Q. Is Judaism without God still Judaism?
A. In any survey of religious beliefs and practices amongst the Jewish people, the range of positions presents definitional problems. It is unlikely that a gentile can reject belief in Christianity and still be a Christian, but Jewish identity is a broader concept since there are Jews who deny religion but still insist they belong to the Jewish people. True, most Jews still pay at least lip-service to basic Jewish beliefs and practices. But not all.
Some feel unable to identify with the Jewish community because they think their non-conventional views are frozen out. What a tragedy if Jews do not count themselves in what Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik called b’rit goral, the covenant of Jewish destiny. Surely every Jew should be able to echo the words of Joseph: et achai anochi mevakkesh, “I seek out my brethren.”
Those secularists who feel unwelcome argue that the rest of us refuse to acknowledge them as Jews. They may not be practising Judaism, they tell us, but they are Jews nevertheless. The real question, however, is whether, by allowing the claim that the name “Jew” not be denied to a secular Jew, we confer validity on the “secular humanist” position.
Professor Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University writes that “secular humanism” Is not a lazy brushing aside of responsible thinking but a serious ideology in which religion is just one aspect of the Jewish experience and Jewishness is possible without religion. God is irrelevant to them, but they insist that they are still Jews.
Actually, they are not without beliefs. They believe in rituals to mark life-cycle events. They believe in individual and social morality. They believe in the centrality of human life, independent of God. They might echo the words of Swinburne: “Glory to Man in the highest, for Man is the master of things.”
We dare not write them off, but they are still wrong. If they do not worship God, how can they worship man? To reject God because He may have let you down is all very well, but what do you do when man lets you down? Louis Jacobs has written: “Without God, in a world where chance rules all, the tragic is reduced to the pathetic, men crying out in pain and huddling together for comfort, but knowing only too well in their heart of hearts that nothing can be done, and that there is no one to listen. Dark the world is, even with God. Without Him, dark and light both lose their ultimate meaning.”
The awesome fact remains that many of those who perished in the Holocaust went into the jaws of death singing: “I believe with perfect faith”. Some have intellectual difficulties with belief in God, and may even doubt that God is, or that He is good. But all of Jewish history has been a struggle with God. Sometimes it was easier to believe; sometimes almost impossible. But even when Jews most wanted to reject God and His ways, they still davened and said Sh’ma Yisra’el. The Jewish way was not to abdicate but to argue. The name “Israel” after all, means “one who struggles with God.”
Bauer’s contention is that religion was – and is – just one aspect of Jewishness. But that is to reduce God to being simply the supporting cast in Jewish history, not the star, to pretend that throughout history the synagogue, prayer book and mitzvot were all optional extras on the Jewish agenda. While In the past 200 years some Jews have moved religion out of their lives and yet remained Jews, this does not give them the right to rewrite Jewish history or literature, or to invent a new philosophy and call it Judaism.
Historical Judaism always knew that there were realms above and beyond the earthbound. It saw mystery and mystique, as well as the banal and the earthly. It intertwined the spiritual and the cultural. Its sense of transcendence was axiomatic. You may not feel it yourself, but you cannot shunt it aside and limit Judaism to this world without a foretaste of a world to come.
Today, significantly, people are in search of something beyond themselves. Others say the quest for God fails to arouse them. Perhaps it is because organised religion and religious people, with their quarrels, pretensions and inconsistencies, have turned them off. Perhaps it is a particular set of circumstances that has created disillusionment with religion. If that is so, one has to say that any person’s position at any given moment may be only temporary; different experiences, insights and influences may transform them. Today’s secular humanist may eventually come to give God the benefit of the doubt.
The Chassidim say that the person who feels far from God is nearer to Him than they know. Rav Kook said that the search for righteousness and justice, even without mentioning God, is part of the light of God.
Bauer has every right to seek a community that includes all who wish to be Jews, to insist that both sides keep the lines of communication open.
But while a Jew without God is a Jew, it is not so certain that Judaism without God is still Judaism.