As anyone who knows me is aware, I am both Jewish and Christian. As a result, I take an interest in theological developments in both camps. The Washington Post had a story by Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service on Friday that I’ve been thinking about all weekend. It’s about a sad but growing reality: Jewish atheism. She begins with an example:
For an atheist, Maxim Schrogin talks about God a lot.
Over lunch at a Jewish deli, he ponders the impulse to believe — does it come from within or without? Why does God permit suffering? Finally, he pulls out a flowchart he made showing degrees of belief, which ranges from unquestioning faith to absolute atheism. He stabs the paper with his pen.
“This is where I fall,” he said. “Zero.”
Still, Schrogin, 64, is a dues-paying member of Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue here in Berkeley. He is among its most active members, attending Torah study, and, for a time, heading its social action committee. He organizes its community service projects and works with leaders of other congregations to help the poor.
His two children were bar and bat mitzvahed. On Friday nights, he and his wife light Shabbat candles and recite Hebrew prayers. There is one song, sung by the congregation in Hebrew, that can bring him to tears.
Reform Judaism, along with the Reconstruction movement, has been undermining Jewish faith in the God of Israel for many years. I appreciate Schrogin’s participation in synagogue and community service, and his desire to be connected to Jewish life. Why he prays or studies the Torah is something only he can answer–I’m sure I don’t see the point. But the disconnect here is between Judaism and Jewishness. How does one keep those together if one rejects Him who is at the heart of Judaism?
“Atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, so to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn’t an issue or a challenge or a problem,” Shrogin said. “It is par for the course. That is what Judaism is. It is our tradition to question God from top to bottom.”
This is what I find so confusing. Schrogin and other Jewish atheists aren’t questioning God–how could they, when He isn’t real? And of course atheism and Judaism are contradictory, though atheism and Jewishness are not.
What’s being confused here is Judaism and Jewishness. To be Jewish is to be part of the community of people who trace their heritage back to ancient Israel. It doesn’t matter if one can do that genealogically–the vast majority of Jews can’t, for obvious reasons. The synagogue is tied up with that community, and I have no problem with Jewish atheists being part of the former in order to express their solidarity with the latter. But Judaism is the faith of Israel–trust that the God who brought our forefathers out of slavery in Egypt is still real and active in the world. I understand how hard it is for some Jews to believe that, post-Holocaust. But millions have, because they’ve recognized that the sin of humanity doesn’t translate into the death of God. If Jewish atheists can’t buy that, fine, but don’t commit the category error of confusing Jewishness and Judaism as if they are the same thing.
Shaul Magid, a professor of modern Judaism at Indiana University, said atheists may join synagogues because American Judaism lacks “a vibrant secular Jewish movement.”
“They go because they want some kind of ethnic identity,” Magid said. “They don’t care about the prayers. It allows them to feel a sense of Jewishness, but has little to do with religion.”
Children are what brought Schrogin to Beth El, but he has stayed for the sense of purpose organizing its community service projects has instilled.
“My rabbi said, ‘You know Maxim, God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. All that he cares is that you do the right thing.’ Our action in the world is much more important.”
There’s something very sad in this. Has liberal Judaism really lost all sense of relationship with God? How can you read the Psalms, for instance, and blow off the idea that God’s people are called to be in relationship with Him, to struggle with Him, to rejoice in Him, to praise Him for His goodness, to rail at Him for His absence, to cry out to Him for help in times of trouble? Is morality–by which at least some mean politics, though not all by any means–really all there is left?