Judaism is an ancient faith that remains strong even to this day, with over 12 million “members of the Tribe” and its own Jewish-majority state. Atheism, on the other hand, is the lack of belief in the existence of G-d or gods — a creed that is sometimes so strong, that it is sometimes considered to be a religion itself. However, what happens when these ostensibly opposing ideologies conjoin? Is it possible to reconcile them?
At first glance, anyone who considers him or herself a Jewish atheist — or perhaps an atheist Jew — seems to be one very confused individual. How can one simultaneously identify as a member of arguably the most persisting religion in history, and reject the notion of G-d — the central tenant of all religion?
Judaism has always been a religion with many different perspectives, open to contestations and dialogue. In the ancient days, the Jewish prophets would even go so far as to challenge the kings of their time — an offense that would typically be punishable by death in any other contemporary culture. This interpretive approach to Judaism is still very much relevant, as indicative by the various denominations of Judaism persistent today.
The 1990 US national population survey found that 38 percent of Jews identified as Reform, 35 percent as Conservative, six percent as Orthodox, one percent as Reconstructionist, 10 percent as “Just Jewish,” and the last 10 percent as “Other.” Hence, for modern day Americans, being Jewish has no one set definition; associations with different denominations clearly indicate varying interpretations of the religion. In their simplest form, these denominations can be reduced to their different interpretations of the Torah’s origins. Jewish Orthodoxy believes G-d wrote the bible; Reform Judaism believes a range of things including that the bible is fully from humans; Conservative Judaism believes humanity wrote the bible based on information derived from G-d; Reconstructionist Judaism doesn’t believe that G-d is active in history.
Since Judaism encompasses differing views on G-d, the question of Jewish atheism (or atheistic Judaism) must be evaluated on a sect-by-sect basis. The only sect that attributes the acceptance of G-d as a fundamental tenant is Jewish Orthodoxy, and thus atheism is incompatible with this denomination. Thus, in all the other denominations, atheism is (potentially) conformable to their respective infrastructures. This begs the question of what compels non-Orthodox Jews to identify as Jewish, if G-d is not essential?
Conservative theology came about as a response to the overly-liberal Reform movement; hence it occupies a middle-ground between Orthodox and Reform interpretations. Depending on the Conservative community in question, atheism may or may not be compatible.
Michael Meyer, a historian on Reform Judaism, writes: “Given the impossibility of fixing upon any one self-designation or religious idea in order to decide definitively what falls within and what outside the Reform movement, its boundaries must necessarily remain indistinct.” Hence, the Reform movement subscribes to a great range of interpretation, and that some of those interpretations are even more liberal than Reconstructionist ideology.
Reconstructionist Jews primarily follow the idea that Judaism is an “evolving religious civilization,” heavily involved in the evolution of humanity, but not chosen by G-d. Along the leftist spectrum are Humanist Jews, who believe that the basis of morals is human reason and that Jewish theology detracts from that idea, as opposed to Jewish culture which enhances it. Hence, atheism is not merely compatible with these ideological interpretation, but it is endorsed by them.
All the previously mentioned groups stress concepts like tikkun olam (social action), community, education, and family — all of which are influenced by religious or historic Jewish ideas, but not predicated on them. Therefore, religious affiliation can stand independent of G-d if mitzvahs (good deeds), not G-d, are the central focus.
When taking into account this perspective statistically, researchers find that most American Jews indicate a waning belief in G-d (scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell discovered that about 50 percent of all American Jews doubt God’s existence, as opposed to only 10-15 percent of other-faith Americans). So, it’s possible to conclude that these fundamental concepts to Judaism may even be alternative to G-d-based Judaism.
Despite the fact that Jews have a long history of debate and contention, these disagreements have not created a deep enough schism within the religion to separate us completely. Yes, different denominations may disagree on the nature of G-d, for example, but we still can find umbrella Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Federation, to represent us all. After all, we are all still Jewish.
This brings forth a complicated question: “What exactly, then, is a Jew?” I’m not one to use the dictionary to give cheap answers, but if I were to Google the question, I’d stumble upon something like, “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Effectively, answering such a question would take an incredible amount of time, knowledge, research, and thought: integral components to this answer, like “cultural community” and “traditional religion,” are too broad in themselves. Although basic religious practices tend to be the same amongst Jews (i.e. we all fast on Yom Kippur and have Seders on Passover to commemorate the Exodus), we all stem from different regions of the globe that have influenced how we adhere to the aforementioned practices.
In my mind, it goes beyond whether atheist ideas can fit into Judaism somewhere — atheist ideas must fit somewhere into Judaism. The newer branches of Judaism, which are influenced by modern science, history, and philosophy, make Judaism a much more open and less rigid religion for those who have contentions with the traditional interpretation of the Torah, including but not limited to the role (or even the existence) of G-d. This Jewish atheism inevitably forces all Jews to think about what Judaism really means to them.
Daniel Peikes has offered a broad spectrum look in attempting to connect Jews across the spectrum from Orthodox to Atheist into the fold. I applaud this lateral effort towards Jewish unity—but for reasons which might quite surprise, as seen shortly. However I would suggest what I believe to be a far more powerful vertical approach.
