Can One Be a Jewish Atheist?

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.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    well what, exactly?

    A culture.

  • Modusoperandi

    Reginald Selkirk, like yogurt?

  • Pen

    My husband and most of his family would identify as Jewish atheists because they regard Judaism as an ethnicity. It’s certainly true that the ethnic boundary isn’t absolute, but everything about their known genealogy, culture and history in the US is Jewish. There’s a lot of culture and values that aren’t specifically religious but still typically Jewish, and some that are of religious origin, like passed down recipes that just happen to be kosher. Genetic testing both in my family’s case and on Jews in general suggests a relatively high level of Jewish ancestry. There’s also some minor and not so minor medical stuff that becomes relevant when you’re Ashkenazi Jewish. Then there’s that little detail that a small subset of people, on discovering that half someone’s ancestors arrived in the US as refugees from Russian pogroms, react unpleasantly, or of course with interest. I think the religious and political consequences of being Jewish still feel close enough to this family that even as atheists, Judaism still means something to them.

  • maudell

    It is an ethnicity as well as a religion. However, ethnicity is not a discrete category. Because it is a social construct, there isn’t any contradiction here. In other words, because people view it as an ethnicity, it is an ethnicity.

    Often, ethnicity is conflated with race (as in physical attributes) or language. But many ethnic conflicts are missing some of these attributes. Serbs/Croats/Bosniac or Hutus/Tutsis to name a few. I looked into datasets used in political science or economics papers, and you can see how there are no systematic definition of ethnicity. Today, there are tricks to try to combine an objective, or collective, vision of ethnicity with a subjective, or relative, one. I was looking into this dataset that was used by academics until about 10 years ago. First, it was compiled by the Soviets in the year 1960. Yes, papers published in the early 2000s were still using 1960 data. It was a very extensive survey. Their only criteria was language. In other words, they checked for different languages/dialects and categorized ethnicity in that way. Then, researchers would glance over and correct for the inaccurate ones. A good exemple is that English Canadians and English Americans had been separated into two ethnic categories. Hutus and Tutsis were one group. You may argue that both cases are in fact one ethnic group (the former is, IMO), but the genocide in Rwanda is widely viewed as an ethnic cleansing.

    The essentialist view of ethnicity has pretty much been discarded by scientists, for the simple reason that it always means different things at different places. It is a completely fluid concept.

  • Pen

    As an extra, in response to your last paragraph about the definition of Jewish identity by Jews versus non-Jews, it’s worth noting historical cases of conflict here. My daughter, having a non-Jewish mother, would not generally be considered Jewish by Jews. However, she would have been quite Jewish enough for the nazis and is probably Jewish enough for some white supremacists today. Both sides at various times seem to have been seeking a notion of purity, and a maintenance of boundaries, with an explicit desire to limit and exclude border cases.

  • SC (Salty Current), OM

    “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.

    Hitchens really was a scumbag.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    For the record, I like yogurt.

  • Marcus Ranum

    Am I chinese, if I eat dim sum?

    Am I british if I drink earl grey and have squeaky brakes?

    Am I french if I have climbed the eiffel tower?

    What is “ethnicity” anyway?

    My opinion is that the whole idea is a cheap plug-in for racism and tribalism, but “good” – i.e. It’s bullshit.

  • jeffwoodhead

    Elie Wiesel tends to agree with you and Mr. Silverman; he once said that “a Jew can be Jewish with God, against God, but not without God.” Then again, the rabbi that converted my father had no such qualms – when Dad told him he didn’t believe in God, the rabbi said that was okay as long as he didn’t believe in Jesus.

    Like everything else: two Jews, three opinions.

    Ask an Orthodox Jew, and you’ll get a response similar to yours and Mr. Silverman’s. But don’t tell that to a Humanistic Jew. The Humanistic movement, incidentally, relies heavily on the concept of “peoplehood” that is, as you show earlier, a difficult concept to wrap your head around. Mine too, and I’m speaking as an agnostic Jew (I prefer “apathetic”, since I really don’t care whether there’s a god or not).

