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The Wandering Jew: An Atheists Guide to finding Meaning in Jewish Practice

The Wandering Jew: An Atheists Guide to finding Meaning in Jewish Practice

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The Wandering Jew: An Atheist’s Guide to Finding Meaning in Jewish Practice

By Micah Fenner

Senior Seminar in Jewish Thought Dr. Sandel

May 22, 2012


Disbelief in God is a contentious issue that has plagued the leadership behind the major monotheistic religions since the advent of the “free-thought” movement.1 Since the 1700’s, many different approaches have been taken to confront the perceived threat to religion that atheism posed, however this perception is based upon a flawed assumption about atheists: the assumption of atheism’s inherent link to secularism. Though this assumption may be true in many cases, in Judaism particularly, there are notable exceptions to this. Many consider atheism to be a single belief that inherently restricts one from participating in many aspects of Judaism. The assumption is made that since all of Jewish history, tradition, and culture is based upon a scripture that mentions God, then for an atheist, Judaism must lose all credibility and importance. However, upon further examination, it is clear that not only is this blatantly false in many cases, but in fact the opposite is true. There will always be the secular atheist who denies the validity of religion as a whole; however, religion devoid of theistic references does not become inherently meaningless. Rather, it still remains a valid source of insight into human nature, as well as a source of reflection, which can lead to personal development. The spiritual practices encouraged by Judaism are just as important for atheists as they are for theists, and provide a sort-of “middle ground” for the atheist who is not yet willing to embrace a secular life devoid of all religion. Though traditional atheism may eschew all conceptions of God and the Divine – and by extension, religion – as relevant sources of meaning, there are many Jewish atheists who are greatly attuned to the importance of their religion and actively pursue the values and history that Judaism holds to be so important. This

Jim Herrick, Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985). 16.


connection to something bigger, something holy perhaps, is a type of atheistic spirituality which is just as potent a force for continued religious and cultural practice and dedication as any conception of God. Through exploration of the various aspects of atheism as well as the intricacies of spirituality, a precedence of interpretation and adaptation becomes apparent that stretches back hundreds of years and lays the foundation for a Judaism that retains its meaning and traditions despite being devoid of any theistic content. Atheism Atheism is commonly referred to as a single ideology, however this generalization is largely misguided. Rather, atheism is considered by many to be a general perspective that involves the absence of theistic belief.2 There are many different angles from which one can arrive at the conclusion of disbelief in God, and they are hugely diverse. However, most of them have their roots in logic and empiricism.3 Not all of these ideas are based in science or experiential proofs, as there are many philosophical reasons to be opposed to the existence of God as well, such as the teleological argument,4 as well as flaws within the ontological5 and cosmological arguments,6 however it is safe to say that most atheists operate under the assumption that faith alone is not enough for one to truly believe in God, as there must be some sort of justification for that belief. This staunch opposition to the existence of God can often manifest itself in different ways depending on the era and the circumstances at the time. For example,
2 3

George H. Smith, Why Atheism? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000). 173.

Richard Dawkins, "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," in The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 137.

Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). 317.
5 6

Ibid., 95. Ibid., 124.


Baruch Spinoza, who lived in Amsterdam during the mid-1600’s, would probably not have considered himself an atheist because of its “materialistic implications,” yet his assertion that the laws of logic and nature are God bear no resemblance to any sort of religious God, as they are not supernatural.7 Similarly, Moses Maimonides believed in a transcendent intellect or wisdom that connected all of humanity, which he termed as God and which connected religion to society’s obsession with knowledge and science that was happening around him.8 This warping of the traditional, supernatural conception of God are manifestations of the belief in and elevation of these metaphysical concepts, yet cannot be considered tradition theism by any means, despite their acceptance as theism in today’s society.9 Though these metaphysical concepts may dictate the way that humanity evolves and grows, and may even be able to explain some or all of the phenomena described in the Bible, they do not necessarily indicate the presence of God. Due to the stigma associated with atheism or disbelief in God at the time that these ideas were popular, they can be considered attempts at reconciliation with the notion that God may indeed not exist. Many false assumptions are made about atheists and atheism, often out of ignorance or confusion. The main source of this confusion is the perceived fuzzy distinction between atheism and agnosticism, which is really not fuzzy whatsoever. Agnosticism is the assertion that it is impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and that even beliefs such as those involved with metaphysics are unfounded. Atheists and theists both have a belief, however opposing they may be, while agnostics stress that
7 8

Smith, Why Atheism?: 199.

