Q. Does one need to believe in God to be a good Jew?
A. How can a Jew not believe in God? To deny Him is to fail to recognise the ultimate, the spiritual, the deeper meaning in the world and in our own life. That some Jews do not – at this moment – believe in God does not prevent them from being Jewish, but it limits their lives. They lack the deepest of all dimensions.
Can such Jews be good without God? In theory yes. But do they have a banner that constantly calls them to higher and greater goodness? Do they have a standard by which to measure their degree of goodness?
Salis Daiches wrote, “Those who are convinced that by wronging their fellow-men or transgressing any of the established laws, they violate a command that comes from God and defy the will of their Maker as expressed in His law, are much less liable to wrongdoing than those who create their own ethical theories and set up their own standards of right and wrong.”
A systematic analysis is given by Isidore Epstein, the teacher of generations of British rabbis, in the second chapter of his Faith of Judaism (Soncino Press, 1954). He admits that non-believers can also be ethical, but he poses a series of questions to “pure” (non-religious) ethics:
1. Can it produce moral autonomy, the will to govern oneself from within?
2. Can it turn a sinner into a saint?
3. Can it provide a reliable motive for right action? (If ethical rules are man-made, every man may make his own.)
4. Can it offer any assurance that the world will become morally better?
The good-Jew-without-God deserves credit for what he or she is, but they could be better with God. Not that the believer is necessarily always such a saint, but to improve morally the believer probably has less work to do.