    There’s an excellent Tablet article written by an atheist Jew who struggles with religious observance. His money quote at the end, if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing:

    There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.

    Although I am still unsure how, I know at least that I will continue to act out this fiction. And if that associates me with a God and superstitions I do not believe in, I accept that, because I know that within the fiction of Judaism lie more profound truths than could ever be attained outside of it.

    I like this because it relies less on the “people” fiction and more on the intellectual and moral tradition of Judaism; that there’s value in wrestling with the Torah and the Talmud and using them to help guide your life; one can call out the Torah as being made up by some homophobic misogynists 3000 years ago and still find plenty of value in there, and in the ideas of the rabbis and philosophers who have been analyzing it for the past few millenia. You don’t have to be a theist to believe that “Justice, justice shall you pursue” is a good idea.

    Of course, one doesn’t need Jewish traditions, religious observances, etc. to believe that justice is good and injustice is bad, or to read Maimonides or Spinoza or appreciate Salanter or… well, you get the idea here. We all find meaning in weird places. I grew up with the traditions, and when I celebrate Jewish observances I’m reminding myself of the intellectual tradition, the endless arguments, the drive for justice that characterize Judaism over the years. YMMV, of course. It ain’t for everyone, and if it doesn’t have meaning for you, don’t do it.

    While the idea of atheist Judaism is difficult to figure intellectually, it’s exceedingly easy to figure out why it’s so popular nowadays. We Jews have it drilled into our heads from a very early age that if we stop being Jewish, we are granting Hitler a posthumous victory (google “the 614th Commandment” if you want proof of this). Combine that with the growing emphasis on the Jewish tradition of questioning and wrestling with your faith and your tradition, and you get a whole lot of people who come out of that questioning with an atheist outlook but who are unwilling to give up their Judaism because Hitler. Silly? Yeah, probably. But really powerful.

    Finally – I wonder how many of us stick around because our holidays are awesome. Seriously. Hanukkah is an eight-day long excuse to deep-fry things. On Purim we are commanded (yes, it’s a rabbinic law) to get incoherently drunk. Sukkot is basically camping. There’s a Shavuot observance that involves throwing things off the roof of a synagogue (sadly out of practice nowadays… I need to bring this back).

  • Gregory in Seattle

    “Jewish” is a homonym with several distinct meanings: it can be a religion (Judaism), an ethnicity (descent from the Judean diaspora) and a culture (Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Samaritan for example, but there are many others.)

    One can be an ethnic or cultural Jew without being a religious one, in the same way that I am an atheist (religion) German (ethnicity) American (culture).

  • Thumper: Token Breeder

    @SC #6

    How anyone can buy into that whole sins of the father shit and still claim to be an Atheist is beyond me. “Judaism was the first monotheistic religion, therefore modern Jews’ anscestors invented it, therefore all modern Jews are responsible for it”. It’s an utterly moronic way of looking at things.

  • zoboz

    The way I describe it is to explain that I consider myself a member of the tribe, even if I don’t believe its mythology.

  • montanto

    A very good friend of mine, a Jew and an Atheist, will go on in great detail that it’s all about following the laws of the Torah and belief is not necessary.

  • markmckee

    When I read about Silverman’s contention on this my first thought was how many books will he sell. Call me a cynic but if Silverman had kept the age old contention of Jewishness as an ethnicity versus as a religion he would not sell as many books as he is apt to sell with this new contention that you cannot be an atheist and also a Jew.

  • Modusoperandi

    Reginald Selkirk “For the record, I like yogurt.”

    Lies! Nobody likes yogurt. They like the things in yogurt. Blueberry yogurt, for example, is delicious blueberries separated by evil.

  • justawriter

    I think there are many ways to break down the question: religious, legal, cultural, tribal, nationality, and so on. I think the interesting definition is a Jew is anyone hated by anti-semites. That seems to be the broadest category of all, as it often includes people who have no other connection with the Jewish faith.