Mordecai M. Kaplan, "The Evolution of the Idea of God in Jewish Religion," The Jewish Quarterly Review 57(1967): 338.

Smith, Why Atheism?: 198.


the reality and existence of God is unknowable. To be clear, atheism maintains a defined stance: there is absolutely no God, and that it is impossible for deities to exist.10 Another assumption commonly made about atheism is that if God does not exist, then religions lose their meaning, and this belief is not totally unfounded. The philosophical school of skepticism is one that encourages the questioning of religious authority,11 and also happens to be a school to which many famous atheists throughout history have subscribed.12 The assertion is then made that if religion is irrelevant, don’t all forms of objective morality become irrelevant? The answer to that is a definitive no. Morality can be approached from a non-religious angle, through science. If morality is considered to be a result of the conception of relative well being, whether in humans or animals, then science can describe this experience and even prescribe what actions should be considered moral or immoral. By using patterns in human behavior to determine what human society perceives to be the most important values for their own well-being, we can predict what moral framework will best support those values. When compared with historical patterns, these predictions show a clear correlation between the two.13 In this way, morality can be totally divorced from religion. This is the view of philosopher Iris Murdoch who asserts that moral actions are ones that truly see and respond to the real world.14 Any actions that are immoral are merely responses to our own selfish intentions and needs. Religion can help to cut through this veil of selfishness, but so can other transcendent philosophies as well as simple self-awareness. According to
10 11 12 13

Herrick, Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists: 17. Ibid., 33. Smith, Why Atheism?: 240.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010). 190.

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good: Studies in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Schocken Books, 1971). 87.


her, it is humanity’s ultimate responsibility to recognize not whatever is transcendent (i.e. history, science, and reason), but to identify the effects that those things have on our decisions as well as the control that we have over our own lives.15 Another place atheists can look for moral guidance is in the codes of existing religions such as Judaism. The fact that these moral codes are claimed to have divine sources is irrelevant because over the course of thousands of years, they have been subject to so much interpretation that they reflect society more than their theistic origins. In Judaism especially, interpretation and critical thinking is encouraged, and this has led to some major philosophical advances such as those of Maimonides and Spinoza. Despite the fact that Judaism encourages critical thinking, Jewish atheists have traditionally masked their atheism in other forms so that their views would be more widely accepted. For example Spinoza used naturalism as a guise for his disbelief in any traditional theological material.16 This was pretty standard practice until secular Judaism came to the forefront in the late 1800’s.17 With emancipation on the rise, the communities that Jews once depended on for their religious fulfillment disbanded.18 As a result, allegiance to one’s Judaism became a matter of choice rather than a matter of survival and Jews began to integrate into secular society.19 Once it became culturally acceptable to be only culturally Jewish, and push to the wayside all of the religious and spiritual aspects of Judaism, only
15 16 17

Ibid., 79. Smith, Why Atheism?: 197.

Zev Katz and Renee Kogel, eds., Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought (Farmington Hills, MI: International House for Secular Humanistic Judaism, 1995), xxvii.

Arnold M. Eisen, "Secularization, 'Spirit,' and the Strategies of Modern Jewish Faith," in Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth Century Revival to the Present, ed. Arthur Green (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989), 285.

Ibid., 286.


then did atheism rear its head and morph into the irreligious movement as which it is still perceived. Since then, atheism has become almost synonymous with secularism, but there is the distinct possibility of experiencing Judaism with all theistic content removed. Rather than the cultural norm of completely secular atheism, this prospect returns back to the root Greek etymology of the word atheism: a (without)+theos (god).20 Absent any theistic content, Judaism would seem to present an un-fillable void, however with a slight tweaking of the traditionally theistic concepts of spirituality, this void is quickly filled. Spirituality Spirituality is a word that has many meanings and connotations; in fact, in traditional Judaism, some of the most important disciplines and traditions relate to spiritual practice.21 Spirituality really means the feeling of connection to the “spirit.” Initially, this “spirit” meant God, however recently it has come to mean a multitude of things. Beginning in the sixteenth century with Kabbalah in Tzfat, and continuing with Hasidism in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century, the emphasis on connecting with God and becoming more spiritual beings has been a trend in Judaism.22 Recently, the meaning of spirit has shifted from relating to God, to any manner of other things including history, the Jewish community, Jewish culture, and all that is transcendent about Judaism, as well as the world to some extent.23 Building on Spinoza’s ideas, philosophers in the 1800’s identified a “spirit” within Judaism that was separate


"Atheism," in New Oxford American Dictionary, ed. Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg (2010).

