Should Secular Jews Drop the ‘Jew’ Label?

Rachel Silberstein at Tablet wrote a really fantastic profile of American Atheists’ Dave Silverman in which the question is raised of whether you can really be both atheist and Jewish at the same time.

On the surface, the answer is a clear “Yes.”

The Pew Research Center released a report in October showing that 22% of Jewish adults weren’t actually religious, a number that jumped to 32% when just looking at Millennial Jews, born after 1980:

6% of Jews, overall, described themselves as atheists.

So there’s a lot of history behind the idea of secular Judaism. Silverman, too, called himself a “Secular Jew” at one point, but he no longer feels that way:

Previously outspoken about the compatibility of cultural Judaism and atheism, Silverman found that, in trying to write his [book’s] 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.

That idea hasn’t quite caught on. In fact, it goes right up against what groups like the Society for Humanistic Judaism (which, along with American Atheists, is part of the Secular Coalition for America) stand for:

Bonnie Cousins, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism… disagrees [with Silverman]. “We find value in Jewish culture and Jewish identity. It supports our humanism. It is not at odds with our humanism,” said Cousins. “He’s made a decision about how he wants to live his life, and it doesn’t include Jewish identity, but many, many Jews have made that same decision about evolution and the origin of the universe, but would feel bereft if they gave up their Jewish identity.

Since a lot of readers here are non-religious Jews, let’s ask them some questions:

Why do you hang on to the “Jewish” label if you’re not religious?

Does Silverman have a point about the culture being more about geography, anyway?

Is shedding the Jewish label something that’s even possible in your life?

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  • YaronD

    Actually, I could go up to my rabbi tonight and tell him that I think that the Gnostic concept of God is correct and Jewish theology is wrong. Or that I don’t believe in a personal God, but a Deist/Pantheist God. Or what have you.

    None of these are concrete gods. They’re nebolous ideas.
    There are plenty of concrete named gods in the world. Can you go to your Rabbi, tell him you started worshipping one/some of these, and have him tell you that you’re still a Jew?

    I’ll repeat myself, the problem isn’t with not accepting a Jewish god, the problem is with accepting *any* *other* god.

    Different entities will have different internal rules, views, definitions, and so on. No?

    Yes, of course. But they’re still related to the type of the entity.

    If a nation/state entity has a way to get it, it’s by showing loyality to the geopolitical entity which is the nation/state, generally involving investment of time or money on the location and demonstrating knowelege and acceptance of the political system. Similarly if it has a way to get kicked out, it’s by showing disloyalty to the geopolitical entity which is the nation/state. There will be variations, but they’ll be bound by what a nation/state is.

    Or to give you another example, the Native American tribes ‘excommunicated/disowned/exiled’ any of their tribal members who converted to Christianity. Were, then, those tribes “religion based”? If a member of the tribe declared that he didn’t believe in the Great Spirit, do you think his tribemates would’ve cast him out alone into the wilderness?

    This was not a global and generic reaction. A few of the tribes did do that, but as direct response to people trying to force-convert them to Christianity, while at the same time trying to forcibly change their entire way of life.
    So it wasn’t a “believe in something like a Christian god and you’re our enemy”, it was a “believe in what our enemies are trying to force us to believe and you’re our enemy”.

    If at one of those tribes that did kick out people converting (I assume you know what you’re saying when you claim there were any that did that instead of just killing them as traitors) someone would have wanted to convert to Islam, or to start worshipping Mithras, or Zeus, or whatever, they wouldn’t have kicked them out. Heck, many of these tribes were fine with people holding different beliefs, there wasn’t a single great faith.

    And even then it’s not cut and dried. Look at the reaction, including from quite a few secular Jews, to Jews For Jesus.

    As far as I can tell the overall reaction is that “Jews For Jesus” are not Jews. Which falls directly in line with them not being considered Jews, despite them claiming to be Jeus, simply for believing in another god.

    Again, it’s tribal. The tribe has been persecuted, for hundreds of years, by Christians and Muslims. So the policy is: don’t join those groups if you want to be part of the tribe. It is very much a situation of “If you side with those folks who’ve been kicking our heads in, you’re outa our club, buddy.”

    Like your example of Native-American tribes with Christianity? It’s a direct response to prosecution, not a direct response to believing in other gods?

    So then what you’re saying is that if instead of converting to Christianity or Islam I’d just start worshipping Hindu gods, or Navajo gods, or Aztecs or Mexica gods, or gods of any religion whose believers did not prodecutre Jews for hunderds of years then Jews would still accept me as a Jew? Really?