    It reminds of an Einstein quote, (I am unsure of its legitmancy) “If my theories are proved correct, the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss will call me a Swiss and the French will call me a great man. If they are proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German and the Germans will call me a Jew.”

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Why do I identify as Jewish despite having come to a firmly atheist understanding of myself?

    It’s simple: you fuckers murder us.

    No one in my family was murdered (or a murderer) in the holocaust, but as someone who didn’t grow up Jewish and found it in fits and starts, alternating with my questioning the whole religious enterprise, or just apathetically ignoring both atheism and Judaism, I could easily have chosen to say that there was nothing significant enough about Judaism to continue to identify me after I completed my evaluations of the evidence for god.

    But when I was first considering that maybe it was important for me to say that I was Jewish – not every time I’m introduced, but when such things come up making it clear that Jewish applies to me – my lack of firm belief in God held me back. And yet, it was clear that I participated in a shul where the ritual was comfortable and familiar, the congregation my friends, and the community very homely: I gave money, I sat on a committee or two, I went to visit the sick and the bereaved. Then I went to a conference and found that I was really going to miss having Shabbat with my honey. So there I was, pretty far along a path of evaluating the evidence for god and coming up empty, contacting other Jews and asking them if they wanted to daven some on shabbat.

    I realized how much I was getting out of the community, and enjoyed getting that much out of the community. And it’s not like I wasn’t giving back, it’s not like I was a moocher, but why would I just tell people, “I’m a jew”? There were plenty of reasons, and many of them good ones.

    But then a problem that had long been lurking in my experience bit me again: anti-semitism. The west coast of the US doesn’t see a lot of organized anti-semitism, but that’s in part because Jews aren’t as visible. It was clear that anti-semites were, in some sense, attacking me. But were they attacking me as a Jew? What would it mean if they were?

    Finally I concluded that I may or may not be a real Jew by any number of definitions, but in a world where my Judaism is arguable, where it might-or-might-not be, I have choices. If people are going to choose to engage in anti-semitism, with the history of Partner’s family (though I didn’t know her then), with a world history of ghettos and murders, of blood libels and immigration restrictions, of child abductions and pogroms, I realized that my complicated, nuanced thoughts about atheism, agnosticism, community, identity, religion, and, finally, Judaism all got in the way of just this statement:

    I stand with those who have been loving to me against those who spread hatred of them, fear of them, violence toward them.

    It comes with other moral implications, of course, and I must wrestle with those. As long as Israel is a Jewish state, i must pay particular attention to its acts regardless of whether or not I have visited, or have lived within, or have become a citizen of Israel.

    But in a world where my status as a Jew is arguable and confusing, I remember that the German government from 33-41 would not have been likely to be forgiving, I remember that people I love have lost people that they loved, and most of all, I remember that the destruction of an entire people starts with making people question whether or not they want to be associated with them.

    I stand for moral courage. I stand between danger and those less prepared than I to face it. I stand without a god to save me while I do.

    And yet I stand a Jew.

  • Ellie

    I have two friends who self-identify as Jewish Atheists. What should I say to them? “No you aren’t. Silverman said so. So there. Phht?” There are a lot of people who appear to believe their given goal in life is to tell others what they can or cannot claim to be.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    More discussion below. These are thoughts on culture and philosophy that I cribbed for myself while I was noodling about what became the above, but they weren’t central to my point, above. I include them here because others are discussing the nature of Jewishness.


    While there is quite a lot of philosophy in judaism that I found beautiful that is not specifically about god – indeed, the talmud is in its entirety a work of philosophy, and not even half of it is philosophy about god, even if it is philosophy obsessed with Torah – and I can surely say that I see the world in Jewish ways (there are many, and obviously I don’t share them all, but I share quite a number).

    For instance, the point of Genesis’ creation accounts, from the Jewish perspective, is that human beings broke the world, and it’s therefore up to us to fix it. Great. I can get behind that.

