According to the recently released Pew Research survey of U.S. Jewry that has garnered so much media attention, nearly one-fourth of American Jews don’t believe in God.
“Belief in God,” the survey dryly notes, “is much more common among the general public than among Jews.”
I can’t say I’m surprised.
Some time ago, during a break between prayers at a synagogue I was visiting, I asked a number of the congregants a two-part question: Do you believe in God? And if so, why?
It was obvious the question touched a nerve. Many congregants admitted at least some doubt about the existence of a supreme being, while others couldn’t provide clear-cut reasons for their belief in one.
This led me to wonder why these people, all highly educated, would devote a great deal of their time to praying and other religious observances and activities when they lacked the fundamental belief that was supposed to have brought them to a house of worship in the first place. Or if they did believe in God, why they couldn’t clearly articulate the basis of their belief.
I suspected the responses from this small sample of Jewish congregants were not entirely unrepresentative of the beliefs of other Jews. I had heard and read of Jews across the spectrum of denominations who identify as Jews – who have strong feelings about Judaism and Israel and who ardently uphold many Jewish practices – yet lack belief in God.
Of course, believing in God doesn’t make one Jewish. Many people identify themselves as Jews for a host of reasons other than believing in the God of Israel, and they are just as Jewish as the most pious Jew. Being Jewish is a birthright, not a belief right. According to halacha, anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Period.
But religion is synonymous with the worship of God. All the holiday celebrations, rituals, practices, and customs are wonderful and joyous and positive and effective in promoting bonding between fellow Jews, but they are merely corollaries – cultural perks, if you will – to Judaism’s being a God-based religion.
The fundamental tenet of Judaism is belief in God – a firm, unwavering, unshakeable belief in God.
As was true for many of my fellow congregants the night I conducted my impromptu survey, my belief in God, if not innate (and there is a case to be made that we are hardwired to believe in a supreme being), was inculcated in me at an early age. It was continually nurtured and cultivated by my parents and my religious schoolteachers concomitant with the practice of Jewish customs in the home.
But with the empirical teachings of my secular education, that belief wasn’t just something I perfunctorily accepted. While some people lose faith as a result of the widespread human suffering throughout history, as well as having to endure the passing of loved ones and friends, on a strictly intellectual level I felt the need to find principles of logic outside the realm of religion that supported the existence of a supreme being.
For me, the quest for affirmation was to find ideas that in philosophical ways supported the existence of a Creator. While I was aware that concrete proof of God could not be found in the direct way some people seek, I knew I could be satisfied with rationales that strongly indicated the existence of a supreme being.
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I came up with a litany of plausible explanations for the existence of God, none of them original but all of which have been proffered over the centuries.
For example: The universe exists; everything in the universe – space, matter, time – came out of nothing; there is harmony in the heavens; there is intelligent life; all the resources people need in order to live and advance on this planet just happen to be on the planet; there is a general spark of goodness in human beings; we are greater than the sum of our parts; belief in God has been timeless and universal; there are laws of nature; there is a logic to the universe.
I realized, of course, that any of these ideas could easily be shot down, but I don’t think that matters. In contemplating the existence of God, I think one must step away from science and consider everything metaphysically. All the brilliant findings of science that support the notion of a world born and developing on its own may be true but inconsequential – because it could all be God’s handiwork to begin with, part of a divine plan. In a world where a deity would want intelligent life to have free will and be a partner in building that world, wouldn’t that supreme being want to remain scientifically undetectable or make things appear to be a certain way? The blinding intelligence of a supreme being should never be underestimated.
God may be incomprehensible and therefore not detectable scientifically or empirically, understood only through signs or ideas. We humans have intelligence, but we have our limitations when it comes to perception. Like a bird perched on a street sign that cannot read the sign, we may be incapable of perceiving God because we can perceive only in human terms.
* * * * *
Alternatively, approached from an aesthetic viewpoint, evidence for the existence of the deity may be seen everywhere, from oceans and mountains to flower petals and butterfly wings. Indeed, nothing is too small to carry the imprint of God; as the famous saying goes, “God is in the details.”
As I contemplate our world, certain questions arise as to why things are the way they are. To me, the nature of the questions themselves validates the existence of a supreme being. Why should there be a universe? Why should there be forces that keep the stars and planets on their paths or that prevent us from flying off the earth? Why should there be resources on our planet that not only sustain us biologically but also enable us to realize our imaginings?
Why are we so much more than pounds of flesh, bone, and tissue? Why do love and art and beauty and music exist? Why do we fight evil at all costs? Why can diseases be cured? Why is there a logic to the universe? Atoms, cells, evolution, laws of thermodynamics, string theory, our expanding universe – why? Indeed, the why of anything and everything with regard to space, time, and existence can be asked ad infinitum.
Those who insist on nothing short of direct proof that God exists should be open enough to realize that our inability to see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Even our earthly perceptions are acutely limited (perhaps for good reason). The earth moves in two directions at the same time – around the sun for the seasons and on its axis for day and night – and yet we feel no movement. The powerful force of gravity draws us to the earth, yet we feel no pressure. The main mass of an atom is the infinitesimal proton, so an atom is almost all space; yet though we are composed of innumerable atoms, when we see other human beings we see not ghosts but visible people (because the atoms are compressed together so tightly). Tangible proof is not always needed to confirm something’s existence.
