Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?
It depends on what you mean by Judaism.
In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides talks about words that mean different things in different contexts. There are different meanings for words when they are used in reference to God and when they’re used in reference to people, like “sit” or “stand.” So you have all kinds of philosophies that go by the name Judaism. If you consider Judaism to be what people of Jewish background believe, I’d say, sure, you certainly can have a Jewish person who doesn’t believe in God. But there’s no way to conceive of thousands of years of historical Judaism without a deity, a designer, an ultimate, transcendent truth.
I’ve known a lot of people who do not believe in God who have come to Judaism for other reasons, such as a relationship or a philosophical view that drew them in. One of the strange and miraculous things about Jewish practice is that it seems to engender belief. People wonder, “Why does Chabad ask passersby to put on tefillin?” It seems that there’s this almost magical effect to it. The mitzvah not only provokes spiritual questions, but engenders a longing for belief, and ultimately belief itself. So even though, theologically, Judaism without God doesn’t make sense, I would say that, as a practice, Judaism can begin in non-belief but conclude in belief. For me, authenticity means truth. It means connecting with a revelation that happened in the past. If there’s any hope for Judaism at all, it lies in the belief that Judaism goes back to Moses and Mount Sinai. Otherwise, Judaism is just a fraud, an illusion.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and most recently edited Signature of Controversy: Responses to Critics of Signature in the Cell.
There is Judaism without belief in God. Statistics show that a majority of Jews define themselves as secular. I am not a believer, but I never say that I am an atheist, because it is just as impossible to prove the non-existence of God as it is to prove His existence. Judaism is a culture, and that includes religion, of course, since it started as religion, as did all cultures 2,000 to 3,000 years ago without exception. Judaism is an immensely rich subject, particularly in literature. The extent of Jewish literature is unbelievable, and it has never been put into one series of works, which is the Posen Foundation’s single largest project: an anthology of Judaism as culture and civilization on which about 120 scholars have been working for over a decade. We are collecting what has been written for a 3,000-year period, starting with the Talmud and Mishna. The first volumes are strictly religious, because the only writings that existed in the first 1,000 years were essentially religious texts. Some non-religious texts begin to appear in the Greek-Roman period, then in the Renaissance, and they show up more frequently from Spinoza’s time onward. The vast majority are from the past three or four hundred years. The anthology includes fiction, philosophy, sociology, art, architecture—whatever has been produced in a literary form by or for Jews. It will very clearly show the march of Judaism from religion toward secularity. We are not putting a value judgment on it; it is simply historical fact.
Felix Posen is the founder of the Posen Foundation.
Judaism is not a religion and was not a religion until the emancipation and our encounter with modernity. Rather, it’s the culture of the Jewish people. Like most ancient cultures, it was a religious culture, and the relationship between God and the Jewish people as a whole—not the individual Jew—was an integral part of the basis of that culture. Does an individual Jew have to believe in God to be a part of Judaism? I don’t think so. I believe that practicing Judaism demands recognition of the fact that you’re part of a culture with a narrative that has God as a central player, part of a people that have had a love affair with God for thousands of years. The narrative of this relationship is probably the central theme in the culture of this people. Being a people means identifying with a shared memory and narrative and having responsibility for its future, its renaissance, its well being. That’s what Jews are. It’s like asking “Can a Frenchman be French without being Catholic?” Of course he can, but he has to understand that being French was built on the Catholic tradition. We are taught that a Jew—never mind how he sins, even in the sin of apostasy—always remains a Jew. Jewish culture is not based on the individual Jew’s relationship to God, but rather on his relationship to his community and the community’s relationship to God: We pray in the plural. We need a minyan.
One of the most notable biblical converts to Judaism, Ruth, arranges four words to describe her conversion, roughly translated as: “Your people are my people, and your God is my God.” The order is not accidental. Membership in the people is the necessary condition for being a Jew (I don’t know if it’s sufficient), while saying, “your God is my God,” is not a requirement. I grew up in a home that was very much a secular home, where I often heard statements such as “I’m not sure there is a God, I’m not sure we were even in Egypt, but I’m sure He took us out of there.” In one Midrash relating to a verse in Jeremiah, rabbis quote God as saying, “Wouldst that they left Me, but not my teachings.” God is an integral part of my life, but I understand that’s not the case for all Jews. Would I regard David Ben-Gurion as a good Jew? Most decidedly yes. Was God an integral part of his life? I don’t think so.
Avraham Infeld is a senior scholar and advisor at the NADAV Foundation and President Emeritus of Hillel International.