Friday, September 28, 2007

What is a Jewish Atheist, You Ask...

Strange the little things I jot that prompt emails and questions.

Tom wrote:

"OK is it just me or is "jewish atheist" an oxymoron. Just a thought."

Not really. I have come to a place where I don't believe in God, but I still have a great deal of affection for my Jewish heritage, culture, history and traditions. One does not need to believe in God to understand the righteousness of moderation, frugality, philanthropy, intellectual curiosity and love that Judaism teaches. And I find my own meaning in many of the rituals.

The Passover story of the Exodus from Egypt, for instance, is a real historical event even if I'm dubious of the notion that Moses turned a staff into a snake or parted a sea with his underarm odor. (Tidal shifts seem far more likely.) But the notion of an oppressed people being forced to save themselves is universal, and one of the most beautiful moments of the whole story is the one that is routinely overlooked, that "God" scolds the Israelites for rejoicing when the Egyptian army drowns in the Red Sea. The idea of having compassion for your enemies and even your former oppressors is a lovely sentiment, one that would improve the world tremendously if taken seriously.

The Jewish New Year, too, is full of serious sentiment in which I find great meaning. For one thing, it makes a lot more sense to me to celebrate a new beginning at the start of autumn than in the arbitrary dead of winter. New school years, relationships and jobs have always marked this part of the year to me for some reason. And the idea of spending a week contemplating how to be a better person is laudable and spending a full day not eating to immerse in a more intense consideration of personal mistakes and flaws has always been worthwhile and replenishing.

Mostly, though, I adore the traditions of my youth, the family gatherings, the ceremonial trappings and even the special foods, with the exception of gefilte fish and chopped liver but my grandmother learned to accept that so who are you to judge? My family was not an overtly religious one, there wasn't a lot of talk about sin and piety. My dad was the one who taught me the Bible stories are allegorical at best by pointing out to me that it doesn't make sense for Cain to walk the Earth showing his mark to the "other people" when we've just been told that his parents were the first two humans. "Where did all these people come from?" my father would say. I think that was the same killer argument that slayed fundamentalism in "Inherit the Wind."

But these cultural and spiritual -- yes, you can be spiritual without believing in God -- events nonetheless tie us together and tie us to the historical Jews whose survival ensured our existence.


Anonymous said...

I too am a Jew who does not believe in God. I have found myself throughout my life explaining to people the Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity. Oddly enough when I was growing up most people knew that Judaism was a ethnicity, thinking that I was from Israel. Few thought of the religion once I went to college and into working life the view seemed to switch.