Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can There Be Judaism Without Belief In God?

Can there be Judaism without belief in God? This was a question asked of a variety of Jewish thinkers in the September/October 2011 issue of Moment Magazine. Sadly, I was not among them. But that is what blogs are for. So, I ask myself, can there be Judaism without belief in God?

First, let me make clear what was not asked, namely, can there be Judaism without God? The issue here is belief in God and not the reality of God per se.

Since God is not the issue, the answer to this question depends on one’s definition of Judaism. Borrowing from my teacher Mordecai Kaplan, I define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jews—in other words Judaism is what Jews do and the stories we tell ourselves to explain why we do what we do. Defined this way, can there be Judaism without a belief in God? Absolutely, and we can see hints of this in those forms of Judaism where Land has replaced God, and others where Folk has replaced God.

The content of the civilization we call Judaism isn’t fixed or even self–evident. This is why there are so many brands of Judaism. The existence of “Judaism” only requires people willing to fill the meme “Judaism” with ideas that matter to them, demand that their ideas are somehow “Jewish,” and then spend their lives arguing in defense of them. This can even be done—and I am a prime example—when you know the entire enterprise is a literary creation fashioned and refashioned by thousands of Jews over millennia.

When I play the game Monopoly and put up hotels on the square marked “Marvin Gardens,” I don’t for a second believe that I own actual hotels on actual property called Marvin Gardens. It is the conceit of the game, and, since it is a game I enjoy playing, I suspend disbelief and play. When people stop enjoying Monopoly the game will fade away. The same is true of Judaism: As long as Jews want to play, Judaism will exist; and as long as Jews can reinvent the game so that we do want to play, Judaism will thrive. The danger today isn’t a lack of belief in God, but a lack of a Jews knowledgeable and daring enough to reinvent the game in their own image.

One might define a serious Jew—the kind of Jew we need to keep Judaism vibrant and alive—as a person who chooses to argue about, challenge, and reinvent the game of Judaism more than she or he chooses to argue about, challenge, and reinvent any other game, even if, like me, she knows the entire enterprise is make–believe. Serious Jews are a dwindling commodity.

So, Can there be Judaism without belief in God? Yes. Can there be Judaism without serious Jews? No.


Charles Kinnaird said...

Several years ago I went to an informational meeting about Humanistic Judaism. It was held on a chilly November Sunday morning at the Jewish Community Center. As I entered the building to find the meeting room, I walked past the gym where there was a young woman on the treadmill, several people on exercise bikes, a couple of young men jogging around the indoor track. I thought to myself, I don't think I could be Jewish - I couldn't take the workout.

But then I did find the meeting room, and it was quite fascinating to hear the presentation and discussion that followed. One of my friends was on the worship committee at the local Unitarian Church. I called him up and said, "You ought to get this guy to come talk about Humanistic Judaism - I think you folks would be interested. So sure enough, they invited him over as a guest speaker one Sunday.

mjerris said...

Rami -- Shalom. Hope all is well. Moment is publishing all month and then the "picks" will be published in the mag. In the meantime, HJ is hoping to feature this question in the next issue. Shana Tova -- a good and healthy year to you and yours.

Sensei said...

Nicely said, and I share your perspective.

andrea perez said...

Just because everyone is doing it, doesn't make it cool. Most of our prayers refer to there must be some belief in something outside ourselves or in our selves that wants us to be or live up to a "godly" standard. If we don't at least feel that way at a certain level then I'm thinking we are acting like the citizens in the Emperors New Clothes. Going through the motions so we don't look like idiots. Don't know if the question is "can there be Judaism without belief in God?" But "should you really be doing all that blessing, praising, holding back stuff if you think it's all foolish or play acting?" Maybe, you find a "god" you can believe in and live accordingly...being Jewish is struggling and questioning and arguing and all the stuff that returns you back again to the one place you feel at home...just saying, you have to believe in something to do that...if not, we are all just make believe...this the season to be introspective I guess...Judaism without "god" whatever form It takes, seriously doubt it...

Horan Paypah said...

What do you reckon G-d's answer is to your question?

Seems to me that if you "invent Judaism in your own image" than you are your own god. In that case you are a relativist. Everything is okay and the rules are made up as you go along. Nothing is wrong, just wrong for those who believe it is wrong.

Yes, there is a distinct movement away from prayer in much of modern Judaism. G-d never abandons His people however, no matter how much they run from Him. Doesn't scripture teach us that? When The Chosen People return to G-d, He will welcome them. As Jews become "serious" and pray and think, He welcomes them and blesses them richly. He waits in eternal patience for the Relativists to return as well.

rig2469 said...

Shalom Rebbe Rami and Shana Tova to you and yours.