    And there are many more such things. You wish the world to be saved by a messiah? Fine. Treat every person you meet as if they are the messiah yet unrevealed to you. There are many stories of angels or prophets that are given a bad reception before they are known to represent god. While there are certainly Jews (and many!) that draw a queers-are-icky message from the story of Lot’s guests, in Talmud it’s primarily about a responsibility to guests and strangers, with a large side-helping about not recognizing good folk when they are right there in front of you (because they are different/strange/foreign).

    The very fact of a Talmud, an extended question-and-answer itself provide a context in which questioning Torah, Torah!, has the chance to be normalized. Obviously, from a religious point of view there are limits to this, but philosophically and culturally it sets a tone. Making the talmud “official” ossifies it in some ways, but can you imagine a book of questions directed to the gospels, with answers suggested by multiple different people, all contained in one book with the text of the gospels that is then made official, mandatory reading for anyone who wants to seriously engage in an attempt to understand the gospels?

    Let me remind you again: the answers, from different people, rendered on one page of text surrounding the Torah-portion it questions, are different

    Christianity doesn’t have the moral courage to take one book of conflicting answers that highlights for readers at least some of the contradictions in the gospels and then put that book at the center of its worldwide, multi-denominational investigation of those gospels in a way that assumes that they are confusing, unclear, and amenable to multiple valid answers.

    You’ll get exegesis, true, but you won’t get people publishing someone else’s exegesis next to their own, and saying you haven’t read the gospel to you’ve read this thing over here with which I completely disagree.

    It’s a thing. It’s hard even to understand how it’s both ossified and radical at the same time, but it is. I choose to embrace the questioning tradition, like many Jews and former Jews have. And it is just this tradition that I believe has led to our disproportionate representation among Atheists.


    As a bit more focused on Christianity:

    I’ve been to Christian churches without feeling like they’ve got the right approach. Even the “turn the other cheek” and “render unto Caesar” stuff that is so widely complimented? No. If the government is doing something horrible, you stand up, Gandhi-style, Mandela style, and articulate that the government is wrong, why it wrong, and why there’s a moral duty not to participate in that wrong.

    Sure, MLK did the same thing, and he’s Christian. But he wasn’t turning the other cheek. He didn’t submit to his master.

    I think individual Christians come to awesomely moral understandings of themselves and their place in it. But those understandings, however much created while participating in a Christian culture, aren’t “Christian” in a way that I can see.

    There may be a deeply moral tradition that derives from a single, coherent understanding of the teachings of Jesus, but I don’t know it.

    I’m not saying that jews aren’t cafeteria jews. I’m saying that the process is above board, that the process is openly made a part of the investigation. This is different than in Christianity where every sect has its own interpretation, but they are just “right” and other Christians just “wrong”. A big book with 6 answers per page where you come up with your style of Christianity by being encouraged to think about the 6 different answers and select those you think are best individually and together would completely undermine the “god’s perfect word” bit that elides “human’s imperfect understanding”. Judaism appears better, to me, at acknowledging that however perfect one may see the Torah, interpretation of the Torah is still a human endeavor, subject to human failings.

    Ugh. I got to go, and this part is incomplete, but there you are.


  • hunter

    Joseph W. Campbell called Judaism and Hinduism “ethnic religions” — that is, their adherents are born into them. That implies a certain cultural identity, unlike Christianity or Buddhism, which are multi-cultural. It’s simply a matter of a discrete group’s worship of a distinct tribal god (or gods, in the case of Hindus) that is part of what differentiated them from the neighbors and was a large element in their sense of identification as a distinct people.

    I suspect that’s where a large part of the confusion arises.

  • Michael Heath

    Blog post title:

    Can One be a Jewish Atheist?

    Yes, and there are many, particularly here in the U.S. Phil Zuckerman reports here on U.S. Jewish Atheists: Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. Amazon link:

    I really enjoyed this book. Perhaps the most provocative conclusion I garnered from it was a conclusion that Mr. Zuckerman didn’t make. However I found it self-evident given his research findings studying the Danes, Swedes, and U.S. Jewish atheists. That was that all three populations still consciously rely and overtly point to the moral framework coming from their respective religious dogmas.

