Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?
Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations. It can last a generation or two, but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. I don’t believe that people will continue to light Shabbat candles because it’s a cultural practice, but they will do it because it’s a mitzvah. Absent a connection to God, Judaism cannot sustain itself. For many people, it’s difficult to believe in God, and yet they feel deeply attached to their Judaism. Transmitting it, however, will be an insurmountable challenge. Judaism without God eliminates large and important sections of our tradition, like prayer. You start out with a lessened tradition and without a compelling reason to continue it. That’s a poor prescription for longevity.
Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California, and author of the recently published Why Faith Matters.
When people describe themselves as Christian, they imply some element of belief. The beliefs may vary, but it would be hard for them to say, “I am a Christian,” if they don’t believe in God. In Judaism, there is a vibrant Jewish community separate from the theological underpinnings of the Torah. You don’t have to believe God made a covenant with our ancestors—where He gave us the land of Israel and commanded us to live by His teachings—to be Jewish. On the other hand, if people don’t believe in God, and everyone is merely going through the motions, is Judaism worth preserving? What if it contributes to polarization and tribalization? Right now, given the way the world is, it feels very meaningful for me to be part of this community and for Jewish culture to be preserved.
Jason Rosenhouse is an associate professor of mathematics at James Madison University, writes EvolutionBlog for the Science Blogs network, and is the author of Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolution Frontline, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
The concept of Jewishness as a religious affiliation is a recent one. It’s a post-World War II American idea, which will take years to unpack, but essentially it’s a cultural reaction to the need not to think of Jews as an ethnicity. The rest of the world thinks of Jews as an ethnic group, and to maintain a separate and cohesive population it’s useful to have a religion, but it’s not necessary, as other groups have demonstrated. The Roma have adopted whatever religion is dominant in the society in which they’re living, an unusual story for a small population in the diaspora, but possible. Same with the secular Jews of the Soviet Union. For nearly seven decades, Jews maintained a separate identity without religion and without a common language. The common experience of discrimination forged a common identity that bound them together. In the post-Soviet world, what we’re seeing is a very diverse population of Jews; the ones who are here are ethnically secular, their affiliation based on past experience of discrimination. My understanding as a Jew raised secularly is that the question of belief in God is a private question. To be observant of Jewish traditions, you don’t actually have to believe in your heart of hearts in God; you have to believe in the necessity of observing the tradition.
Masha Gessen is a Moscow-based journalist and the author of several books, including Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene.
Wasn’t this the great question of the 19th century? My initial reaction is that I thought this question had been answered. Certainly there have been multiple attempts to deal with it. In the Middle Ages there were attempts—the Aristotelian God of Maimonides was a naturalized God—but they didn’t think that was incompatible with Jewish belief. It arose again in the Haskalah, which sought to offer a cultural account of Judaism, including a deep understanding of its history, its philosophy and its literary practices, not just religious ones. The Reconstructionist movement has been looking at Judaism as a civilization. And perhaps most importantly, Zionism itself has attempted to transform Judaism into a nationalist movement. So it very much depends on your definition. For theistic Judaism, the belief in God is all-important. The commitments to the commandments flow from the fact that they’re of divine origin; it would be absurd to follow commandments without someone who commanded them. But if you broaden your conception of what you think of as Judaism—either sociologically or otherwise—to include non-theistic Judaism, there are numerous ways to expand the notion of how to exist as a Jew. There is selective engagement with aspects of the religious tradition driven by emotion. You can be deeply religiously committed without being a theist because you can be religiously connected to rituals that move you beyond everyday experiences. You can be a culturally committed Jew, for whom the ritual is symbolic; a diaspora Jew, committed to the practice of Jewish life outside Israel; or a Zionist Jew, connected with Jewish life in Israel. So, while theistic Judaism can’t exist without God, other forms can, have and do.
Noah Feldman is the Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard and a regular contributor toThe New York Times Magazine.