Jewish views of atheism

Judaism (among other faiths) affirms theism – the belief in God. This has been stated in many ways in our Bible, rabbinic literature, and in statements from modern day Jewish groups. Every formulation of Judaism’s principles of faith – and there have been several – all start with God.

Here’s a representative way of stating the Jewish view

We believe in God. Indeed, Judaism cannot be detached from belief in, or beliefs about God. Residing always at the very heart of our self-understanding as a people, and of all Jewish literature and culture, God permeates our language, our law, our conscience, and our lore. From the opening words of Genesis, our Torah and tradition assert that God is One, that He is the Creator, and that His Providence extends through human history.

… Although one cannot penetrate Jewish experience and consciousness without thinking of and speaking of Him, God is also a source of great perplexities and confusions. Doubts and uncertainties about God are inevitable; indeed, they arose even in the hearts and minds of biblical heroes such as Abraham, Moses and Job, the biblical prophets and Wisdom teachers… One can live fully and authentically as a Jew without having a single satisfactory answer to such doubts; one cannot, however, live a thoughtful Jewish life without having asked the questions. Does God exist? If so, what sort of being is God? Does God have a plan for the universe? Does God care about me?

… The biblical book of Job agonizes over each of these, concluding that God and His ways cannot be comprehended fully by human beings. The Jewish tradition continually has taught that we must live with faith even when we have no conclusive demonstrations.

Emet Ve’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism

However religious we may be, some Jewish people are uncertain, agnostic, or atheist. As Jews, how do we respond to a rejection of our core religious belief? Perhaps surprisingly to some, Judaism doesn’t preach damnation or hellfire for those with doubts. Rabbi Tzvi Freeman here tells a Hasidic story from the Besh”t, the Baal Shem Tov:

They asked the Baal Shem Tov, “The Talmud (Chulin 109B) tells us that for everything God forbade, He provided us something permissible of the same sort. If so, what did He permit that corresponds to the sin of heresy?”

The Baal Shem Tov replied, “Acts of kindness. Because when you see a person suffering, you don’t say, ‘God runs the universe. God will take care. God knows what is best.’ You do everything in your power to relieve that suffering as though there is no God. You become a heretic in God’s name.

On a purely philosophical level, all forms of Judaism reject the stereotypical views of God. You know the perception, God is some great, powerful white man, with a beard and robe, sitting up high in the clouds –

Vision of God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Judaism rejects this common, anthropomorphic view of God just as much as atheists do. As such, even religious rabbis can find ground with some atheist views

The fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn (1860-1920) was once asked, “it is known that all earthly realities stem from a Divine archetype, what then is the Divine source of atheism?” Rabbi Sholom DovBer replied, “The atheist does not believe that God exists as empirical realities exist, and in this he is closer to the truth than many a believer. In truth, the nature of the Divine reality is of a quality entirely different to that of physical existence.”

Heard from Rabbi Elimelech Tzveibel

We don’t want to go off-topic here, but if Judaism rejects this common view of God, then how does Judaism propose we should think of God? See How we can think of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes

”Because atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, whom seek to befriend.”

Rav Kook also has written –

Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.”

– Orot 126

Rav Hillel Rachmani writes

Rav Kook, however, argues that a positive spark does emanate from the depths of the non-believer’s arguments. The non-believer challenges the religious man’s concept of the Divine, forcing the religious man to re-assess his perceptions.

Not only does this strengthen the religious community by demanding a re-evaluation, it is also necessary for the community’s continued development. Since God is a priori undefinable, the religious community’s perceptions of the Divine, and their consequent behavior, must constantly be revised. Hence heresy, “kefira,” is the only dark force capable of contributing to world perfection

Confronting God can be an enjoyable and enriching experience for Man. However, if a person’s confrontation is based on a misconception of God, this can lead to crisis. This crisis may eventually result in a denial of God’s existence. God is commonly described as a Supernatural Force. It is this common perception of God which R. Kook believes to be erroneous and thus dangerous.

