Jewish atheists look for their place in Jewish life

Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati conduct online services that do not invoke divine power.  (Alan Brown)

Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati conduct online services that do not invoke divine power. (Alan Brown)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Jeff Levine has spent 40 years searching for a God he can believe in. He’s finally given up — but he’s not giving up on Judaism.

“I did a lot of studying, and I realized about a year ago that it’s OK to say I’m a Jew —  I like everything it stands for, but I don’t like the concept of believing in a deity,” said Levine, 55, a member of a Reform congregation in Los Angeles for the past 25 years.

Levine doesn’t want to abandon religion. While he’s looking into Humanistic Judaism, a stream that disavows divine power, he’s not sure that’s the answer, either.

“I have a need for the community, I have a strong Jewish identity, I want inspiration as a Jew, but I can’t believe what I can’t believe,” he said.  

“And,” Levine told JTA, “there’s a huge community of people that feels the same way.”

A new study spearheaded by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) in Los Angeles is aiming to find out just how many non-believing Jews are out there seeking a way into spiritual life, and what the Jewish community should, or should not do, to accommodate them.

“There’s an unvocalized tension at the core of synagogue services,” says Rachel Cowan, the institute’s executive director, who says she meets many Jews looking for spiritual connection without God. “The rabbi speaks about God and nobody really knows what that means. It’s not sophisticated, it’s not developed.”

Judaism does not require belief in God as a condition of membership. It’s a paradox with which many theologians and practitioners struggle.

“Judaism teaches us that it’s less about God hearing our prayers then about what we do when we walk out the door,” says Cantor Nathan Lam of the Stephen S. Wise Temple, a large Reform congregation in Los Angeles, who used to run a “doubters’ minyan” for students at the temple’s Milken Community High School.

Maintaining an internal balance between the demands of faith and intellect is part of being a modern Jew, he says. Judaism recognizes that by focusing on the need to perform rituals rather than by looking into the practitioner’s heart, he says. Other Jewish views hold that belief in the heart is required in performing the Torah’s commandments.

“I teach [that] even if you don’t believe in God, act as if you do,” Lam says.

Self-described Jewish atheists and doubters often focus on the words in the prayer book, typically the only part of the Jewish faith they encounter. They bristle at the constant praising of a God they doubt exists and believe isn’t as involved in people’s lives as the prayers suggest. 

“I think a lot of people stop praying with a congregation because they can’t make the words mean anything in their lives,” says Cantor Ellen Dreskin of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y., who says she interprets the words in the prayer book “metaphorically and poetically,” not literally.

She says her fellow clergy need to give their congregants permission to do the same.

“People say, I don’t believe God makes the sun set every night, and they stop going to services. No one has told them that they’re allowed to grow and develop in their spiritual selves,” Dreskin says.

That cognitive dissonance is what motivated a Midwestern Jewish donor to fund the Institute for Jewish Spirituality study.

The donor, who requested anonymity, said he grew up “hating Judaism,” although he is now very involved in the Jewish Humanist movement and has served on the board of his local Jewish federation. Like Levine, he believes there are many more like him, just as deeply involved in Jewish communal life, and it’s time for them to go public.

“There are a ton of Jews — maybe half, maybe less — who are secular in my book,” the donor told JTA. “They are in mainstream Jewish organizations — the federations, the synagogues — but no one talks about it in the Jewish public sphere.”

The study, which will be conducted by Diane Schuster, a researcher and lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, will interview Jews who are “in search of a spiritual experience that is deep, meaningful and transformative but that is not linked to religious liturgies or practices that rely on God language or reference to a Supreme Being.”

The results will be used by the institute to develop retreats for “Jewish doubters,” as well as training programs “for clergy who work with the doubter population,” Schuster explains.

The New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute also is reaching out to what it sees as growing numbers of active Jews who don’t believe in a Higher Power. Its national conference in late May will feature a session on how to engage Judaism without God.

“There is a recognition that some people find spiritual sustenance and nurturing through the intellect that is not necessarily tied to anything related to the Divine — that is, to God,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute’s executive director. “We wanted to include this session both to recognize those who access Judaism in this regard and to affirm it as a vehicle for doing so.”

Dreskin is one of several Jewish clergy and educators who suggest that new language may be needed for Jewish prayers to take modern sensibilities into account.

“If there were a need for it in my synagogue, we’d do it,” says Lam of Stephen S. Wise, who adds that he’s not heard such a demand articulated by his congregants.

Other Jewish clergy don’t see the need for such liturgical tweaking.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, says he has “no doubt” that many people in his synagogue say the prayers without believing in God. Even the Bible admonishes against idolatry, but not against atheism, he points out.

“But I’m not eager to make accommodations to create a Judaism absent God,” he said. “I think it would be not only not necessary but inadvisable.”

Some Reconstructionist congregations have changed their God-language, and others even have completely removed references to God, says Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

“There may have been some who experimented with it, but I don’t know if it’s become a regular service,” he said. “My objection wouldn’t be that they have expunged reference to God. My problem would be if they did not allow people to hold a deistic viewpoint.”

That seems to have been the main objection of Reform leaders in 1991 when they rejected Congregation Beth Adam’s bid for membership in what was then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).

In rejecting the Cincinnati congregation’s application, Reform leaders opined that while individual Jews may not believe in God, a Reform synagogue may not declare such a position.

Rabbi Robert Barr, the longtime spiritual leader of Beth Adam, says the rejection was politically motivated and did not involve the “deep religious conversation” that he says needs to take place.

“The Jewish conversation is so trapped by the liturgy of our ancestors, we can’t get past it,” he told JTA. “People are afraid to say that language and worldview no longer speak to me, but I am authentically Jewish and I need language that expresses it.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the URJ, was at the meeting where Beth Adam’s application was turned down, and he agrees with the decision. While a congregation that disavows a belief in God would not be expelled from the URJ, he says, neither would it be admitted. And he hasn’t heard of any Reform congregations espousing such a position.

“While individual Reform Jews may have questions about God, they are generally content to have Jewish liturgy that mentions God,” he said. “People seem to be able to live with the contradiction.”

Jewish atheism can serve a purpose by pushing Jews to demand meaning from their faith and its leaders, said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Paraphrasing Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Brander said that atheism “is the pained response when religion becomes static, when God is described in childish ways.”

“I think it’s much better that people struggle with the issue, that they want a religious experience rather than not going to synagogue at all,” Brander said.

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