Jacques Berlinerblau is the Rabbi Harold White Chair in Jewish Civilization in Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service and senior advisor to the Center for Jewish Civilization, where he was director from 2006 to June 2020. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging from the sociology of heresy and modern Jewish intellectuals to African-American and Jewish-American relations.
Paul Beatty’s 2001 novel, Tuff, features many memorable moments, not least of which is the following exchange between an African-American Rabbi and the story’s 300-pound, drug-dealing, art-house-cinema-loving protagonist: “God ain’t never spoken to you?”
“I don’t believe in God.”
“You’re a rabbi, how can you not believe in God?”
“It’s what’s so great about being Jewish. You don’t have to believe in a God per se, just in being Jewish.” With these words, the underappreciated Mr. Beatty calls attention to a truism that is itself underappreciated by many observers of contemporary Jewish life. A small, but not inconsiderable number of Jews have either critically questioned or denied the existence of God, all the while maintaining a thoroughgoing, self-conscious identification with Judaism.
Many of these Jews are associated with “God-optional” varieties of the religion (to use Rabbi Judith Seid’s phrase). It would be an error, however, to assume that all Jewish atheists and agnostics are concentrated within small (and quite intriguing) denominations such as Secular Humanistic Judaism. Nonbelief lurks not just in the highly evolved appendages of the Jewish social body, but within its central nervous system, if you will.
Are there atheist orthodox Jews? Sure. I have met a few. Speaking off the record, one explained his godlessness to me by reference to the slogan “All you need is Torah love.” (The use of Beatles’ lyrics is, apparently, the most effective way to enlighten dimwitted secular co-religionists)
Larger numbers of atheists and agnostics, needless to say, are to be found in Conservative and Reform Judaism. They are--let me be clear about this--a very small minority in both denominations. Still, every Jew knows of congregations (usually those in major urban centers with more affluent memberships) that harbor pockets of nonbelievers and other assorted contrarians.
Explaining the Jewish affinity for nonbelief is no simple matter. It could be argued that a handful of well-known biblical and Talmudic passages have provoked wayward heretics to speak the unspeakable (e.g., Ecclesiastes’ tendency to make God so utterly inscrutable as to raise the question of whether one should even bother living in accordance with His ethical precepts. Or, the Talmudic tractate Bava Mezia’s playful tale of rabbinic interpreters who delight God by deciding to ignore His “heavenly voice” in favor of their own powers of analysis).
Then again, maybe Jews gravitate to nonbelief because they can. Judaism has always had the damndest time silencing wayward heretics. The prolonged experience of Diaspora has prevented the far-flung Jewish people from establishing effective, centralized orthodoxies. Put differently: there is no Vatican of Judaism.
But I am less interested here in why Jews gravitate to nonbelief, than in why Jews who gravitate to nonbelief persist in identifying themselves as Jews. Some, I gather, cling to their Judaism to honor their parents. Some may remain as a way of maintaining solidarity with Jews persecuted and martyred across the millennia. And some nonbelievers may feel quite at home in a civilization that can claim Spinoza, Freud, Emile Durkheim, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and countless others, as its own
For all I know, some may stay because they can't lay off the post-Sabbath service Manischewitz. Whatever the case may be, the persistence of Jewish Atheism points to the existence of a laudable ethic of tolerance within modern Judaism. And it reminds us that not all organized religions are threatened by freedom of conscience.