To my unscientific mind, logic suggests there are three basic explanations for the existence of the universe: a world that came from absolutely nothing, a world that always existed, and divine creation. The absolutely nothing theory troubles me, and not just because “absolutely nothing” is virtually unfathomable. How could absolute nothing be ignited, and how did it contain the seeds for all life and matter that spewed from it if it was truly absolutely nothing?
Next, ours may not be the first or only universe, but it is incomprehensible to me that we could live in a world that had no beginning. How could the world be finite in space but not in time?
Finally, cosmologists describe the Big Bang giving way to a very hot early universe from which countless stars and other celestial bodies were born into an ever-expanding cosmos, which, as we know, contains life on earth. To me, this incredible blast must have been a divine detonation – because wouldn’t a God-created universe be a vast, wondrous, beautiful, enigmatic, explicable world governed by laws and have intelligent life?
Perhaps one can reduce all the arguments, pro or con, about the existence of God to the following query: Is everything in the universe the result of a cosmic accident, or did it all happen by intelligent design? For me, even from a secular vantage point there can be no choice but the latter.
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Can one be a practicing Jew without believing in God? Obviously, yes, since there are many practicing Jews who lack belief in the divine or are unsure of what they believe. So perhaps the better question to ask is: Why would one want to be a practicing Jew without believing in God? Why would a nonbeliever attend Jewish religious services the very purpose of which is to exalt and affirm belief in God? Why would a nonbeliever engage in practices like having Shabbat dinners or Seders on Passover, not eating on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and any of the other fast days, keeping kosher in or out of the home, eating in a sukkah, or celebrating Purim or Chanukah?
The answer may have to do with wanting to maintain a Jewish identity. Some nonbelievers – and the Pew survey certainly bears this out – see Judaism more as a culture than a religion. Its customs and traditions are part of that identity; they grew up with that identity, and it is ingrained in their psyches, but they reject the notion of God and don’t see that Judaism as a God-based religion is an impediment to living a culturally Jewish life.
Some of these atheists or agnostics view a supreme being as an antiquated notion that somehow slipped through the net of enlightenment that snared sundry other medieval beliefs, superstitions and fears. But they like the tradition of Shabbat meals, the celebration of Jewish holidays, the melodies of religious services, the camaraderie in consorting with fellow Jews in shul.
Many nonbelievers who participate in religious services apparently don’t seem to care that those services exalt the Almighty; to them it’s all a matter of culture and ritual – and some don’t understand the Hebrew anyway. These atheists and agnostics have a sense of tradition, maybe even a sense of obligation toward Judaism, and being Jewish without believing in God or knowing if they believe in God gives them a connection they need and want.
In other words, being Jewish is in their DNA. It’s just that they want the frills without the fealty.
But in light of the results of the Pew survey, several questions need to be asked: With the growing number of Jews who identify as Jews but don’t believe in God, is the Jewish religion as we know it headed toward extinction? What is a religion whose members lack faith in its deity? Is it in fact a religion at all?
Godless Judaism – an oxymoron if ever there was one – is the result, no doubt, of a complex amalgamation of factors: family background and influences, secular and religious education, environment, culture, intermarriage, outlook on Israel and world events, and living in a high-tech world. Religious extremists who perpetrate barbaric acts in the name of God may turn some people away from believing in God. And not only has modern culture contributed to a new morality that sometimes pokes fun at or denigrates religion, but for some – young people in particular – God competes with the distracting and enticing electronic wizardry of computers, cable television, satellite radio, video games, and smartphones that places the world at their fingertips.
Godless Judaism would seem by definition not to be a religion. In my view it comprises two basic groups of nonbelievers: Jews by birth whose only tie to Judaism is genetics, and those who follow some, many, or all of the customs and rituals of Judaism.
Jewish culture grew out of and survived as an adjunct to the monotheistic Jewish religion. The gene that Jewish nonbelievers pass down to future generations may be Jewish but the Jewish torch they hand off to those generations is sputtering, and over time that flame will subside. Culture Jews, ethnic Jews and Jews who claim no religion eventually will dwindle to an insignificant number and the Jewish people will be almost exclusively composed of small, hard-core groups of Jewish believers in God.
What is particularly sad is that today we have Jews voluntarily relinquishing their belief in a God-based religion when their forebears sacrificed their lives for it. Legions of Jews through the centuries were tortured or slaughtered for being Jewish or for not renouncing their faith or converting, yet we have multitudes of Jews today who eschew their religion of their own willful accord.
For thousands of years there has been a Jewish continuum not just of genes but of adherence to a belief in God-based Judaism – and now that continuum is being seriously threatened not by hatred or malignant force but through self-compliance by Jews themselves. Virulent hatred and murder of Jews could not stop Judaism through the millennia, but today intermarriage, apathy, and weak identification with Judaism foretell a disheartening fate.
Leaders of the various streams of the Jewish religion constantly attempt to devise ways to draw people. They come up with all sorts of innovations, some of which arguably violate halacha. But these are largely Band-Aids that address symptoms rather than the syndrome. If Judaism is rooted in God, then solutions should emanate from God-based concepts, which can be creative and inspiring and even fun.
Creation, Jewish history, Jewish laws, religious services, rituals, the Shema: Judaism has always revolved around God. Indeed, the foundation of Judaism is belief in God. Without that foundation, there can be no true Judaism.
About the Author: Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of thirteen books including “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain,” which was adapted for the long-running History Channel series "History's Lost and Found." He is also a lecturer at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.
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