    While we certainly know atheists who can make the case, “we can and are good without God”; there is no popular referential framework for people to point towards to determine morality – except for religious dogma. This was why I so thoroughly enjoyed Sam Harris’ book on morality. It provided such framing, was objective, was self-correcting, and had an easy memorable standard, though I’d tweak it to broaden it.

    Harris advocated for optimizing human well-being. IIRC he also added animal well-being in there as well. My tweak would be to optimize human well-being and life on the planet that was considerate of future generations.

  • nrdo

    Although it’s absurd to assume any responsibility for ideas like monotheism per Hitchens (I think he really went off the rails there), it’s not absurd for Jews to assume responsibility for the direction of their ethnic community in the present. World Jewry has no central governing body, but it does have a general direction defined by a variety of secular and religious organizations and humanist Jews, ideally, should fight to make sure that the overall impact of Judaism on the world is positive. That fight is easier to if you keep the membership card, so to speak.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Trying to apply a 20th century taxonomy to something from more than 2000 years ago (probably around 3000, plus or minus) is going to be a bad fit regardless.

    Most of my sources go for the category “nation” in the sense it held back then: a group you’re born into (much as with Romans, for instance.) See also, “tribe.” The group has a national (or tribal) religion, which was pretty common at the time and for a long while afterwards.

    Since today tribal (or “national”) groups aren’t big players, and “national religions” or “tribal religions” likewise, it’s not all that surprising that we’re having a hard time. A bit easier for me since I spent a fair while studying Judaism and to this day spend quite a bit of time around Apaches, Hopi, and Navajo — who have a lot in common: there’s a tribal religion, although Members of the Tribe are still members if they don’t adhere to it.

  • abb3w

    I’ll also note, I’ve been told that one of the peculiarities of the Jewish religion is that its precepts do not actually specifically mandate belief in God; just following the rules allegedly passed down from God. It is thus technically possible to be a perfectly observant Jew while still being atheist.

    I admit, this does not make the question of the nature of “jewishness” any simpler.

  • Ed Brayton

    Thank you everyone for your comments. Please note that I did not actually take a position on this, I said that it’s never made much sense to me and I asked for people to explain why they might consider themselves both Jewish and atheist. What Crip Dyke wrote does make sense to me, that the cultural or ethnic identity is largely tied up with the fact that Jews have been persecuted for centuries regardless of what any individual among them actually believed. That part I get completely. I’ve also been having an interesting discussion on Facebook about this with friends who consider themselves both.

    Not for a moment would I presume to tell people what label they have to wear or not wear. Some people will consider themselves both and some will not and it’s really not my concern either way. I just find the different views interesting and I think I understand the position contrary to Dave’s better now than I did this morning.

  • amyjane

    I’ve known several people I’d considered Jewish Atheists. I’d say it’s cultural. Even the woman I met when we were in Unitarian Sunday school. as kids. It’s the ethical and intellectual way they look at things.

  • Donnie

    @20 Hunter

    Joseph W. Campbell called Judaism and Hinduism “ethnic religions” — that is, their adherents are born into them. That implies a certain cultural identity, unlike Christianity or Buddhism, which are multi-cultural.

    I disagree. Muslims (i.e., an active participant of the religion of Islam) are born into their mulsim-ness. Christians are born into their christian-ness. There are Muslim Kids, Jewish Kids, Christian Kids, and Atheist Kids. Why not Kids? Why not just “people”?

    My thoughts are jumping around because I am understanding your viewpoint as I write, but to tie my point back to David Silverman’s

    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.

    The culture was already there, but the religion grew up around the culture (the food, the music, the poetry) and the religion assimilated the culture. In American, we are such as multi-cultural country that Christianity, despite its massive attempts to assimilate american culture (Keep CHRIST in CHRISTmas). In Israel, in the MiddleEast, the dominate religion is that religion so it has assimilated the surrounding culture into its practices.