The article speaks to different views from an Orthodox view of direct Divine authorship of the Torah, to further views of inspired humans and natural law—unchanging patterns as uncovered evermore by science and final the view of the Atheist.
It is interesting that the Romans used to refer to the Jews as “the Atheists.” Why—simple, no gods (that is, no statues). Cute? – Actually, the matter goes far deeper.
A Roman once asked one of the Sages what G-d. The sage answered, “He is a great king upon his throne.” “And where is his throne room?” asked the Roman. “In my head,” was the response. “That’s not what I meant,” said the Roman. “Then why,” asked the sage, “did you ask such a foolish question. Can anyone know anything about G-d?!”
Sound strange? Not really, because classic Jewish sources point clearly that we ultimately can know nothing beyond what we (or at least the greatest among us) have perceived—a judge can only judge by what his eyes see. Concerning this, in our most earthly, after-effect grasp of G-d, we are talking to Nature/Reality itself in terms of its ultimate law, similarity of form—taking us from the degeneration of individual existence in quantum entanglement, to relativity of global spacetime. This is the limits on our grasp of course, the limits of our microscopic to macroscopic perception of Nature/Reality. The principle of similarity of form inevitably leads into an ultimate unified General symmetry above an asymmetric branching into particulars.*
The basic pillar of Judaism is that G-d is One. In the Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 6a, we learn: “R. Nahman b. Isaac said to R. Hiyya b. Abin: What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe? He replied to him: “And who is like your people Israel, one (a unified) nation in the earth.” [Note the parallel, that our tefillin contains the declaration of G-d’s unity.] Further, per Rashi, we received the Torah (teaching/light) as “one man with one heart.”
And just what is this Torah that we received? Hillel states: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow, this is the whole of Torah, the rest is commentary, go out and learn.” [Talmud, Shabbat 31a.] And what umbrellas this mutual respect of individuality incumbent in the particulars of the Torah? Answers Rabbi Akiva, “Love your fellow as yourself, this is a general principle of the Torah.” [Medrash, Toras Kohanim on Kedoshim 19:18.]
The forest of the key mitzvah of Jewish unity and mutual responsibility here is often tragically missed in the details of traditional observance.
On the other hand, more liberal Jewish takes on the Jewish national mission-–“tikkun olam”—or being “a light unto the nations,” often miss the crucial reality that it is specifically Jewish unity that is the key.
Olam is really not “world” in the English sense, but a hiddeness of G-d, of unified Nature in homeostatic balance, which is repaired only by light—the light of Torah, which is the model of unity, of love above hatred. The light is only brought by a unified nation of Israel that takes a brilliant white light like a prism, and sends out the particular colors suitable to the various cultures of the world.
We tiny Jews are not, nor have ever been, successful world social, economic or political reformers by the kind of direct physical actions that take real corporeal numbers and power.
Further, such world reform attempts by anyone have always ended in worse total-picture degradation of the world. Simply put, if the total-picture is not balanced—and any reform but unity will not lead to balance—such efforts are statistically a “drunkard’s walk” that will only take the world further into darkness (witness its present mess).
As testimonial, lest this view of Jewish unity as central to our responsibility to the world and G-d (Nature–or however you view the authority of Reality), seem as a parochial view, I offer the words of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler–perhaps the greatest and clear thinking philo-Semite and antisemite of the past century.
They well-cut through the rarer simple sentimental friendship towards the Jewish People, as well as the idiotic excuses classical religious/racial and the nouveau political anti-Semitism.
Per British historian Martin Gilbert’s interview with Churchill, in his CHURCHILL AND THE JEWS: A LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP: “‘The Jews were a lucky community because they had that corporate spirit, the spirit of their race and faith. [Churchill] would not … ask them to use that spirit in any narrow or clannish sense, to shut themselves off from others … far from their mood and intention, far from the counsels that were given them by those most entitled to advise. That personal and special power which the possessed would enable them to bring vitality into their institutions, which nothing else would ever give. [Churchill believed without disrespect that a Jew cannot be a good Englishman unless he is a good Jew.’]”
Hitler wrote in his Mein Kampf, “The Jew is only united when a common danger forces him to be or a common booty entices him; if these two grounds are lacking, the qualities of the crassest egoism come into their own, and in the twinkling of an eye the united people turns into a horde of rats, fighting bloodily among themselves.”
Careful analysis of Hitler’s words (as well, apparently, as certain writing in his early years) indicate that had he perceived the “unified people” to have been truly united—loyal to each other (not Germany or whatever their adopted country, but only each other!)—he would have looked upon the Jews the same way that Churchill did.
And so coming full circle, I end with clearly why I applaud Daniel Piekes effort because from all the above, I truly consider the views on the Divine directly, through human agency or per “Nature” to be secondary to the point of “six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.”
The Torah, per the Talmud, “speaks in the human language,” and to how seriously one take the details in that language, I would not judge—we can discuss and share. But the overriding truth of just what we are demanded of as Jews—across the board—is mutual-responsibility, mutual-guarantee—Ahavat Yisroel. Not per se conservativism, liberalism, religious observance or global social action—just Ahavat Yisroel.
