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Atheist Jew

Atheist Jew

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Jewish atheism is practiced by atheists
Atheism
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

 who are ethnically, and to some extent culturally, Jewish. Because Jewishness encompasses ethnic as well as religious components, the term "Jewish atheism" does not necessarily imply any kind of contradiction. Based on Jewish law's emphasis on matrilineal descent, even religiously conservative Orthodox Jewish
Orthodox Judaism
Orthodox Judaism , is the approach to Judaism which adheres to the traditional interpretation and application of the laws and ethics of the Torah as legislated in the Talmudic texts by the Sanhedrin and subsequently developed and applied by the later authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim, and...

 authorities would accept as fully Jewish an atheist born to a Jewish mother.

Organized Jewish life


There has been a phenomenon of atheistic and secular Jewish organizations, mostly in the past century, from the Jewish socialist Bund
General Jewish Labor Union
The General Jewish Labour Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia , generally called The Bund or the Jewish Labour Bund, was a secular Jewish socialist party in the Russian Empire, active between 1897 and 1920. Remnants of the party remain active in the diaspora as well as in Israel...

 in early twentieth-century Poland to the modern Society for Humanistic Judaism
Society for Humanistic Judaism
The Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1969 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas....

 in the United States. Many Jewish atheists feel comfortable within any of the three major non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (Reform
Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism refers to various beliefs, practices and organizations associated with the Reform Jewish movement in North America, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In general, it maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions should be modernized and should be compatible with participation in the...

, Conservative
Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism is a modern stream of Judaism that arose out of intellectual currents in Germany in the mid-19th century and took institutional form in the United States in the early 1900s.Conservative Judaism has its roots in the school of thought known as Positive-Historical Judaism,...

, and Reconstructionist
Reconstructionist Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern American-based Jewish movement based on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan . The movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization. It originated as a branch of Conservative Judaism, before it splintered...

). This presents less of a contradiction than might first seem apparent, given Judaism's emphasis on practice over belief, with even mainstream guides to Judaism suggesting that belief in God is not a necessary prerequisite to Jewish observance. However, Orthodox Judaism
Orthodox Judaism
Orthodox Judaism , is the approach to Judaism which adheres to the traditional interpretation and application of the laws and ethics of the Torah as legislated in the Talmudic texts by the Sanhedrin and subsequently developed and applied by the later authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim, and...

 views accepting the "Yoke of Heaven" (the sovereignty of the God of Israel in the world and the divine origin of the Torah
Torah
Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five books of the bible—Genesis , Exodus , Leviticus , Numbers and Deuteronomy Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five...

) as a fundamental obligation for Jews, and even among non-Orthodox Jews, espousing atheism remains problematic outside of the Society for Humanistic Judaism
Society for Humanistic Judaism
The Society for Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1969 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine embraces a human-centered philosophy that combines the celebration of Jewish culture and identity with an adherence to humanistic values and ideas....

. The Reform movement, for example, has rejected efforts at affiliation by atheistic temples. The presence of atheists in all denominations of modern Judaism, from Secular Humanistic Judaism to Orthodoxy, has been noted.

Jewish theology


Much recent Jewish theology makes few if any metaphysical
Metaphysics
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 claims and is thus compatible with atheism on an ontological level. The founder of Reconstructionist Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern American-based Jewish movement based on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan . The movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization. It originated as a branch of Conservative Judaism, before it splintered...

, Mordechai Kaplan, espoused a naturalistic definition of God, while some post-Holocaust theology has also eschewed a personal God
Personal God
A personal god is a deity who can be related to as a person instead of as an "impersonal force", such as the Absolute, "the All", or the "Ground of Being"....

. The Jewish philosopher Howard Wettstein has suggested that Jewish atheists can fully engage with traditional Jewish ritual and notions of God with little or no contradiction, in part due to the centrality of practice rather than belief in Jewish religious life. Harold Schulweis, a Conservative rabbi
Rabbi
In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah. This title derives from the Hebrew word רבי , meaning "My Master" , which is the way a student would address a master of Torah...

 trained in the Reconstructionist tradition, has argued that Jewish theology should move from a focus on God to an emphasis on "godliness." This "predicate theology", while continuing to use theistic language, again makes few metaphysical claims that non-believers would find objectionable.

However, some Jewish atheists remain deeply uncomfortable with the use of any kind of theistic language. For such Jews traditional practice and symbolism can still retain powerful meaning. They may continue to engage in Jewish rituals such as the lighting of Shabbat
Shabbat
Shabbat is the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaism. Shabbat is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until a few minutes after when one would expect to be able to see three stars in the sky on Saturday night. The exact times, therefore, differ from...

 candles and find meaning in many aspects of Jewish culture and religion. For example, to an atheist Jew, the Menorah might represent the power of the Jewish spirit or stand as a symbol of the fight against assimilation. No mention of a divine force in Jewish history would be accepted literally; the Torah
Torah
Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five books of the bible—Genesis , Exodus , Leviticus , Numbers and Deuteronomy Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five...

 may be viewed as a common mythology of the Jewish people, not a faith document or correct history.

Secular Jewish culture


Many Jewish atheists would reject even this level of ritualized and symbolic identification, instead embracing a thoroughgoing secularism and basing their Jewishness entirely in ethnicity and secular Jewish culture
Secular Jewish culture
Secular Jewish culture embraces several related phenomena; above all, it is the international culture of secular communities of Jewish people, but it can also include the cultural contributions of individuals who identify as secular Jews...

