While the j-blogosphere (God, I hate that word… it’s one of those words that looks fine on paper,but when you open your mouth to say it, you feel like an ass) is alive with arguments over the principles of Jewish faith, I marvel again at the gap between Orthodoxy and, well, mainstream American Judaism.
Mik Moore at J-Spot.org cites a study showing that fully 52% of American Jews do not believe in God!! In fairness, only about 19% actively disbelieved, while another 33% were uncertain about whether God did or did not exist. Still, that 19% means that there are five times as many Jewish atheists as compared to Protestant atheists.
When you consider how much ink, both real and virtual, has been spilled by contemporary Orthodox (and near-Orthodox) rabbis, philosophers, thinkers, professors, and bloggers over the Rambam’s Thirteen Ikarim (Principles of Faith), and the extent to which they define Judaism (or Orthodox Judaism, or Torah-True Judaism, ad infinitum, ad nauseum), the image that most readily comes to mind is that of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Forget the thirteen ikarim! Let’s start with the first: to know that there is a God! We can disagree over what it means to know that there is a God, or to be commanded to believe that there is a God. We didn’t have to wait for Maimonides to let us in on this fundamental Jewish belief. It’s the first of the Ten Commandments!
With due respect to Mr. Moore, who doesn’t “actually believe the Jewish community has a continuity crisis, stemming from intermarriage or atheism or anything else”, I believe that while you may be Jewish without believing in God, you’re not behaving Jewish if you don’t even believe in God.
I’ve seen atheists and agnostics describe themselves as Jewish – actually, in the recent interview in the Biblical Archeology Review that I posted about, noted archaeologist William Dever, a convert to Reform Judaism, says he is agnostic. To me, there is no such thing as a Jewish denomination that rejects God. Yes, there may be a culture group that is inspired by Jewish religion and shares ties with people of that faith, and who use the word Jewish to describe themselves. But, at least as I understand it, they are not behaving in a sustainable Jewish manner, and they can have no claim to represent a Jewish ideology.
In other words, the reverse of Mik Moore: failure to believe in God is not sustainable for a differentiated Jewish social group over the long run. It is at least a contributing factor to intermarriage, if not a primary cause. And outside of the Land of Israel, it leads only to assimilation.
Maybe it’s time that those of us who see Judaism as a religion first, and share a commitment to a God we do believe in, even if we sometimes harbor doubts, identify ourselves differently. Rather than squabbling over who gets to keep the name “Jew”, let’s reach back into our past and our tradition, and identify ourselves with our Biblical forebears, who were proud to call themselves Bnai Yisrael. It was the very sons of Israel, the Twelve Tribes of Jacob, who first called out the Jewish catechism of faith that no longer unites us all, the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one! I’m done being a Jew, a word with a short, ignoble history in the English language. I’m an Israelite!