    I do not know, I keep flipping back 50-50% seeing the different sides of the issues.

  • nrdo


    I don’t think you can directly assume that the Jewish religion assimilated culture or vice-versa. It goes in both directions. Religions assimilate cultural elements, but the isolation and/or funding of culture that religion provides leads to cultural ideas going in new directions. The classic example in Judaism is the how the tradition of complex sacrificial rituals (probably “stolen” from the Canaanites) led Jews, millennia later, to develop a tradition of legal scholarship that had nothing to do with the original intent. Another example is the Catholic Church’s early contribution to the development of Classical Music which evolved into styles that the originators couldn’t have predicted (and probably wouldn’t have liked).

  • D. C. Sessions

    Muslims (i.e., an active participant of the religion of Islam) are born into their mulsim-ness. Christians are born into their christian-ness. There are Muslim Kids, Jewish Kids, Christian Kids, and Atheist Kids.

    Also “American Kids.” You know, the ones who can become President when they turn 35.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    I was all set to write a whole about how I’ve been been Jewish and an atheist my entire life and never felt I was doing either of them wrong, but #9 Jeff Woodhead and Crip Dyke said everything I was thinking.

    The only thing I have to add is that there’s a component of action in a Jewish identity. A little bit of ethics, a drive for knowledge, a passion for disagreement, and a desire to actively engage in the idea of “being Jewish”. It sounds like Silverman has decided that engaging with his Jewish past has become too much of a nuisance (or no longer makes any sense), and decided to drop the whole thing.

    Which is fine! A persons identity is there own business. If it makes sense to Silverman to not think of himself as a Jew, then that’s what he should do. Ethnicity, as several people noted above, is kind of a bullshit concept, except for the fact that because it matters to so many people it still matters. But being from a particular family and/or being raised a particular way doesn’t oblige a person to continue to identify with that.

    However, as Crip Dyke noted, there are people who are always going to see Silverman as Jewish and that will affect how they treat him. Even if he no longer puts himself in that category, others will try to force that identity on him. And that’s the same BS as a trans man still being treated as a woman or a person with brown skin being treated like an illegal immigrant.

  • laurentweppe

    I think that the “Jewish atheist” shtick came from the fact that one needs only one jewish ancestor to become the target of antisemites’ bloodlust regardless of one’s personal belief.

  • cptdoom

    I would go with the notion of “nation” rather than “ethnicity,” because ethnicity implies, to me, more genetic difference between the group in question and “others.” Certainly many Jews are genetically linked, as a result of their social isolation within larger groupings, but you don’t have to be genetically linked to be Jewish, and the overall nation of Judaism comprises many such sub-groupings. However, unlike Scientology, which is a pure religion, you can’t simply, depending on the rules you use, adopt Judaism as your religion. If you are ethnically linked through your maternal line, you get to pick it up or drop it as many times as you want and you’ll still be part of the group (see Dylan, Bob). If you want to convert, though, it takes a bit more than any other religion.

    Compare that to another “nation,” that of Ireland or the Irish. I may be genetically Irish (I can trace half my ancestors to Ireland, the other half to Britain), but I also have to embrace the cultural attributes – food, music, religion – to be considered fully Irish. The Irish are genetically distinct in many ways from their neighbors (no one discusses “black Scots,” for example), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a set of genetic markers or physical characteristics that clearly differentiate them from the English, Welsh or Scots. I can certainly be an Atheist Irishman, but I can’t be an Atheist Catholic.

  • Sastra

    Dave Silverman is not the first atheist named ‘Silverman’ I usually think of. Don’t forget the very articulate, very funny “Jewish atheist in the Bible belt” — Herb Silverman.