If we demonstrate this, the world will bask in that light, comfortably follow the evolutionary grain of globalization–and love us. And if we don’t, it will evermore hate our guts. Deep down, no one wants our assimilation or capitulation. They just want us to open the blinders to the sunlight.
This applies to the Jews of Israel, the Diaspora—and yes, even UCLA.
*[Beyond the basic arrival of our present particular laws through “spontaneous symmetry breaking” of higher generalities, all systems evolve back up this path in their own ways (“Let the Earth bring forth…”)—from the quantum computation of functional atomic structure into network/swarm intelligence.
Such begins in entering the linear domain of physics, as it were subliminally (and I use this psychological terminology with tentative caution, but nonetheless, purposefully) to the nonlinear interactive domain of curved spacetime. Here information is not communicated in time across space but in similarity of unifying general form across differences in specifics. That is we have transitioned in a rapid statistical sense from the domain of spacetime causality into one of object-oriented tree with branches inheriting from roots. This point, and its importance in finding our way to complete structural/dynamic (position-momentum “phase-space”) subsystems, at least at the atomic level and back to the very hierarchies on the path to a very specific set of broken symmetries (per the Noether theorem, identical with physical conservation laws), cannot be overlooked. Again, it is a statistical phenomenon—it shouldn’t go away entering into the nonlinear domain but rather become a subtle (again I would say, subliminal) background behind the scenes of our observed world.
This subtlety, in its stabilizing unity, we already know, does not merely cast itself upon the solid state crystal or the resonance of the benzene ring, but works its way in tunneling mechanism (as discovered in 2006) into the very enabler of the enzymes of life’s very evolution and homeostatic sustainment ratchet –at the cellular level certainly. What level of feedback effect has this—allowing linear rather than logarithmic advancement into exponential complexity of the biomass at only the pre-dawn of the survival-of-the fittest principle? This, especially if we fully were to account for the watering-down (smoothing and platokurtic) effect on that principle of the diverse mix of near neutral mutations under a sequence of random environment, short-term epigenesis reactions representing longer time scale entropy, and different fitness requirements across surface-to-volume -ratio limited scales of component-in-subsystem and sub-system-in-larger-system.
Consider, too, the growing body of evidence of communication and cooperation (internal, emergent intelligence) from this very pre-dawn in terms of altruistic organization of loose associations into full communities and higher being. This, in reaction to growing environmental crises—in short, chaotically varying environmental conditions threatening homeostasis. As analyzed decades back by Robert Shaw (then a graduate student), one of the pioneers of the nonlinear sciences department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, due to the “fractal orbit” signature of deterministic chaos in phase space, chaos actually represented a breaking of the scale-barrier in terms of communication of information.
We must take specific note of the “4th pillar” of evolution, natural altruism. From the bacterial mega-colony, to communal rooting systems of grasses, to insect colonies, to school, flocks, and herds — we see that there is a point where individuals link in an altruistic manner to a group, eventually reaching some higher sense of individual.
This idea rings in deep accord with the concepts of endosymbiotic theory per Lynn Margulis’s 1966 landmark paper, “The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells” (The Journal of Theoretical Biology). While at this point, it is only considered established that certain cellular organelles evolved through a prior mutualist relationship formed between cell and viral invader, evidence of such symbiotic development (or “altruistic” in human terms), seems to be present in all of nature per the above — along with the establishment of unified behaviors, and balance become the homeostasis of greater-self. This continues per the Gaia Hypothesis, a perception shared by James Lovelock and Margulis that has become ever more refined and empirically supported—straight-up into the entire planetary ecosystem.
The critical idea is crisis. Natural communities reach crisis when at the onset of deterministic chaos. The ones that survive, use exactly this “4th pillar” of evolution, and as such, work together over different levels of organization, with local sensation, group decision, and globally coordinated action. In this, they match chaos’ “fractal orbit” in real-time in the fashion of a phase-lock loop in a radio receiver, or brain entrainment in analogy with modern hypnosis technology. The community forms a higher-order system—or if sufficiently integrated–higher independent being.
“Fossils” of this are pervasive—including our fractal heart and heartbeat. If the latter simplifies, it’s the surest sign that we on the path to coronary arrest (final simple sine wave to straight-out flat—doesn’t get simpler than that).
Finally, the ideas put forth by Robert Lanza in his theory of Biocentrism, and Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff theory of Orchestrated Objective Reduction, cannot be ignored. The former combines well-established empirical results of quantum mechanics with our astronomically unlikely body of life-supporting physical constants and present life information content to formally introduce a long-standing suspicion of consciousness calling forth the very perceived reality needed to embody it. The latter, which has now achieved empirical verification of 6 out of 20 hypotheses need to firmly establish the theory, proposed mind-brain as the collapse of superposition quantum wave function into specific solution in quantum computation. Putting the two together: perceived-measurable reality, quantum computation and consciousness are one and the same. If firmly demonstrated, this would be similar to the realization by Einstein that mass, curved spacetime and gravitation are one and the same.]