When I was around 12 years old, I attempted to defend the existence of heaven in an argument with my father. What with him being a philosophy professor with a degree from Yale Divinity School, and me being 12 years old, it was not very close. Despite my crushing defeat, I stuck to my guns, forcing him to deploy the nuclear option in any parent-child argument: “When you’re older, you’ll understand why the concept of heaven makes very little sense.”
He was, as it turns out, right. And the reasons he was right pointed ineluctably to a more fundamental truth: There’s no reason to believe in God, either.
I’m not interested here in defending the core atheist claim here; that territory has already been trod persuasively and in exhaustive depth. Instead, I want to address a question that I’m sure has vexed more than a few Tablet readers: Are we still really Jewish once we give up our faith? And, if so, then in what sense?
In Israel, the answer to the first question is somewhat obvious. Around 20 percent of self-defined Israeli Jews don’t believe in God. A community of atheists that large that still thinks of itself as Jewish suggests that Jewish atheists simply exist. Any definition of Jewishness that ignores them misses something important about contemporary Judaism.
It’s a bit different for us Diaspora Jews, though. Traditionally, Jews separated ourselves from the enveloping majority through our distinctive religious practices and beliefs. In Israel, where Jewish practice is part of public life, it’s easy to make participation in the Jewish community a civic rather than theological affair. When you’re a minority, by contrast, there’s no mass Jewish public life nudging you toward being a Jew. It takes real effort to carve out Jewish space for yourself when the world around is pushing in the opposite direction. The institutions that do want to give you a hand are plainly religious in character. Where does an atheist fit in to this private, religious world?
My entirely personal and speculative answer is that seeing Jews as only, or even mostly, a theological community is a mistake. When a group of people share such a rich set of experiences and history, it really doesn’t matter whether or not they all believe the same things about God. The role of Jewish tradition in shaping our beliefs is so powerful, so primal, that it transcends the question of theology and becomes a simple fact about who we are. I can lose my faith in God, but I can’t change the fact that I’m Jewish anymore than I can change the fact that I was born American. Being Jewish is a principal part of what makes me “me.” Rejecting Judaism means not only rejecting traditional theologies, but also rejecting this core part of your self-identity, choosing to turn your back on a tradition that’s shaped your whole life to this date. Put differently, the question of whether you tell your children that the Passover story is literally true is much less important than the question of whether you tell the story (and have the Seder) at all.
What this suggests, then, is that Judaism can be a sort of “religion for atheists,” but not in the inane way suggested by Alain de Botton in his awful book of the same title. De Botton envisions a sort of secular religion, where religious-like traditions (such as shared meals with strangers) are re-appropriated under a secular banner. This idea struck most observers as hokey and absurd in part, I think, because an integral element of religion is tradition. What makes Jewish ritual and communal practice meaningful isn’t just the words or rituals themselves; it’s that they’re a concrete connection to the people who came before us. Participating in Jewish cultural life places us in a long line of people who are like us. It draws on the same emotional well that binds us to our family. As (Jewish) political philosopher Michael Walzer puts it:
The self-portrait of the lndividual constituted only by his willfulness, liberated from all connection, without common values, bindings, customs, or traditions-sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything- need only be evoked in order to be devalued: It is already the concrete absence of value. What can the real life of such a person be like?
We find value in the traditions we participate in, a value that’s independent of whether we believe the same things as the people who have participated in them in the past. The fact that my parents, and (one pair) of grandparents, and their parents, have all been Jews matters to me. Being Jewish in this sense is a feeling, whereas belief in God is a belief about the world, one that must (like all beliefs) be subjected to rational assessment. But the fact that God can’t pass the intellectual smell test doesn’t say a thing about whether I can find value in participating in the traditions that shape my cultural heritage. I simply do, in an almost prerational sense. It matters to me, and people like me, that we remain Jews. And I think that settles the question.
All of which is a roundabout way to say: Hi, I’m Zack, and I’ll be your guest blogger for the next day and a half. Hopefully, I’ll try to flesh out this secular Jewish identity I’ve carved out for myself implicitly in the news I cover rather than subjecting you to more ponderous reflection. But I hope it helps to get a sense of the sort of Jew I am and where I’m coming from.
Previously: The Rise of the “Partially Jewish” [The Scroll]
Zack Beauchamp contributes to Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. His Twitter feed is @zackbeauchamp.