Opinion

Can religion, especially Judaism, work if you don’t believe in God?

The latest turn in the New Atheist debates can be summed up like this: Even if you don’t believe in God, religion still has a lot to offer. Public intellectuals such as Alain de Botton and James Gray in Britain, and scientists like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt in America, all of them atheists, have made similar cases in their recent books and essays.

While their arguments differ, they all concede that religions — Christianity and Judaism, and ones from further East — have done a remarkable job creating harmonious communities, at least over the long haul of history. Moreover, religions have proven markedly adept at helping people cope with the agonies and ecstasies of human experience.

“God may be dead,” de Botton, an atheist born to secular Jewish parents, writes in his new book, “Religion for Atheists,” “but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions.”

“The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

Can religion, especially Judaism, work if you don’t believe in God? To many Jews, this argument may seem unremarkable. In fact, it may seem eerily like a description of American Judaism today. It is not so much that most Jews in America define themselves as atheist — though, according to the latest research, almost 20 percent do. It’s that the question of whether God exists, in striking contrast to Christianity, is almost beside the point to how Jews define their identity.

“The religion has a lot of meaning even without God,” said Asher Lopatin, an Orthodox rabbi who leads the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.

Lopatin, a Rhodes scholar recently named one of Newsweek’s “Top 50 Rabbis in America,” was not advocating for a Judaism without God. But he did think Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism, was getting along just fine without a strong emphasis on one.

He cited a 19th-century Talmudic commentary admitting a similar point, as if to suggest that his view was nothing radical. The idea was essentially that all rabbinic commentary, Lopatin paraphrased, “should be able to explain everything in the Jewish religion without having God in the picture.”

Interviews with rabbis of many denominations, as well as Jewish academics and intellectuals, elicited similar responses.

“The cliché is that Judaism is about deed, not creed. But there’s a lot of truth in that,” said Jay Michaelson, a prominent Jewish writer and thinker, who says he believes in a Spinozian-type God (“God does not exist; God is existence itself,” he said, summing it up.)

“The innovation was Christianity, which said that if you believe in Christ, you are redeemed,” he said. “In Judaism, questions of belief in God are secondary.”

Alan Mittleman, a professor of modern Jewish philosophy at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said that “I imagine many Jews go to shul, even Modern Orthodox shuls, and have doubts about God. But still they feel deeply committed to Jewish life and the mitzvot.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist who describes herself as an atheist Jew, put it this way: “Judaism isn’t a doctrinal religion. We do need community, and we do need these rituals that mark important times in our lives. But somehow it’s survived even having been cut off from theology.”

Like several others interviewed, she dubbed American Judaism today, at least the most prevalent forms, as being “post-theological.”

The latest statistics seem to fit these impressions. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey on American Jewish values released this month, religious observance was a distant third in what Jews described as the most important quality of their Jewish identity. The most common answer, at roughly 50 percent, was “a commitment to social equality,” followed by support for Israel at 20 percent.

“Religious observance,” the closest quality to something like belief, was cited as the most important quality of Judaism only 17 percent of the time.

The data also showed that while about 70 percent of Jews define themselves through a religious movement — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — the other 30 percent see Judaism as more of a cultural identity, calling themselves “just Jewish.” And when asked whether Jews of any kind believed in God, 18 percent said they did not. (Forty percent said they believed in an “impersonal God,” while 26 percent said they believed in a God they saw as “a person with whom one can have a relationship.”)

None of this gives a clear picture of what Jews actually believe or what they believe Judaism essentially is — a set of beliefs codified in laws or a culture. But many of the rabbis and scholars interviewed for this article gave a similar description of the Jewish landscape.

Most Jews today, they said, tend to de-emphasize the question of belief in God and instead focus on other modes of identity: a connection to Israel, or to Jewish history and culture, or even with rituals and religious traditions — but understood as inherently meaningful, not necessarily because they connect to God.

This is not a new phenomenon, however. Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi who leads the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, and author of “Jewish Theology in Our Time” (2010), dated the idea of Judaism as a culture that includes religious practice — but is much more — to the early 20th-century American rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

A prominent figure, Kaplan argued in his landmark book “Judaism as a Civilization” (1934) that Judaism was essentially an ancient civilization. What mattered was ethics, not belief. Yet Jewish laws and rituals — that is, the stuff of traditional religion — were worth preserving as a means of sharing collectively in a rich and vibrant past.

