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April 24, 2014 / 24 Nisan, 5774
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You’re Jewish – But Do You Believe In God?

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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.

* * * * *

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?

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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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2 Responses to “You’re Jewish – But Do You Believe In God?”

  1. I think you are oversimplifying it, Mr. Rachlin. An orthodox Jew must make three, not one, leaps of faith. The one you cover is the easiest to make: the belief in God. One must also believe that having created this wonderful universe, God still cares what is happening here. More difficult, but still easy. For why create a universe only to abandon it to its own devices. The third leap of faith is much more demanding: That the Torah we have is actually the word of God. That the commandments we have are given to us by God. I have met many people who accept the first two, but balk at the third leap of faith…

  2. Len Moskowitz says:

    Harvey Rachlin wrote:

    > According to halacha, anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Period.

    This is not quite correct.

    A valid court of national stature can revoke Jewish identity (k'dushat yisrael). Two examples are the Kutim (Samaritans) and the "lost" ten tribes of Israel.

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