I am working on a performance piece that is a lot about the the notion that we shape our behavior (our lives) by the stories we tell each other about the way we are and the way the world is. These stories go by names like history, politics, religion, even science is a story, albeit more accurate and therefore more reliable than the others. But science is no more free of the fads, foibles, and frauds of any human endeavor. We confuse the story about the thing with the thing itself. The story about the thing is not the same thing as the thing. The map is not the territory. When stories are organized into internally consistant groups, we call that a belief system. I like to abbreviate belief system as b.s. to remind me not to take it too seriously. I have been in 12 Step Recovery for 24 years and I have learned not to believe everything I think.

rig2469 said...

Sorry, I wasn't quite done but I hit the wrong button.

I highly recommend "Nothing Sacred" by Douglas Rushkoff for a mind altering take on Judaism. It's a polemic and suffers from two glaring faults that I can see. It casts the Orthodox as blind fools or arrogant bigots (not all are) and he make not a single mention of perhaps the single most valuable revision of Judaism since Sinai, Reconstuctionism-the American version of the continuing story. But he mostly gets it right.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Your post reminds me of Rabbi Sherwin Wine's Z'L
1985 book "Judaism Beyond God."

He and Rabbi Daniel Friedman put Humanistic Judaism on the map based on the premise of that book more than 10 years before the book was published. If memory servers me you were once the editor of their quarterly journal.

Kol Tuv

Mano said...

LeHaKehila Hakedosha Ohadei HaRav Ram - to the holy congregation of devotees of the Rav Ram, here ius another one of my non sequitors, posted into the endless night of cyberspace:

From my point of view the BSD campaign is divisive, polarizing, profoundly unconscious (its based on projection rather than ownership), and profoundly reactive. As such it is less likely to reduce human suffering than to increase the energy blockage that swirls around the Israeli-Palestinian wrestle-embrace. Making the other wrong is never fertile ground for change. But perhaps the people who align themselves with it aren't interested in reducing suffering, but in making themselves "right"?

Mano said...

Slicha HaRav Ram aval haim efshar limchok et haPost hakodem ulehishtamesh bazeh bimkomo? (mimkomo, hu yifen berachamim...)

From my point of view the BSD campaign is divisive, polarizing, profoundly unconscious (its based on projection rather than ownership), and profoundly reactive. Its blanket condemnation of Israelis, without distinguishing between those who priorities places - mostly burial places (kever Avot, the 3rd century synagogue in Jehricho) above people, and those who prioritise an abstract "am yisrael" above the need for peace and stability that most Israelis express - this blanket condemnation makes "settlers" of us all.

As such the BSD com(pound)-pain is less likely to reduce human suffering than to increase the energy blockage that swirls around the Israeli-Palestinian wrestle-embrace. Making the other wrong is never fertile ground for change. But perhaps the people who align themselves with it aren't interested in reducing suffering, but in making themselves "right"?

Rather than being coerced and intimidated many people (such as myself) will go out of their way to

a) Buy Israeli products and support Israeli owned businesses

b) Support political parties that promote an even handed approach to the conflict, rather than a punitive and predjudiced one

I also suggest that people look to make contact with Hindu communities in your towns and cities, and establish Jewish Hindu cultural exchange programmes, as there is a natural affinity between the two cultures (despite the ultra-orthodox's misguided labelling of some forms of Hinduism as 'avodah zara" - "idol worship" - but how would they know, they've never stepped outside their mental ghetto to find out, and anyway the ultra-orthodox are no more representative of the Jewish people than the Assad regime is representative of ordinary Syrians.

Claire said...

Last I checked, Judaism did not require a belief in God. The 10 Commandments start off with God's CV and quals ("I brought you forth from slavery" etc.) and then the next one is, have no gods before me.

From this, I understand that we are to ponder whether or not God is worthy of our worship - that's why we get the resume. It's our choice - we can say, "I don't think so."

Then, from the 2nd Commandment, I understand the required number of gods to believe in is one or fewer. Further, if you do believe in a god, it needs to be YHVH, and not some other one, like a Golden Calf, because that's someone else's religious path.


from the Lady Philosopher said...

Without belief in God, it isn't a religion anymore, it's simply an ethnicity.

Claire said...

"Without belief in God, it isn't a religion anymore, it's simply an ethnicity."

I disagree.

Look, Christians define themselves by belief. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" - right? Believing is what makes you a Christian. We live in a largely Christian world, so we are influenced by their type of understanding, and think that religion is all about belief.

But other religions are just fine by not defining themselves by what they believe. For heaven's sake, Zen Buddhists are completely a-theistic and fervently un-believers - but isn't Buddhism a religion?

As Jews, we don't have define what makes our religion a religion by how Christians define themselves.

I know lots of Jews who have no truck with the idea of a god, particularly one who requires worship. They understand being Jewish means that you have responsibilities to the world. Menschlekeit is their practice. Is that not Jewish?