The place of a non-believing Jew


At a simchah recently, I bumped into the father of an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for many years. Charlie was always known as a forthright person, and it was good to see that the passage of twenty years hasn’t changed anything. He asked me what I consider to be the place of a Jew who doesn’t believe in God. He also told me that he remains a proud member of the community and of the Jewish people (he is, and always was, a staunch member of an Orthodox synagogue), but doesn’t believe in God. Charlie confided that he had asked his own rabbi and claimed that he had ‘been unable to handle the question’.

I think that while it’s a matter of great regret that Charlie doesn’t believe in God, and it would be desirable to discuss his beliefs with him in detail, his question deserved an answer.

My response (admittedly unprepared and delivered while struggling to hear over blaring music) was simple. I suggested to Charlie that even if he doesn’t believe in God, Judaism can certainly provide him with meaningful ideas, practices, and occasions for inspiration that will enhance his existence immeasurably. By continuing his association with the Jewish world, he will benefit from a way to contextualise major life-events, from the support of others and from unparalleled opportunities to enhance the lives of others.

How would you have answered?

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Bob Miller
5 years 10 months ago

As I understand it, the author replied so as to keep this Jew in contact with other Jews and their activities, in the hope that the true Jewish message could somehow get through to him someday.

What about the possibility that, in the meantime, this Jew’s attitudes (assuming they are verbalized) could negatively affect other Jews he meets?

Steve Brizel
5 years 10 months ago

R S Carmy has a wonderful essay on this issue which was published by Atid a few years ago.

nachum klafter
5 years 10 months ago

I think that I hear this question to you as an attempt to forge some kind of a connection. I imagine that because he is not a believer, he is concerned that his ties to Klal Yisrael are severed. It seems you heard it that way as well, because you did not provide an abstract or theoretical answer about the place of his neshama, or his standing in olam ha-ba, etc. I see no advantage to speak to him in a marginalizing way, and I therefore think that to encourage future participation in Jewish life, as you… Read more »

Yeshivishe Liberal
5 years 10 months ago

I’m not sure I get this one. A Jew who openly refuses to believe in G-d is a textbook case of Kofer B’Ikkar (and I am not talking about someone with questions or doubts or someone who has gone through serious mental trauma or anguish). You can try to get him to change his mind or lead him back on the right path. But Judaism is not about doing what makes you feel good even if it will benefit himself or the community. And while his doing good deeds will surely be rewarded, I believe he forfeits his place in… Read more »

5 years 10 months ago

If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg once told me that everyone knows the truth. The philosophers and the skeptics and the people who have seen incomprehensible suffering may be unwilling to consciously accept the truth, but that is not out of conviction, it is denial. Despite what this man says, he’s a ma’amin, not a min. He’s just having trouble admitting it to himself.

Garnel Ironheart
5 years 10 months ago

First question back to him: how do you define God?