. Possibilities for secular Jewishness include an identification with Jewish history and peoplehood, immersion in Jewish literature (including such non-religious Jewish authors as Philip Roth
Philip Roth
Philip Milton Roth is an American novelist. He gained fame with the 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, an irreverent and humorous portrait of Jewish-American life that earned him a National Book Award...

 and Amos Oz
Amos Oz
Amos Oz is an Israeli writer, novelist, and journalist. He is also a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva....

), the consumption of Jewish food and an attachment to Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino. A high percentage of Israelis identify themselves as secular, rejecting the practice of the Jewish religion (see Religion in Israel
Religion in Israel
Religion in Israel is a central feature of the country and plays a major role in shaping Israeli culture and lifestyle, and religion has played a central role in Israel's history. Israel is also the only country in the world where a majority of citizens are Jewish...

). While some non-believers of Jewish ancestry do not consider themselves Jews, preferring to define themselves solely as atheists, Judaism is arguably the paradigm example of the evolution of a culture and tradition that one can embrace without religious faith.

Notable people



A number of well-known Jews throughout history have rejected a belief in God (see here for a non-comprehensive list of Jewish atheists). Some have denied the existence of a traditional deity while continuing to use religious language. In 1656 the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch de Spinoza and later Benedict de Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher. Revealing considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until years after his death...

 was excommunicated by Amsterdam's Sephardic synagogue after advancing a pantheist
Pantheism
Pantheism is the view that the Universe and God are identical. Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or creator god. The word derives from the Greek meaning "all" and the Greek meaning "God". As such, Pantheism denotes the idea that "God" is best seen as a process of...

 notion of God that, according to some observers, is both compatible with and paved the way for modern atheism. Deeply influenced by Spinoza, Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

 used theistic language and identified strongly as a Jew, while rejecting the notion of a personal god. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan
Carl Edward Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books...

 was born into a Jewish family and was a non-theist.

Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 was born into an ethnically Jewish family but raised as a Lutheran, and is among the most notable and influential atheist thinkers of modern history; he developed dialectical and historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

 which became the basis for his critique of capitalism
Capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

 and his theories of scientific socialism
Scientific Socialism
Scientific socialism is the term used by Friedrich Engels to describe the social-political-economic theory first pioneered by Karl Marx. The purported reason why this socialism is "scientific socialism" is because its theories are held to an empirical standard, observations are essential to its...

. Marx became a major influence among other prominent Jewish intellectuals including Moses Hess
Moses Hess
Moses Hess was a Jewish philosopher and socialist, and one of the founders of Labor Zionism.-Life:Hess was born in Bonn, which was under French rule at the time. In his French-language birth certificate, his name is given as "Moises"; he was named after his maternal grandfather...

. In one of his most cited comments on religion he stated: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people
Opium of the People
"Religion is the opium of the people" is one of the most frequently paraphrased statements of Karl Marx. It was translated from the German original, "Die Religion .....

".

Many other famous Jews have wholeheartedly embraced atheism, rejecting religiosity altogether. Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 penned The Future of an Illusion, in which he both eschewed religious belief and outlined its origins and prospects. At the same time he urged a Jewish colleague to raise his son within the Jewish religion, arguing that "If you do not let your son grow up as a Jew, you will deprive him of those sources of energy which cannot be replaced by anything else." The anarchist Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing and speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century....

 was born to an Orthodox Jewish family and rejected belief in God, while the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir
Golda Meir
Golda Meir ; May 3, 1898 – December 8, 1978) was a teacher, kibbutznik and politician who became the fourth Prime Minister of the State of Israel....

, when asked if she believed in God, answered "I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God." More recently, the French Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

 stated somewhat cryptically, "I rightly pass for an atheist". In the world of entertainment, Woody Allen
Woody Allen
Woody Allen is an American screenwriter, director, actor, comedian, jazz musician, author, and playwright. Allen's films draw heavily on literature, sexuality, philosophy, psychology, Jewish identity, and the history of cinema...

 has made a career out of the tension between his Jewishness and religious doubt ("How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?").

See also

  • Conversion to Judaism
    Conversion to Judaism
    Conversion to Judaism is a formal act undertaken by a non-Jewish person who wishes to be recognised as a full member of the Jewish community. A Jewish conversion is both a religious act and an expression of association with the Jewish people...

  • Christianity and Judaism
  • Jews in apostasy
    Jews in apostasy
    In Judaism, apostasy refers to the rejection of Judaism and possible defection to another religion by a Jew. The term apostasy is derived from , meaning "rebellious" Equivalent expressions for apostate in Hebrew that are used by rabbinical scholars include mumar , poshea Yisrael , and kofer...

  • Haskalah
    Haskalah
    Haskalah , the Jewish Enlightenment, was a movement among European Jews in the 18th–19th centuries that advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history...

  • Humanistic Judaism
    Humanistic Judaism
    Humanistic Judaism is a movement in Judaism that offers a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life. It defines Judaism as the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people and encourages humanistic and secular Jews to celebrate their Jewish identity by participating in Jewish...

  • Schisms among the Jews
    Schisms among the Jews
    Schisms among the Jews are cultural as well as religious. They have happened as a product of historical accident, geography, and theology.-First Temple era:...

  • Secular Jew
  • Who is a Jew?
    Who is a Jew?
    "Who is a Jew?" is a basic question about Jewish identity and considerations of Jewish self-identification. The question is based in ideas about Jewish personhood which themselves have cultural, religious, genealogical, and personal dimensions...