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Do You Have to Believe in God to Be a Jew?

Do You Have to Believe in God to Be a Jew?

Sunshine in clouds

Many Jews say to me with reticence or a mildly defiant tone, “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God.” I sometimes think that on some level, they expect me to cast them out when I hear their confession.

One says, “I’m a religious person in that I feel a connection to something eternal and infinite that’s in my soul and in yours. But I don’t believe in a personal God, and all this talk about God as king and me as servant is meaningless to me.”

Another says, “I’m grateful for the gifts of health, meaningful work, and love. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by gratitude and a sense of inadequacy to express how blessed I feel, and that’s about as close as I come to prayer. But that prayer is addressed to life itself – to no one in particular, and surely not to ‘God.’”

The conversation gets interesting if we talk about the nature of the God they find so incredible. Often it turns out to be the white-haired figure touching fingers with Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – the commanding, rewarding, and punishing God of the High Holidays prayer book.

The fact is, most modern liberal Jews today don’t rationally accept the notion of such a God, especially given the fact that all around us innocent people do suffer and the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God of tradition either ignores them or doesn’t exist.

When people tell me that they don’t believe in God – either because they have seen no empirical evidence that God exists or because they can’t rationally accept the God of the Bible and of the medieval rabbis – I understand completely. I don’t believe in that God either.

We live in a vastly different world from that of our ancestors, whose ideas of God evolved from the social models that surrounded them.

Modernity, which emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual, free from the shackles of convention and tradition, has produced very different kinds of Jews, some of whom traditional Judaism wouldn’t recognize as particularly Jewish at all.

I believe spiritual searchers can all draw inspiration from both the lessons of modernity and the mystical tradition of Judaism, which speaks about God as an inner spark, not in terms of thunderbolts.

Instead of asking, “Do you believe in God?” let us ask ourselves, “How can I experience myself as a spiritual being?”

The mystics taught that the individual isn’t separate from God. God is the mystery within us – inside every soul, in the love that inspires generosity and compassion.

Every mystical experience of godlikeness revitalizes us and breaks down unnecessary barriers between people, giving us a more inclusive and expansive vision of Jewish life and humankind as a whole

Every peak emotional moment of joy, appreciation, and gratitude is a revelation of some deeper truth, and a reminder that we are part of something far greater than ourselves.

Modernity, for all its benefits, has tended to reject the teachings of the great Jewish mystics as non-rational, non-linear intuitive thinking, which is contrary to the rationalism that characterized the Enlightenment and informed classical Reform Judaism.

But now we’re hungry for the spiritual answers that our linear, rational minds can’t deliver. “The search of reason, said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide…and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.

We do not need to put aside our left-brain training as we open ourselves to what the mystics can teach us. Rather, we can ask the questions that will bring us greater awareness of our souls: “How can I connect to what’s eternal and infinite within me and the world? How can I experience a sense of awe and wonder in my life?”

This search, whether or not we use the word “God,” pulls us into the deep and vital current of Judaism. And it doesn’t demand that the atheists and agnostics among us suspend their doubts and disbelief.

Judaism is embracing enough to welcome us all.

This article is adapted from Rabbi Rosove’s book, Why Judaism Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation.

Rabbi John L. Rosove is senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA, and national chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.


Rabbi John L. Rosove

Published: 1/19/2018

Categories: Jewish Life, Practice, Reform Judaism
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