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, "The Safed Revival and Its Aftermath," in Jewish Spirituality: From the Sixteenth Century Revival to the Present, ed. Arthur Green (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 7.
22 23

Ibid., 32. Eisen, "Secularization, 'Spirit,' and the Strategies of Modern Jewish Faith," 284.


from any theistic figure and was responsible for the continuation of the people of Israel.24 The evolution of Judaism as well as its general course throughout history has been accompanied by the “spirit” of Judaism25 and is what connects modern-day Jews to their past.26 This spirit can also be defined on a personal level as the force that drives humans to achieve fulfillment, which can even be linked to Maimonidean philosophy.27 With such a perspective on spirituality, it no longer needs to be associated with a deity to retain its meaning or importance; nor is it required to feel or experience a sense of holiness. Holiness is a characteristic that is traditionally associated with God and theism, yet it can also mean “morally and spiritually excellent” according to the Oxford American Dictionary, and thus the term becomes relevant for non-believers as well.28 If being “holy” truly means being “exalted” as spiritually excellent, then it is not so farfetched to include beliefs such as those of Spinoza and Maimonides as spiritual, but not necessarily theistic. Though many atheists would be repulsed by the word “holy,” once all theistic connotations are removed, it acquires a meaning of exaltation and appreciation, which is an important part of participating in the Jewish community. This elevation of values to a transcendent level is an idea that can apply to wisdom, logic, or even such abstract concepts as Martin Buber’s “I-You relationship.”29 Using spirituality as a preface, religious traditions or practices can have enormous value despite their lack of divine origin. Without God in the picture, Judaism still retains

24 25 26 27 28 29

Ibid., 293. Ibid., 295. Ibid., 297. Ibid., 306. "Holy," in New Oxford American Dictionary, ed. Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg (2010). Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Touchstone, 1970). 89.


its identity as a living, breathing, evolving civilization, as argued by Mordecai Kaplan,30 and so spiritual practice can encourage the fostering of an ongoing connection with Jewish history and tradition as well as the Jewish community that surrounds us.31 Ultimately, engaging one’s self in spiritual practice absent God can only enhance one’s responsibility to the world and the rest of the Jewish community because of the inherent link between the “spirit” and the continuance of the Jewish people.32 That’s not to say that people living with the belief of God have no responsibility, but many of them see it one shared with God, whereas without God, humans are the creators of that responsibility and we are the ones who are obliged to take it on. Especially in Judaism, much of the tradition is rooted in necessity as well as doing what is good not just for ourselves, but for others and for the world; thus, through our spirituality and connections to what is larger than ourselves, we can discover a sense of obligation to continue our tradition and to be an active citizen in the world.33 In Jewish tradition, Zionism can be considered one major manifestation of this responsibility to the Jewish community. As the spirit is the result of the sum total of Jewish history and culture to this point, it requires maintenance and development to continue its growth and development. The philosopher A. D. Gordon argues that the development of this spirit is hindered without a homeland and that working toward this goal is thus a spiritual endeavor.34 Though one might not feel any sort of obligation to God, Zionism helps one

Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life (New York: The Jewish Publication Society and the Reconstructionist Press, 1981). 178.

Lawrence Bush, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist (Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2007). 138.

Ronald Aronson, Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2008). 67.
33 34

Moshe Kohn, "How Judaism Trains Us to Achieve Spirituality," The Jerusalem Post 1995. A. D. Gordon, Selected Essays, trans. Frances Burnce Ph. D. (Boston: The Independent Press, 1938). 94.


to feel a connection to the greater Jewish community as well as actualizes the effects of ones actions.35 This is particularly important for the empiricist whose disbelief in God is rooted in a lack of worldly evidence. Living as a Jewish Atheist As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, said: “The past has a vote, not a veto.”36 Just because atheism has been shunned in the past does not mean that it should still be irrelevant. The attitude with which the Jewish majority has approached atheism throughout history is one fueled by fears of secularism and abandonment,37 however there truly is no need for atheists to abandon religious practice whatsoever, in fact, many Jewish atheists would jump at the opportunity to find meaning in religious practices as it is preferable to full-blown secularism.38 This struggle to find meaning in traditions is one of the primary issues facing Jewish atheists, as it is a seemingly insurmountable barrier to remaining active, practicing members of the Jewish community. Without any perceptible relevance to atheists, Judaism no longer retains any meaning and is increasingly threatened with an exodus of atheists from the community, a process that has already begun.39 There are many approaches to making these traditions relevant and one of the most basic is called “transvaluation.” This concept essentially consists of sampling values that are at the core of certain practices and reapply them in a manner that is more personally meaningful. This concept was first introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche but later
35 36

Ibid., 106.

Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism: The Only Alternative to Orthodoxy and Secularism (New York: The Reconstructionist Press, 1967). 20.
37 38

Judith Seid, God-Optional Judaism (New York: Citadel Press, 2001). 35.

Yehoshua Arieli, "Modern History as a Reinstatement of the Saeculum: A Study in the Semantics of History," Jewish History 8, no. 1-2 (1994): 224.



adapted by Ahad Ha’am and Mordecai Kaplan to apply more directly to Judaism.40 This is particularly relevant because often these new ascriptions apply to concepts that could not possibly have been conceived of at the time that the root source of these values was written.41 This creates the immensely important opportunity for modern interpreters of ancient texts and religions to adapt and change the religion to increase its relevance in a contemporary setting. Jews have been doing this for hundreds of years, with Jewish law being adapted to cover every conceivable situation regardless of the fact that the authors of the Mishnah had no prior knowledge of electricity, cars, and the like. However, because Jewish law has primarily been under the control of the extremely religious, the freethinkers had idea that this sort of “transvaluation” was something that they could do, despite its use by the Tannaim for thousands of years.42 However, it opens up a wide range of possibilities and meaning for various aspects of Jewish life and culture. For example, for thousands of years, Jews have been striving for salvation, for the mashiach to come. The ways in which we are supposed to act in order for that to happen mostly involve living by the mitzvot, the guidelines taken from the Torah which indicate how to live our lives. One modern interpretation of these mitzvot is that they are really guidelines for how to be the best possible people we can be. As such, salvation can be transvalued to mean something that we strive for in this world: whether that is being the best artist one possibly can be, or fighting for equal civil rights. Rather than being limited to the biblical interpretation, this can make the traditions and mitzvot more accessible and relevant for the nonbeliever.43
40 41

Ahad Ha'am, Selected Essays (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1912). 223.

Mordecai M. Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (New York: The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation Inc., 1947). 3.
42 43

Ibid., 4. Matt Young, "How to Find Meaning in Religion Without Believing in God," Free Inquiry 22(Summer


To be able to apply this kind of philosophy to one’s own life, one must first forge a personal identity and be able to identify the values that one wants to live by. According to Charles Taylor, there are three axes around which we build our personal identity: our beliefs about the value of human life, our beliefs about what is the life that is “worth living,” and lastly, what we consider ourselves to be capable of doing and what our role is in society.44 Of course, our choices pertaining to these values are naturally going to be influenced by a multitude of outside sources, some of which may come from religion. If one compares the moral and ethical positions of modern-day Judaism to those of other religions or even societal standards, they are fairly alike. The Jewish atheist should then have no problem assessing the validity of those values despite their connections to theistic language. In addition, when addressing the values that seem so foreign in that they simply are incompatible with the modern way of life, it is precisely within the Jewish tradition to take the essence of those and “transvalue” them so that they retain their relevance.45 In doing this, the atheist maintains their spirituality and connection with all of Jewish history as a whole despite having vastly different beliefs than their ancestors. Aside from values, traditions are the second major thread that runs consistently throughout Jewish history. Unfortunately for the atheist, these traditions have been so intrinsically linked with religion that their cultural value is forgotten. The celebrations of holidays and even prayers can still have significant cultural and historical value regardless of their original intentions.46 Not only that, but they also help to foster a certain
44 45 46

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). 28. Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion: 3. Ibid., 332.