    In fact, I’d love to watch a Silverman vs. Silverman debate on this topic. (Sarah Silverman can moderate…)

  • hunter

    Donnie @27:

    Yes, but Islam and Christianity don’t carry the same sense of tribal/cultural/historical identity that Judaism does. Both welcome converts, and actively seek them — both are proselytizing religions — while Judaism does not proselytize and, while open to converts, there’s a much stronger sense that converts are not “really” Jewish. To say “I’m Christian” does not carry with it the same sense of cultural identity that saying “I’m Jewish” does, simply because Christians and Muslims come from a number of different cultures and always have.

  • Kimpatsu

    Since one can be a member of any other ethnicity, convert to Judaism and be considered Jewish, that doesn’t make much sense.

    This is amphiboly, Ed. Translate your sentence into Japanese and the problem becomes apparent, because Japanese uses two different words for a person of Jewish ethnicity (ユーダイヤ人) and the religion of Judaism (ユーダイヤ教). One can be of any ethnicity one likes and convert to ユーダイヤ教, but one can never become a ユーダイヤ人, any more than I can become a Martian. See the difference?

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @Ed, #25

    I certainly noted that you didn’t take a position. If my conclusion was seen as “strident” (I prefer “uppity” myself) it’s because it took something powerful to make me embrace both labels, and so I feel powerfully about it. The question itself isn’t offensive in anyway…or, well, the question as you phrased it isn’t offensive, how about that?

    If I had felt the question was confrontational or was telling me how to identify, I would have been even more uppity – though I admit it can be hard for some to tell the difference. I think in this case, I would have been clear about the target – and painted it on you.

    But I didn’t. Because you didn’t. Everything is cool here. (A fact which I am sure caused you loss of sleep because of the desperate implications for your future!*)

    *This is supposed to be self-deprecating snark at presuming you needed/wanted reassurance from me, not aimed at you at all, Ed.

  • jakc

    A worthwhile point might be to look at distinctions between tribes and nations

    Both are polities, but “tribe” tends to be an older form where the rule of law is dictated by family relationships, as well, to some extent, by age and gender. Tribes tend to be loose associations of people, who generally share a language and some family relationship; when a tribe gets to be too large (say 3-4,000 people) you start to see multiple bands as the large group breaks up (12 tribes of Israel and so forth). When tribes are small, it’s easier for the tribe to be governed by kinship obligations. Adoption or conversion serves the same purpose as naturalization – it makes you a member of the polity, with rights and obligations.

    Nations are much bigger and control comes through hierarchical structures and laws, which start to replace kinship obligations. Groups that still recognize their tribal origins, be it Indian tribes or Jews, still have to deal with the modern world dominated by nations – for example, Israel is clearly a nation. In the modern world, identifying as a member of a tribe can be a choice rather than necessity as we are generally understood to be citizens of a nation, which can sometimes lead to confusion about tribal practices. In the US, the federal government unilaterally declared Indians citizens and no longer makes treaties with tribes, and more importantly, doesn’t allow adoption generally as a way to increase tribal membership. 150 years ago, tribes viewed adoption as a perfectly legitimate way to add members; there was no ethnicity requirement. Tribes were in general closely related but it was the kinship relationship, whether genetic or adopted, that mattered.

    I haven’t talked about the Holocaust or other persecutions where a nation insists on your tribal membership regardless of your opinion about. I think other commenters have covered it

  • Nick Gotts

    no one discusses “black Scots,” for example – cptdoom@32

    Really? Try googling “black Scots”. Both the Scottish National Party and the broader “Yes” campaign for independence are insistent that all those ordinarily resident in Scotland (as well as many outwith its borders) are entitled to regard themselves as Scots. I’m an English Scot!

    On the broader point, it’s been noted that “ethnicity” doesn’t have a definition. In that, of course, it’s like most natural language terms. “Jewish” is certainly an ethnicity, containing and overlapping with many other ethnicities. I think it would be useful to distinguish ethnic “Jews” from religious “Judaists” – followers of Judaism – but of course that’s up to Jews themselves to decide, and I’m sure many would object.

  • jamesredekop

    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.

    Not alone — I have many Mennonite relatives who no longer follow the Mennonite church or practices, but still consider themselves Mennonite because of the strong cultural component.