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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56 comments to The place of a non-believing Jew

  • L.Oberstein

    “I love being Jewish and feel very lucky to have been born a Jew. I remain a member of an orthodox synagogue and keep a few rituals like Friday evening prayers, no bread on Pesach and fasting on Yom Kippur. This is partly because I love the traditions which have lasted so long and also I value the Jewish family atmosphere it brings.” I agree with your description of why you and many other Jews remain Jewish. The problem with it is that it is very hard to pass this on to future generations. Over centuries,only those who actually believed in something higher and observed the lawss out of belief withstood the test of time.
    When I was about 12, a singer performed in our shul and my mother asked me why I didn’t cry when he sang “My Yiddishe Mama”. I told her that we never lived in a tenament on the Lower East Side,etc. In other words I could not identify with the nostalgia of an earlier generation.
    There has to be more there than nostgaligia and good feelings. Sometimes one has to dispense with disbelief and accept the belief even with doubts if Jewish Survival is a priority. Otherwise, it is nostalgia.

  • Debby

    Charlie:

    Thank you for writing. I was getting a bit annoyed with people psychoanalyzing someone they knew nothing about. You can’t force yourself to believe. I know; I tried. What you can do is practice Judaism. And meanwhile, I highly recommend reading Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen’s books “Permission to Believe” and “Permission to Receive” and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s “Living Up to the Truth” (available on line at the ohr.edu website). Neither claims to prove the existence of God or the truth of the Torah. Both show that it’s rational to believe, and that atheism is, in fact, irrational. Just as we don’t have to have 100% certainty about other areas in life in order to take action, we don’t have to have 100% certainty about the existence of God to keep Shabbos, for instance.

  • Sally

    Dear Charlie,

    The best of the answers given to you on this thread in my opinion, for the little the opinion of an apikoros and a kofer is worth, is that of the Late Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l. Perhaps the conception of G-d which you reject is one which should be rejected, and perhaps what you describe as your atheism expresses an implicit sense that the reason why there is anything at all rather than nothing, the infinitely transcendent “whatness” of the Creator of all from nothing, transcends our finite powers of comprehension, and that is as should be.

    By sheer coincidence, surfing the web earlier today I happened upon an article by a Dr Gellman about haRav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s Orot ha-Emunah.

    Describing the teaching of ha-Rav Kook, Gellman writes:
    ‘… emunah can live even where there is no conscious awareness of one’s self divinity and even when one denies the Divine: “Sometimes you will find a kofer with an inner, shining strong emunah, flowing from the source of transcendent holiness, stronger than a thousand believers, who are “small of emunah.” How is this possible? Because “the inner spiritual basis of the holiness of emunah transcends all language.” A kofer can manifest the Divine power of his being even while denying faith with his mouth, and a believer can be lying, shaking with fright, all the while proclaiming his faith through chattering teeth.

    ‘Kefrah can itself even emanate from holiness. This can happen for example, when linguistic affirmations are rejected precisely because they are sensed to be inadequate, as but a weak shadow of the power of being. Thus, “there is denial (kefrah) that is like consent, and consent that is like denial.” Inadequate articulations of Judaism may force their own rejection, out of the depths of holiness. If we are to return the kofer to the practice of Torah, our elucidations of Torah contents must be adequate to the power of his being.’

    This spoke very powerfully to me at a time when I am looking for a way home in a sense, “home” being the world of Judaism. In an important sense you are home already. The orthopraxis is important. Perhaps part of the answer to your dilemma is to see that to grasp the “whatness” of G-d is necessarily reserved to G-d alone, so that we are bound to be agnostics in a very real sense — not in the sense that we necessarily entertain the possibility that the existence of anything at all rather than there being simply nothing at all (can the universe be a free lunch? How does an order of nature in which scientific explanation os possible come to be?)– but that a grasp of *what* the reason why there is anything at all rather than nothing is like in itself is infinitely beyond our ability to know. Should this turn out to be what you describe as your atheism, you are (in ha-Rav Kook’s terms) rejecting linguistic affirmations precisely because you sense them to be inadequate, and — perhaps unbeknown to you — are moved by a powerful sense of the all-transcending.

    With love,

    Sally

  • L. Oberstein

    “an apikoros and a kofer “. Sally, if you read this kind of stuff e.g. Rav Kook , you can’t be what you call yourself. Let’s not let the fanatics define us, why can’t we just be “normal”.

  • Sally

    “Normal” is a problematic word. Interpreted as the average (in the sense of the arithmetic mean), it is feasible that the “normal” family consists of a mother, a father and 2.4 children; but it can be guaranteed that no single family has 2.4 children. Each family has elements of uniqueness, and each individual has elements of uniqueness.

    I’m reminded of Rashi on the first verse of Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 for those on the list who do not know the technical terms). Rashi asks why G-d, having counted the children of Israel before (towards the end of the Sepher Bereshit, the book of Genesis), when they were alive, G-d counted them once again. Rashi answers that this is because they are like the stars: numerous though they are, G-d knows each of them by their name. The name expressing the essence, in a sense, what this suggests is that our tradition teaches that G-d (in and through the Divine self-knowledge, by the way, which is no other than G-d and not something separate), G-d must be said to know each of us as a unique individual far more intimately han any of us knows himself or herself. Each of us is recognised as unique and not as an amorphous part of some conglomerate yielding “the normal”.

    My name is Sally Gross, and a web-search for biographical material will quite easily show that whatever I am, I don’t fit the homogenised “normal”. It will also explain my admittedly somewhat ironic (but only somewhat) self-description.

    A pedantic point: empirically speaking, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that someone knows his or her way around Rabbinical literature that he or she is not an apikoros or a kofer by any reasonable standards. In saying this, I do not intend to denigrate myself. My posting of 9 February was not meant to focus on myself but on Charles.

    With regard to myself, the most important point was that I have begun a slow journey home (hopefully gentle and steady rather than an attempt to emulate the “Big Bang”), and that the argument made by HaRav Kook zt”l suggests that even someone like me is not beyond bounds. By implication, this is all the more true of Charlie, whose way of life is already somewhere in home teritory. It is an implicit kal vachomer argument.

    This thread is about the issue raised by Rav Belovski’s report about Charlie and, by extension, by Charlie’s personal posting on this thread. I am not ashamed of my background and history and have given you enough information to assuage your curiosity about it away from this thread. That said, please can we devote this thread to Charlie and to the issue he raised, rather than letting this discussion go off-topic?

    Shavua Tov,

    Sally

  • Sally

    Having looked at the last paragraph of my earlier comment again, I note that the tone has a sharpness I did not intend. We of all people know something about the power of the written word and about the need to take care to ensure that what we write or say does not imply or suggest things we do not intend. Specifically, my comment about assuaging curiosity offline was way out of order. I must apologise to L. Oberstein for what I now feel to have been an ungracious response to his gracious, gentle and kind comment.