communal discipline and common interest that are integral to the survival of the Jewish community.47 Holidays can carry a lot of meaning relating not just to Jewish history, but also to the ongoing struggles of Jews and humanity in general.48 For example, Passover’s main message is concerning the freeing of Jews from bondage thousands of years ago, however there are many meaningful messages that can be drawn from interpretation pertaining to the modern slave trade and human rights abuses.49 One of the most important steps in recognizing the value that lies in Jewish practice is the recognition of Judaism not just as a religion and a culture, but as a living, breathing, and evolving civilization.50 Just like any other civilization (e.g. Greek, Egyptian, or Japanese), Judaism has a language, a homeland, and a religion. All of these are integral parts of Judaism as a whole and just as one would not be able to appreciate all of Greek civilization without recognizing the importance and relevance of Greek mythology and religion, one must also acknowledge the importance and relevance of the Jewish religion. Jews would not exist as a people without the religion, and thus we must protect it and not abandon it simply because there are slight inconsistencies with our own beliefs. It could be argued that the overcoming of these inconsistencies and recognition of our shared peoplehood is the greatest spiritual act of them all. Unfortunately, the temptation remains that once we have accepted peoplehood, to become satisfied and remain cultural, secular Jews without any further deepening of our relationship to the Jewish people or civilization. 51 There are some groups, such as the Secular Humanists, who assert that since
47 48 49 50 51

Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life: 325. Seid, God-Optional Judaism: 53. Ibid., 109. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life: 178. Ibid., 15.


Judaism is a religion made up of humans, then we should focus on the humanity of Judaism rather than the transcendental or spiritual aspects.52 Unfortunately, this completely disregards the spiritual strengthening that Judaism has undergone for thousands of years and which has driven the religious aspect of Judaism forward. Faith is an important motivator for some, and it disregards their religious activities as somewhat misguided. Though one may not share beliefs with a devout Orthodox Jew, their opinions or spiritual connections are not any less valid. What’s important is that all parties involved feel connected to something greater, and that they constantly strive to foster and strengthen that connection. Unfortunately, by far the fastest growing group of Jews in the world is the secular group. More and more Jews are pushing aside their religion in favor of the cultural aspects with complete disregard for the spiritual value that the religion carries.53 Closely followed by secular Judaism is Reform Judaism that, though admirable for capturing the attention of so many Jews and preventing their complete secularization, has many flaws, as pointed out by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan: A serious attempt to save Judaism by reckoning with the realities— Reformism [is] incapable of holding the Jews or eliciting spiritual creativity—The attempt to reduce Judaism to a religious philosophy [is] a mistake… A handful of ceremonies and moral precepts [are] a poor substitute for Torah.54 Though harsh, this critique addresses the main flaw within Reformism: its almost blatant disregard for Torah, the root of Judaism. Kaplan applies a similar critique to the left-wing Conservatives, though he claims that movement truly consists of two groups. He says that there are the Conservatives who are truly Reformists, yet are more attached to the Torah

52 53 54

Katz and Kogel, Judaism in a Secular Age: An Anthology of Secular Humanistic Jewish Thought, 332. Seid, God-Optional Judaism: 38. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life: 108.


out of sentiment55 and then there are the right-wing conservatives who practice tradition purely out of ceremony and who disregard the “spirit of the age.”56 So then what sort of legitimate spiritual enterprises exist for the atheist who wishes to truly engage in the Jewish religion? There remain two modern options as well as one denomination that has existed for more than half a century. Kabbalah, though it has become somewhat commercialized recently, came into being as a sort of Jewish mysticism in order to seek the greater meaning in life.57 Popularized through Hasidism, Kabbalistic teachings encourage the pursuit of the meaning of life as well as existing Jewish scripture through a never-ending quest and process of learning.58 Though this tradition does encourage a highly spiritual aspect of Judaism, its philosophy is far too rigid to allow for a likely unwelcome intrusion by an atheist. A more modern version of this intensely spiritual iteration of Judaism is the Renewal movement. This denomination seeks to integrate many Buddhist approaches to prayer (e.g. meditation) into their services, as well as eschewing traditional prayer in favor of music. Though this approach is admirable, as it seeks to adapt existing Jewish tradition into a much more spiritually accessible medium, it encounters some of the same problems as reformism in that it does not retain very much of the original form of Judaism which is essential for the survival of the Jewish civilization. Fortunately, there is a denomination that does attempt to balance the traditional and communal aspects of Judaism, along with the spirituality and individualism that can allow for meaningful atheistic practice. Founded by Mordecai Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein
55 56 57 58

Ibid., 126. Ibid., 160. Werblowsky, "The Safed Revival and Its Aftermath," 13. Ibid., 23.


