1. Judaism is a people that has a religion. This religion is called “Torah,” which is “the word of the Lord.” [Isaiah 2:3]
2. It is this “word of the Lord” that is the essence of Judaism, not what this or that Orthodox rabbi necessarily declares, what Liberal Judaism’s leaders proclaims, or what secular Jews happen to surmise.
3. According to Maimonides and R. Moshe Feinstein, disbelievers are bad people. Maimonides says that disbelievers in his thirteen faith principles is not part of the “Israel” that merits a share in the eternity to come; R. Feinstein argues that most non-observant Jews really believe but those who know what Judaism requires and falsify it are non-believers who should be denied religious recognition. Rabbi Abraham Karelitz argues that in an age of unbelief, religious skepticism is difficult to resist for some.
4. What do the Torah sources say?
a. M. San. 10:1 says that one who denies that the Torah comes from God or that there will a raising of the dead will not get a portion in the world to come. From this Mishnah we learn that
i. There is a God Who gave the Torah.
ii. God talks to people and lets people know what God requires.
iii. There is a Judge and there is a judgment. [Genesis Rabba 26:6]
iv. The violation of the Law occurs only with the verbal act of declaring unbelief.
v. The human court/society is not authorized to enforce faith requirements.
vi. This principle is consistent with the legal rule of thumb, there are no punishments in the human court for sins that do not involve acts. [bSan. 10a and elsewhere]
b. bSan. 44a rules that one is a Jew and remains a Jew even if sinning. Therefore, not believing in God does not make some one not a Jew.
c. Consistent with this ruling is Kallah Rabbati 5:1, where God is said to have said that God prefers performance to profession, “it is better that I [=God] be rejected and my Torah observed.”
d. Just because one declares that she or he is an atheist does not mean we are permitted to believe them. Jewish law does not accept self-incrimination. [Sanhedrin 95ab and 25a]
e. Jewish law assigns to God and not to humans the right to read human minds [mAvot 4:8] or to stand in judgment upon the other until we are in their place [mAvot 2:4].
a. A Jew ought not to be an atheist but a Jew remains a Jew even if that Jew is an atheist.
b. An “atheist” Jew who comes to my Orthodox shul to say Kaddish is saying something far more eloquent by saying Yitgaddal ve-Yitqaddash Shemeih Rabba, “May God’s name grow in greatness and holiness.” Notice the two instances of the two d’s. In Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, this grammatical phenomenon articulates intensivity.
c. By calling the congregation to say “amen,” which in English according to Mr. T of A Team means “believe it,” the “atheist” for sure believes enough to sanctify the Name of God Who at other moments in his or her life seems to be distant.
d. In light of the above, an otherwise secular person who professes unbelief but acts in a civil and moral fashion is to be treated as a believer, to be answered with amen and treated with courtesy.
Thank you for your question. Judaism is unique in that it is more than just a religion. Identifying as a Jew means to be a part of the Jewish people, and Peoplehood is separate from theological belief. When one is born as a Jew, one is born into the Jewish people, regardless of belief. One may feel connected to ritual, regardless of the meaning behind it, food, or family celebration. While I would argue that God is at the root of all that we do as Jews, that does not mean we must be set in our beliefs. The real question for me is not “if” a person can be Jewish without a belief in God, but rather “why” be Jewish if one does not believe in God?
Judaism is meant to bring us closer to the Divine nature of the world around us, remove the blinders from our eyes to appreciate the miracles of being alive and the sanctity of time, space, and inter-personal relationships. Judaism reminds us that we must be God’s messengers in this fractured were and do God’s holy work to fight for justice. Judaism also reminds us that there are things that do not make sense, that we cannot explain; at these times we turn to ritual, custom, tradition, and community.
We do not strive to simply “be”. We strive to live and living Jewishly means that God is very much present in our lives, even if we cannot grasp what our relationship with God is. If Judaism brings us closer to God, then “why be Jewish” if one doesn’t believe in God? While many atheists are adamant about not believing in God, I believe they are rejecting a theological belief they once learned. Judaism does not mean that one’s definition of God needs to be set in stone or that one needs to be clear what his or her relationship with God is all about. After all, being Jewish and identifying as a Jew means that we struggle with our relationship with God. Throughout the Torah, the Jewish people are referred as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. We are called this because we (and the tribes) descended from Israel, our patriarch Jacob. While throughout the reminder of Jacob’s life following his name change, he is still referred to in many places as Jacob. He even refers to himself as Jacob. Yet, it is remarkable that that the Jewish people are referred to as the Children of Israel and not the Children of Jacob. Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew, means ‘he who wrestles with the Divine.’ Thus, as a part of B’nai Yisrael, we too are the children who wrestle with God. That is our goal as Jews. We do not try to simple talk to God. We wrestle. Wrestling is physical. Wrestling is intimate. Wrestling brings us closer to God and allows us to see the God that is already present.
While one can identify as an atheist and also identify as a Jew, I would encourage those who do so to not settle. God is not black and white and our relationship with God is not black and white either. If our beliefs do not need to be set in stone, then I would encourage that similarly, our lack of belief not be set in stone either. Be proud to be Jewish. Wrestle with God. Wrestle with yourself.
This is a recurring question on the JVO http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=142 & http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id-48 . What is striking is that the answers from across the Jewish spectrum are in accord. Is it the traditional ideal in Judaism that one should believe in God? Absolutely. But if you are born Jewish there is no formal test of belief in God that one has to pass to remain Jewish. Have Jews differed in exactly how they understand God, beyond God being one? Certainly. But because there is no public catechism, that is, a single, rigid, statement of what God is and what faith means, there is room for a wide range of understandings about God’s nature.
Converting to Judaism as an atheist would be a different matter, though even here one might be surprised at what a wide latitude there is regarding belief in God. Essentially, as long as one publicly participated in all aspects of prayer and was Jewishly observant in their private life, than one would be considered to be a good Jew. One’s personal beliefs about God remain just that because there is never any public declaration of faith beyond that implied in public Jewish prayer and observance.
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