I have long found it odd that, alone among the world’s religions, Judaism maintains that your identity as a Jew continues even if you reject everything about the religion. David Silverman used to believe that, but in writing his new book he came to the opposite conclusion.
The late Christopher Hitchens once observed that a great number of the most influential atheists throughout history, from Marx to Einstein, were Jews: “I think it’s a Jewish duty, since the curse of monotheism was first inflicted on us by the Jewish people,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg in one of his final interviews. “It’s very good that it should be repudiated by them to a great extent.” Silverman disagrees, but only slightly. “He used the word wrong,” he said. “They are not Jews, they are children of Jews. Just as I am not a Jew, I am a child of Jews.”
This is the conclusion Silverman came to over the past two years while writing his new book, I, Atheist: America’s Loudest Heathen Fires Back. (The book was due to come out in March 2014 from Pitchstone Publishing, but after a dispute over an image of a smiley face labeled “Muhammad of Islam,” the contract was canceled; Silverman is currently looking for a new publisher.) Previously outspoken about the compatibility of cultural Judaism and atheism, Silverman found that, in trying to write his chapter on Jewish atheism, he struggled. “I kept writing and writing and deleting and deleting,” he told me. Silverman ultimately concluded that Judaism is, at its heart, a religion—one that is incompatible with atheism.
He notes that much of what is defined as Jewish culture, such as music or food, is simply Judaism-the-religion “taking credit” for a geographically specific regional culture—Ashkenazic culture primarily being simply Eastern European, for instance. The only thing world Jewry has in common is the Torah, he says, and as a religious doctrine, the Torah cannot be reconciled with atheistic values.“I see Judaism more malevolently than I used to,” he said. “Judaism is no better than any other religion.” And so, the man who was once America’s most prominent Jewish atheist now says he is no longer a Jew.
It has long been the practice that Judaism is both a religion and a…well what, exactly? A race? Surely not. An ethnicity? Since one can be a member of any other ethnicity, convert to Judaism and be considered Jewish, that doesn’t make much sense. Certainly not a nationality. I’ve never been clear at all on what a Jew actually is if it is not someone who believes in the religion of Judaism. And the idea of being a Jewish atheist has never made any more sense to me than the idea of being a Jewish Christian.
I have very little knowledge of the history of this idea, so I may be entirely wrong, but I suspect that this idea of being perpetually Jewish no matter what you believe may be a function of historical coincidence. Could it have developed because Jews were nearly always a tiny minority in whatever country they were found in and thus defined as many as they could as being Jewish in an attempt to create a “strength in numbers” situation? Or conversely, could it be that this idea was imposed on them by those who declared pogroms out of bigotry, not wanting to let someone who is Jewish “get away” from their desire to wipe them out? I don’t know the answers to those questions and I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about it.