in the 1920’s, the Reconstructionist movement aimed to combat the trend of secularism in America by creating a foundation for the continued spiritual growth and evolution that is important in maintaining the relevance of Judaism while at the same time preserving the roots of Judaism in all manner of traditions and prayers.59 Centered around the belief that Judaism is a civilization that is growing and evolving just like any other, Reconstructionism is more than just a religious ideology; rather it is a way of life that encourages spiritual development through exploration and adaptation. Some Conclusions Throughout history, atheistic views have posed an uncomfortable idea of reality to religious authorities, so much so that until recently, atheists were often ostracized and labeled as heretics;60 this lead to a massive secularization of the Jewish community, beginning in Germany but quickly spreading to America. As this secular mentality spread, so did acceptance of atheists into these communities; however, the atheists who wished to continue in the religious tradition of their ancestors were left to either mask their atheism or find another way to practice individually.61 Interestingly enough, this secularization began just after the birth of Jewish spirituality and Hasidism. Until the early twentieth century, these two streams did not cross, however Zionist philosophers began to enact change in the way that the Jewish world viewed spirituality. Martin Buber, Ahad Ha’am, and A. D. Gordon all viewed Zionism as an inherently spiritual endeavor, yet it was not necessarily a religious one.62,63 This so called “secularization of the spirit” rapidly took hold and paved the way for such influential
59 60 61 62 63

Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life: 196. Herrick, Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists: 16. Smith, Why Atheism?: 200. Gordon, Selected Essays: 112. Ha'am, Selected Essays: 300.


theologians as Mordecai Kaplan to truly explore what certain aspects of Judaism could look like devoid of any traditionally theistic content. One thing that pretty much every Jewish philosopher could agree upon is that Judaism is constantly evolving to reflect its time and place. Though not everyone in Judaism agrees on these shifts, it is undeniable that they happen.64 As such, the conception of God changes, which can be seen throughout history: especially in the case of Maimonides, who created a paradigm shift in the way the God was conceptualized based on the Muslim culture and scientific community that surrounded him.65 This evolution in the way that Jews have thought about God is “incontestable evidence of the dynamic of evolving character of the Jewish religion.”66 As society evolved to focus on empirical evidence, many theologians began to consider God as less of a supernatural deity and began to conceptualize of God in more naturalistic, humanistic, or abstract terms. We have come to the point as a society where this view of God is not so very uncommon, and yet atheists struggle to find acceptance within the religious and spiritual communities.67 This is mostly due to the aversion among atheists to terms such as holiness, spirituality, and “religious” that have traditionally been associated with God. However, as demonstrated in the past 200 years, those associations are no longer necessarily relevant and with the founding of the Reconstructionist movement, these alternative attitudes toward spirituality have encouraged the discovery of more personal

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). 505.
65 66 67

Kaplan, "The Evolution of the Idea of God in Jewish Religion," 336. Ibid., 39.

Rivka Ausubel Danzig, Steven C. Marcus, and Roberta G. Sands, "Spirituality and Religiousness among American Jews," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 18, no. 3 (2008): 241.


values and the “transvaluing” of the traditional aspects of Judaism so that they maintain their relevance in the modern day. All this has led to a point where atheists have an opportunity to fight against the classifications placed on them by other members of the religious community and practice in whatever manner they please. Thanks to countless generations before us, as well as the pioneering work of Mordecai Kaplan, religious no longer has to mean someone Godfearing who practices their faith out of reverence to some higher being, but it can mean anyone who searches for a higher meaning within life.68 Whatever we as humans feel is larger than ourselves, be it our responsibility to preserve our history, our responsibility to the state of Israel, our capacity to do good, or simply to connect to other people, it is the responsibility of the atheist to actively pursue and invest in those things.69 That is how an atheist can find meaning in religion and in turn how religion can be so helpful in ascribing meaning in the life of an atheist. Albert Einstein, the famous physicist and noted atheist considered himself to be deeply religious.70 When confronted with how this was possible, Einstein’s response was that the “orderly harmony of what exists” and the desire to pursue and understand that harmony was what drove him to be religious.71 Now more than ever, it is imperative for the increasing number of Jews who consider themselves atheists to expand out of their comfort zones and create meaning in their own lives. That is the purpose of religion, to create meaning, so why does God need to be a part of the equation?

68 69 70

Steven Carr Reuben, "Exploring Reconstructionism's Mission," RRA Connection October 2011, 5. Seid, God-Optional Judaism: xiii.

John Hedley Brooke, "'If I Were God': Einstein and Religion," Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 41, no. 4 (2006): 947.

Ibid., 950.


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