sizable number of identified Jews say they have no religion or they are Jews of no religion. Do you think that your cohort of Jewish atheists (or nonbelievers) is larger than the Jewish community acknowledges or talks about? Raise your hand if you think that’s the case?
[All hands go up.]
Raise your hand if you feel the mainstream Jewish community does not make Jewish spaces feel welcome for nonbelievers.
[Four agree: Karen, Marsha, Judy, Lee. Sxdni and Nancy signal they’re unsure.]
There’s no one way to do Jewish or be Jewish. If you identify as Jewish and call yourself Jewish, ‘dayenu.’ That should be enough.
I want to end by asking: What do you wish the wider Jewish community understood about what it means to be an invested, connected, involved Jew, and also a nonbeliever?
Marsha: I wish that more people realized that our values, our beliefs in family and tradition, in every aspect of Jewish life, remains the same [as believers]. Because to us, those things go to the core of what it means to be Jewish. It has nothing to do with the belief in God. I wish more people realized that we’re exactly the same as they are.
Judy: Too many don’t think that it’s even possible to be both Jewish and atheist.
Aaron: First, I wish more people understood that [nonbelief], and certainly profound doubt, is actually a rather authentic Jewish position. And that the more you study the writings of the sages, the more we understand that they question—much more than what modern calcifications of their beliefs seem to suggest. And number two, that there is as wide a chasm among believers in terms of the differences that they ascribe to the different beliefs of God as there is a chasm between any of those believers and one who has almost no belief. And therefore, to be in the realm of belief does not mean that there’s anything homogeneous about that. There’s a heterogeneity of belief, including those who have varying understandings of the God concept and those who are teetering on the edge of having none.
Leah: Being an atheist has been ubiquitous among Jews since the beginning of time … I’m fascinated by the fact that our people have basically taken what I consider to be a large basket into which we threw every force on our lives—over which we have no control—collected them, and called them God. I think that the act of daily acknowledging, “There are things over which I have no control, and let me come together as a people and find a way to move forward,” is probably one of the keys to our continued existence. Atheist Jews are not a modern phenomenon. I don’t think we’re that small. I think we’ve been a people more focused on praxis than on belief.
Irene: I just wish the larger Jewish community could understand that there’s no one way to do Jewish or be Jewish. If you identify as Jewish and call yourself Jewish, dayenu. That should be enough. I’d like to be included in the Jewish community, and I don’t think the fact that I am an atheist should have any effect on it at all. I would hope that Jews of faith feel the same way about our communities.
There are Jewish people who don’t fit the mold, including Jewish pagans, atheists, and a whole range of folks who have been left out or cast aside or kicked out or just felt that they would not fit in.
Francis: First, Judaism is a culture, not just a religion. Second, even as a religion, it’s an ancestral religion—we honor the ancestors in our practice; it’s not a soteriological religion [the theology that studies salvation]. As Leah said, it’s much more about practice than about belief. And finally, to echo something Aaron said: The ancestors, including Maimonides, were much more skeptical. The ancestors were a lot more freethinking than people in modernity give them credit for.
Sxdni: Jews are not one way. There are Jewish people who don’t fit the mold, including Jewish pagans, atheists, and a whole range of folks who have been left out or cast aside or kicked out or just felt that they would not fit in.
Karen: There are ways of connecting that the larger community doesn’t always understand or appreciate. While I was listening to people talk about prayer, I identified a lot. I don’t pray because I don’t believe. And yet I know my go-to place is niggunim [songs without words]. Because I don’t have cognitive dissonance, and I don’t have to worry about what the words are saying or mean. Somewhere in my Jewishness, it speaks to me.
Jennifer: The ethics are enough to guide you. I think that tikkun olam, tzedakah, teshuva, all of that is enough to guide you in this world and give you direction if you’re seeking it, purpose if you’re seeking it. I married a lapsed Catholic, and though I’ve never actually personally experienced anyone trying to gatekeep Judaism from me, I know in the broader world or on the internet, I hear otherwise. That gatekeeping exists, but you can be in an interfaith marriage or you can be an atheist and be a very active part of the Jewish world. You can contribute incredible things to the Jewish world. You can raise Jewish children. You are not depriving the Jewish world of future Jewish babies. I think a lot of people have this idea that we’re losing our numbers and the Jewish world is disappearing. It’s not. It’s changing. And that’s what it should be doing. But it’s not disappearing. I think all of us are proof of that. We don’t believe in the religion part of our ethno-religion, but we believe in lots of other factors of it. More religious people—or people who are a little more gatekeepy—need to understand that. If you gatekeep, that’s exactly how you keep people out. You’ll get fewer people involved if you actually close the door on them.
David: I grew up in a humanistic Jewish congregation that was well known in the area and found I was challenged by the other Jewish students at my school: “How can you be Jewish and not believe in God?” There is great goodness, wisdom, comfort, inspiration from Judaism, with or without a focus on the supernatural. There is powerful value in studying and practicing Judaism, being connected to the Jewish community. Sxdni talked about diversity. There is a diversity in the Jewish community, whether you acknowledge it or not. There has been for a very long period of time. Given the state the world is in right now, do we really want to make Judaism unpalatable to people who identify as Jewish? Israel was founded by secular Jews.
Nancy: I love Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comment about marching in Selma—that it was his feet that were doing the praying. That is a signifier of all the goodness of our heritage, the traditions, and most importantly, the wisdom, which goes back to what we started with: behavior. There are so many ways to be Jewish. Maybe I can’t even aspire to all the ways that exist, but I don’t have to.
Lee: We’re still all connected by history, by choice, by values. The stories that we tell to make sense of the world—we’re influenced by those stories even if we don’t attribute them to divinity. If we stay really true to the values that are at the heart of Judaism, then there’s no reason why we don’t belong, too. But to make it this artificial distinction as though there’s something in the liturgy that says people who don’t believe in God need to be cast out—I don’t know of anything like that. There are many examples of welcoming people who don’t have exactly the same way of looking at things. So why shouldn’t that be true now, too? If they’re so worried about the continuation of Judaism, maybe all of us should be in the room.
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.