People have long come to terms with atheist Jews. But how about an atheistic Judaism? Well surely that must be oxymoronic. Judaism without God, many would argue, is like Christianity without Jesus or physics without Newton. Atheist Jews can celebrate aspects of Judaism for sure, but no way can they claim that their beliefs and practices are in any way authentic expressions of Judaism. Or Can they not?
This view is not one held only by theistic Jews. Actually many atheist Jews would nod in agreement. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, goes as far as claiming that “atheist Jew” is an oxymoron and refers to himself as an “ex-Jew” having abandoned Judaism for atheism. In a lecture for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle and FreeThought Arizona titled ‘I’m an Atheist and So Are You’ (which can be found here) he strongly expresses his view that Judaism is nothing but a religion based on beliefs of which belief in God has a central and essential place.
But I beg to differ. As an atheist Jew who is very much in love with Judaism, I do not see any conflict whatsoever between my disbelief in God and my belief in Judaism. Am I deluded? I don’t think so. To see why, we need some historical knowledge of the origins of our people, the ancient Israelites, and a careful reading of scripture.
Let us start off by exploring the relationship between the Hebrew Bible – the Tanach – and Judaism. But wait a minute; isn’t Judaism the religion of the Hebrew Bible? Well, surprise, it isn’t! In fact, the Jewish religion has very little to do with the Hebrew Bible. The Tanach is not to the Jewish religion what the New Testament is to Christianity and what the Quran is to Islam. Yes, the Tanach is used a lot in the Jewish religion, but only used; the Jewish religion is not based off the Tanach. To give an idea of how unrelated they are, in some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities study of the Tanach is actually banned as its study is considered a threat to the purity of Judaism!
So what is the religion of the Tanach? If it is not Judaism, for what religion, extinct or extant, does the Hebrew Bible act as its foundational religious text? Well, once again I’ve got a surprise for you: the Tanach is not a religious book at all! At this point I have probably lost you. I can picture you raising your brows thinking, ‘this guy is crazy’. ‘”Not a religious text”?! If this is not a religious text then what is? The ten commandments, miracles, God, worship: of course this describes some sort of religion!’ But hang in there a little, I promise to explain everything.
A careful and critical reading of the Tanach, corroborated by archaeological findings, gives us the following, extremely simplified, picture of the ancient Israelite people:
We find the ancient Israelites living in Canaan, present day Israel/Palestine. The Ancient Israelites are pagans. They and their tribal chieftans/kings worship a plethora of pagan gods and goddesses which they share with their Canaanite neighbours. They also have their own tribal deity, Yahweh, who fights their wars, takes their side in conflicts and dwells in the different temples and sanctuaries that they build for his needs.
The Israelites also have a whole collection of tribal myths. They have a mythological ancestry with patriarchs and a genealogy that hierarchically connects different sub-tribes to specific roles and geographical areas; they have mythological narratives to explain certain tribal practices that none of them remember how they started off and they celebrate certain tribal festivals which usually correspond to agricultural events.
It is important to remember that they are not Greeks and that they do not think like Greeks. This is a period before Socrates roams the streets of Athens probing people to think about the meaning of life. For the ancient Israelite, history, mythology, theology, philosophy and science are indistinguishable from each other. The priest is the doctor and the prophet is the historian. The natural and the supernatural are both equally mysterious and the rainbow is no more anomalous than a flying fiery chariot. The ancient does not believe in his gods, he worships them; she does not have faith, she simply lives with her unquestioned practices. The gods are as obvious for the ancient as earth’s sphericity and the solar system’s helio-centricity is for the modern.
The ancient Israelites, just like the ancient Cannanites, are not religious. Religion has not been born yet as it waits for the Greeks to come around. Only centuries later, when people start thinking about the nature of knowledge and belief, can religious ideas be formed, but at this point people just live and do, instead of think and believe.
The Tanach is the collection of the tribal mythology of the Israelite people. It contains real history, pseudo-history, mythology, theology and much more, intertwined with each other without any distinctions between them. The Hebrew Bible is thus a tribal text rather than a religious one, as are the practices and beliefs of the ancient Israelites tribal rather than religious.
Judaism starts turning into a religion during the rabbinic period driven by two factors: the rise of Greek thinking, and the decentralization of the Israelite/Jewish people in their sovereign country. Tribal rituals and mythologies usually do not survive the application of Greek patterns of thought to them. The Greek wants to categorise, characterise and canonise, whilst the pagan needs spontaneity, flexibility and creativity. Critical thiking is lethal to the paganistic worldview, as the pagan is unprepared to take on the challenge. The thought that his assumptions might not reflect reality has never crossed his mind and the question “why” is not in his vocabulary either.
Likewise, the growth and decentralization of the tribe means that it can no longer evolve in unison, posing a danger to the unified nature of the tribal identity. Without the royal court, the institution of prophecy and the priestly cult of the temple, the tribal rituals and narratives have to be canonized into something substantial and defined, or they will not survive.
So starting from the later Biblical authors, around the time of the Babylonian exile, the Bible starts being radically interpreted and reformed to reflect these needs. By the time the Talmudic rabbis are around, Rabbinic Judaism is no longer comparable to Biblical Judaism, which some Jewish sects – most notably, the Sadducees – try to uphold. By the law of Natural Selection, the other forms of Judaism do not survive, as they were not capable of adapting to the needs of the time, and Rabbinic Judaism emerges victorious becoming the mainstream – if not the only (until the Karaites come around) – stream of Judaism.
As an atheist, or someone who does not believe in God – not to become too technical with labels and definitions – I am really not a part of the religion of Rabbinic Judaism. I do not believe in its dogma, and I do not practice its commandments. Nor do I feel a strong connection with it per see, or see much value in it on a personal level. However, Rabbinic Judaism is not the Judaism of the ancient Israelites or of the Hebrew Bible, and unlike the religion of Rabbinic Judaism, God is not an essential part in Biblical Judaism. Sure, Yahweh, the tribal god, is assumed in the Tanach, but he is there just as an unquestioned part of reality, not as a belief. There is no coherent or unified theology about the nature of God and His workings amongst different Biblical authors and it does not really bother them either. These things are left to the individual and as long as one holds up the tribal honour and rituals nobody cares what they do or do not believe in.
If you ask me why I grab species of vegetation and sit in a booth on Chag, I will tell you that I do it for the same reason that the ancient Israelite did it: to celebrate a tribal practice. The ancient Israelite did not perform these rituals because they believed that they were fulfilling a commandment or being religious by doing so. No; it was a tribal ritual which in some way or another made sense in their worldview and which I feel connected to too as a member of the “tribe”. Judaism is not my religion, it is my tribal identity and the Torah does not tell me what to do, but how things are, or were, done.
All Jewish denominations and factions can be seen as genuine expressions of the Hebrew/Jewish tribal identity (with the possible exception of some Ultra-Orthodox sects which do not see themselves as part of a Jewish people, but as a cult of worship), the combining factor being the tribal identity, the shared mythology, history and heritage, not God or any degree of observance.
That is why as an atheist, I am a Karaite because the original meaning of the Tanach is what sets the tone for my Jewsih identity, and not the religious reinterpretation of the rabbis.