Thought of Rav Kook, Lecture #17: Heresy V, Rav Hillel Rachmani, Yeshivat Har Etzion, The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM)

If a Jewish person does find it too difficult to believe in God, and they call themselves an atheist, can they still be considered a member in good standing of the Jewish people? Rabbi Stuart Federow writes –

There is a big difference between rejecting elements of a Belief System, including important elements, on one hand, and joining a belief system that is wholly Other. A Jew may reject elements of Judaism, but, nevertheless they remain a Jew. However the conversion to another faith takes them out of not only the Jewish faith, but also out of the Jewish people as well.

How should synagogues view atheists?

The following three answers are from the chairperson of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS.)

A. May atheists be admitted to membership and hold elected office?

People who are born to Jewish mothers or are converted to Judaism in accordance with halakhah may belong to synagogues. This does not include those who profess another faith, e.g. Hebrew Christians. Hence, an atheist may belong to a synagogue. While this may not pose a problem to the membership committee, the atheist who chooses to join a synagogue must deal with the question of why he/she, a professed atheist, would want to belong to a house of God.

B. May they be given Aliyot?

This is less a problem for the honors committee than for the professed atheist. The professed atheist would be calling the congregation to worship God – Barkhu et Adonai hamavorakh to which the congregation answers Barakh… It is recommended that the professed atheist be shown the blessings and their meaning discussed with him/her. If in good conscience the atheist can call the congregation to worship, this his/her atheism is less than he/she would avow and he/she may receive an aliyah.

C. May they serve as shaliach tzbbur [hazzan] or otherwise discharge others of religious obligations.

The fact that the individual is a professed atheist does not relieve him/her of religious obligations. However, the professed atheist should be shown the service and asked if he/she, in good conscience, can lead worship or kiddush, havdalah, etc. If he/she agrees, then there is no reason to deny the person the honor.

The preceding was a psak given by the Chairperson of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, 12/30/97; it is a valid teshuva, but is not an official position of the CJLS. The above psak needs to be read in conjunction with the offical CJLS teshuva “May an Avowed Atheist Serve as a shaliach tzbbur?” by Rabbi David Lincoln, which was accepted by unanimous vote.

Rabbi Lincoln writes “There has to be a basic theological or spiritual rapport between congregations and prayer leader. The issue in this case is not the choosing of one theology over another; our tradition includes many conceptions of God. In cases such as this, in fact, the rabbi must ensure that the person in question, in claiming to be an atheist, is not simply asserting his rejection of a particular belief which he assumes to be normative. The rabbi must also do all that is possible to determine whether the person is just struggling with beliefs, especially since his desire to lead the congregation not only in its institutional activities, but specifically in prayer, constitutes a desire for action which belies his words. At some point however, we must believe what a person says. Certainly, if the person in question publicly declares his disdain for all conceptions of God for the purpose of affronting the very congregation he purports to lead, he is not an appropriate prayer leader, not for theological reasons, but for reasons of character.”

– Proceedings of the CJLS 1986-1990, p.475-478.

Is atheism morally superior to atheism?

Many people believe that much evil and most wars come from religion, so atheism must be a better way. I disagree. The world’s worst mass murderers of the 20th century, and most of the worst war crimes in history, were carried out by atheists:

Adolph Hitler. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia. Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Mao Zedong of China, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il of North Korea.

These examples should make clear that belief in God is not the problem, and atheism is not the solution. The problem is that some people have sociopathic tendencies – and a terrifying number of average folks promote or elect these individuals to positions of terrible power.

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One comment

  1. I thank you for this article on Jewish views of atheism. I have always been a Jew. Yet brought up in Conservative family with Orthodox roots the traditional belief of god(please excuse my manner of writing Hashem) did not seem plausible. But somehow my Judiasm was felt deep in my soul and recall even as a young child running to hear Hebrew prayer. Yet always questioning. For a while I was a member of a yoga ashram. The practice was beautiful. Still, I could not bring myself to worship the many gods nor bow to them. This caused a dilemna for me. One day I discovered a book written by Rabbi David Cooper called God is a Verb. I read the entire book with tears streaming down my face as now I could still have my yoga practice without their gods. I could still be a good Jew without practicing all the laws or seeing god as an old man in the sky. I could understand how our actions are god. Each thing we say or do has effects that ripple. God is an energy, not a being. Therefor each action we take we are “godding”. So, by being a true mensch, by having rachmunis and loving all living beings in heart and action, I AM A JEW.

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