Being Jewish, god-optional

Title credit to Rabbi Judith Seid, author of God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community.

One year ago, Moment Magazine ran a contest on “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” Even though my entry was not a winner, a selection from it did appear on Moment’s blog here.

My first few posts on this blog have been about meshing Humanistic beliefs with Jewish liturgical traditions; this essay deals with positive Jewish connections beyond belief and is reprinted (with some editing) from the Society for Humanistic Judaism‘s journal Humanistic Judaism (Autumn 2011/Winter 2012) with permission.


If the only ways to be Jewish demand a belief in God, Judaism is in trouble.

Consider if surveys of Jewish behavior were tabulated in the other direction: 85% of Jews DO NOT keep kosher; 80% of Jews DO NOT light Shabbat candles, let alone observe Shabbat restrictions. Why do we continue to consider those primary determinants of Jewish identity on a par with Passover seders or Hanukkah candles (both done by 80%)? Why make God the defining focus of Judaism, when that will cut off enough of us to harm the whole body?

There are many reasons to doubt a God who rewards the righteous, punishes the wicked, writes a Torah, chooses one people, brings forth bread from the earth, or has any interest in the praise and petitions of traditional (and even Reform) Judaism. Many who come to that reasonable conclusion do not recite those prayers and blessings because they feel inauthentic repeating what their ancestors said, imitating form but not emotional content. They refuse to let their Judaism become historical re-enactment. The most vibrant expression of American culture is not Colonial Williamsburg.

I do not need God to have a meaningful Jewish connection with Yiddish, archaeology, immigration, Ladino , Jewish food, Holocaust, Nathan Englander, Hebrew, Jewish jokes, modern Israel , Jewish movies, Purim, medieval Spanish Jewish poetry, the Jewish labor movement, Jewish music, Haskalah, Sholem Aleichem, Cairo Geniza, Marc Chagall, Biblical literature, Cynthia Ozick and on and on – holidays and life cycle ceremonies and all the rest.

My Judaism has never depended on or revolved around god-belief. My Judaism has always been my family culture, my personal heritage, my calendar and holidays, my ceremonies of life. The fact that my parents raised me in Humanistic Judaism, living our cultural Judaism and humanistic philosophy without apology or compromise but with creativity and courage, may be the exception. The reality that my Judaism today is based on my connections with the Jewish people and its civilization, rather than supernatural belief, is far from uncommon.

Indeed, many members of more conventional Judaisms do not believe what they are actually saying. For too long, the Jewish “non-believer” has been the wicked son, apikoros [heretic], aher [other], or simply invisible. Finding one another in guarded conversations, commiserating over unhappy experiences, wondering if there were any others like us anywhere. The truth is that there are many more of us than anyone imagines.

One can certainly celebrate Jewish culture through God connections, but we, the heirs of Judaism, can appreciate past creativity without accepting all of its values and beliefs (Jewish feminism, anyone?). If the way we live our lives and make sense of the universe focuses on human needs, human justice, human knowledge and human responsibility, then a Judaism beyond God is not only possible; it is necessary.

Let us find each other, and then let us find the courage to create a Judaism in OUR image.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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3 Responses to Being Jewish, god-optional

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