    If I thought for a moment the answer to that is yes then I’d agree with you it’s a tribal/historical thing and not a religious thing. But it’s not true. I’m even sure you’ll agree it’s not true. There isn’t a single specific named god, outside of the Jewish variations, that a Jew could believe in and worship religiously and still be considered a Jew by other Jews.

    So, how is it a response to prosecution if you’re kicked out for beleiving a god that never prosecuted the tribe?

    Just like Native American tribes did with converts to Christianity.

    Which was a direct response to prosecution. Unlike the Jewish response to someone who will decide to worship Tlaloc.

    Yes, most people who will leave Judaism for another religion will probably do so to the most common and popular religions these days, which include Christianity and Islam. But Jews will say you’re no longer a Jew if you’ll switch to any religion with specific different god/s, not just to those with long history of prosecution.

    So again, religious, not tribal. You accept any other god (another god, not another fuzzy idea of a god), among the many many many other gods the world has to offer, including ones that never had bad interactions with Jews, and you’re out. So it’s just the god being betrayed by you leaving, not the tribe.

    Point is, the past two millennia or so have seen a pretty much continuous story of Christians and Muslims persecuting Jews. The concept “don’t go over to that side, because they’re the ones oppressing us” is pretty much the exact same
    concept as helping an enemy nation.

    Again, yes. If only those were considered reasons to not consider you a Jew, you’d be right. But it’s not just those, so this is an excuse and not the reason. You don’t treat people helping a friendly nation like you treat people helping an enemy nation. By the excuse you present many other gods wouldn’t be “enemy nations” and yet they are. So what makes something an “enemy nation” is not a history of prosecuting Jews, but merely having a different god. Taking this out of tribal reasons, out of historical reasons, and into pure religious reasons.

    Look at the last, oh, 1500 years or so of Jewish history. In most cases, Jews were living in ghettos surrounded by one fairly homogenous social group which was most often mildly to aggressively hostile. In such cases, the Christian/Muslim out-group was a de facto tribe.

    And yet people who worked with the outsiders and helped the outsiders without converting were still considered Jews.
    This while jews who turned antisemitic, and who worked against the Jewish community, causing no less damage than quiet converts, were and are still considered Jews.

    Again, those Native-American tribes that you say kicked out anyone converting to Christianity, would they have kept in people who simply worked for the Christians and forcibly promoted the same cultural changes while not converting themselves? Probably not, right? But the Jews do that.
    So again, yes, of course each group is allowed to make its own selection on who to keep in and who to keep out. But for Judaism whenever there are the border cases where it’s not both a change of god and attack on the “tribe”, but either just a change of god or just an attack on the “tribe”, what gets you out is a change of god and not an attack on the tribe. Which should be very indicative on which of those factors is the one determining Judaism (hint, not the tribal/historical association, yes the god)

    And the god/religion is, again, very consistent. Gods and religions are allowed their own rules too, no? This one, for now, considers it an excommunication crime only if you believe in another god, and less concerned on your professed belief of “your” god. The rule is still “any other god – you’re out”, which cares only for gods, not people or tribes or history.

  • Evan

    I shed the “Jewish” label very easily, it’s some Jews and Secular Jews around me that have a hard time with it. They will insist that I am Jewish and there is nothing I can do about this. This of course makes me wan’t to disassociate from Jews even more.

  • Harry Underwood

    “There is a strong sense that even though you may call yourself an atheist, and even though you may reject the religion, other people will still label you as a Jew.”

    Earnest question: does “other people” specifically refer to those inculcated in Abrahamic religious values, i.e., Christians and Muslims?

    Because I don’t think there would be a rational basis for someone like Silverman to be considered a Jew by others if he, for example, was native to India among a Hindu majority, or in China among a generally East Asian religious/state-atheist population.

    I just think that this racialization of religion – the same that led to Bosniaks to be called “ethnic Muslims” in the 20th century – is specific to Abrahamic religions.

  • Harry Underwood

    “whether or not I choose to self-identify as Jewish, others can and will identify me as such on their own. Ha’Shoah demonstrated that with quite a bit of clarity.”

    Those others being Christians, Muslims and others inculcated in Abrahamic religious doctrine. That happened to be in most places where Christianity or Islam is/was the state-favored religion, places where most Jewish people lived in a minority status.

    Even the historic Soviet Union and its constituent states, ruled by state-atheist dictatorships, exercised the same rank bigotry against their Jewish citizens/comrades as their preceding states had done for hundreds of years when Christianity was the state religion. All for the same idiotic and genocidal reasons as their Christian forebears.

    My question: Why did religious identity become racialized by Abrahamic rulers and colonizers?