While the Reconstructionist movement founded by Kaplan has only a nominal place in American Jewish life today — 1 percent of Jews identity as Reconstructionist, according to the survey — his other legacy, Jewish community centers, was more successful. More important, his conception of Judaism as civilization, re-branded today as “culture,” is perhaps his most resounding legacy.

But not everyone sees the idea of Judaism as a culture or “Judaism without God” as good for the faith. Asked whether Judaism can remain a coherent entity, even one defined as a culture, without a strong belief in God, some were ominous.

“Without God playing a central role, Judaism will collapse,” said David Wolpe, a Conservative rabbi who leads the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. (He is also a regular contributor to The Jewish Week and topped this year’s Newsweek list.) He dismissed the idea of preserving religious rituals as merely valuable “traditions” — a common description since “Fiddler on the Roof,” if not Kaplan.

“In the end, traditions are hard to maintain unless there’s an attempt to understand the traditions in a deep way, and that God is central to those traditions,” he said.

His argument cannot be described as generational. Wolpe may be in his 50s, but some younger rabbis serving mostly youthful populations made a similar case. Dan Ain, a 35-year-old Conservative rabbi and the 92YTribeca’s rabbi in residence, said a Jewish identity that pays little attention to theology “isn’t going to cut it anymore in the 21st century.”

“What we’re really experiencing now is a real crisis in Jewish life,” he said, referring to both the divisive debates over Israel — once a pillar of Jewish unity — and financial hardships stemming from the economy. Both individual Jews and Jewish institutions, especially ones that foster Jewish identity through cultural experiences, have suffered because of the downturn.

Ain said because of this, Jews want to tap into religious faith, but Jewish leaders have left them ill equipped. “People are looking for God in their lives,” he said, but rabbis and Jewish organizations have not given them the ability to connect with God on a spiritual and Jewish level.

That lack of strong belief, or confusion over what it is Jews believe, stems in part from Judaism itself. From a historical perspective, rabbis have often come up with competing notions of what God actually is — from mystical, kabbalistic ideas that stress a God who created, then removed himself from the world, to the Maimonidean notion that any attempt to understand God through human faculties — language or reason — ultimately fails because God is beyond all understanding.

“Depending on how you look at it, it’s either really liberating or really confusing,” Cosgrove said. On the one hand, the diversity of theological ideas about God might create a larger tent for religious belief. But for others, it might be profoundly frustrating: so many Gods, which one to choose?

But like many others, Cosgrove said that part of the problem was with Jewish institutions today — synagogues, Hebrew schools and JCCs. They do a poor job of educating Jews on what God may or may not be.

“For many of us,” said Michaelson, “our concept of God stopped evolving when we were 13. If you believe ‘the old man in the sky’ is idiotic, odds are you’re not going to continue believing in God as an educated adult. So our God concept needs to grow up like we do.”

Leora Batnitzky, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, “I think the answer is better Jewish education that teaches all the main ideas about God. Then Jews can decide for themselves what they believe.”

Batnitzky recently argued in her book “How Judaism Became a Religion” (2011) that the idea of Judaism as a religion rather than a culture is actually a modern one. Prior to European emancipation, in the late-18th century, Jews lived in autonomous communities where all aspects of life were regulated by rabbis. That effectively made Judaism an entire culture. It is only as Jews entered an increasingly secular world that Judaism began to be conceived as a religion to be separated from all other aspects of life.

And yet she comes to the same conclusion as rabbis like Ain and Wolpe.

“I think belief in God will be more important in the future than in the past,” Batnitzky said in an interview. Given the difficulties that other secular Jewish identities have had sustaining themselves in the past century — Zionist, Yiddish socialist, secular humanist Judaism — she believes a more traditional Jewish identity, one centered on religious practices and belief in God, will become more important.

Moreover, partaking in religious rituals without having a firm belief in God as their foundation doesn’t bode well for Judaism’s survival. The rituals, conceived of only as “traditions,” won’t hold up to scrutiny unless they are backed by a more powerful concept like God.

“What the question of God is about is truth,” she said. “So people will begin to ask, ‘Is there any truth in this tradition?’”

Eric Herschthal is a staff writer for the N.Y. Jewish Week.

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