Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?
Only a third to half of American Jews today believe in an almighty deity. Can there be Judaism without belief in God? Moment asks 14 thinkers—from philosophers to politicians to poets—to weigh in on this ever-present question.
The question “What is Judaism without belief in God” can best be answered through similes. The simplest simile would be that it is like humanity without life: a collection of dead bodies, cemeteries and memorials. Judaism without belief in God is just like that: a combination of obscure historical notions such as the Shoah, a faint attachment to Israel and wonderful material for Woody Allen movies. Unlike most of the people in the world, for whom religion is an entity superimposed on an existing nation, in Judaism there has never been anything that makes any sense of the Jewish people; it was not so in the past, and it is surely not so now, with all the ethnic, social and historical differentiations that exist within our nation. This is also true about Jewishness in general: When one speaks about Judaism as an idea or a culture, it becomes quite ridiculous; it is like an attempt to write literature by using only three or four letters of the alphabet. It can be done as a gimmick, but the result will be neither important nor impressive. It is true, however, that in many parts of the world, Jews subconsciously define themselves as the void that remained after God had left—namely, empty shells, hollow puppets that continue to talk and preach despite having lost their contents long ago.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a winner of the Israel Prize and recently completed a translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew.
As an atheist who identifies with my Jewishness, I believe this is a very important question. From a purely philosophical point of view, it might seem like a contradiction; Judaism is a religion that at the very least presupposes, as all religions do, a belief in God. But many of us make a distinction between Judaism as a religion and Judaism as a cultural and ethical outlook. Many Jewish secularists have strong emotional ties to Judaism; they are moved by Jewish history and identify with the ethics of its civilization. And although they don’t believe in any supernatural premises, they recognize that they are informed by Jewish values.
The contradictions might seem glaring, but centuries of Jewish history since the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, have proved that Jews are too strong for narrowly defined contradictions. One of the most important responsibilities a person has is to carefully and conscientiously examine her beliefs. She has a moral responsibility to not simply inherit her beliefs, accepting them as she does her name, to not assert propositions about the world just because of the group that she was born into. If an open-minded look at the world makes her conclude that this is a godless universe, does she have to renounce the culture she grew up with, that has done so much to develop a moral outlook and human values? The answer, for me and many others, is no.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, professor and novelist, is the author of Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.
There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it. I was raised in a traditional setting, to believe that we’re judged—and this comes from the prophetic writings—by our behavior, not whether we observe this or that ritual, though we should observe those rituals. Judaism without God, in my opinion, will not remain Judaism and will ultimately vanish. My somewhat circular logic is that I accept the truth of the promise that God made to our forefathers and foremothers: that the Jewish people will be eternal. But I also believe that the promise was conditioned on a continuing belief in God.
Senator Joe Lieberman is an Independent senator from Connecticut and author of a new book on the Sabbath, The Gift of Rest.