Jews without God

atheist Reporter Manya A. Brachear of The Chicago Tribune had a fascinating story on her hands: a young Jewish movement that does not worship God. Brachear’s story began this way:

When Rabbi Adam Chalom stands before the Sabbath flames and sings the Hebrew blessing to welcome Shabbat, there is no mention of God.

Chalom believes there are no prophets. He preaches that only hard work yields miracles. And until science unlocks life’s mysteries, his most honest answer to why people are here and where they go when they die is, “I don’t know.”

God has nothing to do with it.

Interesting, huh? Brachear notes that the movement, Humanistic Judaism, reveres culture and ethics rather than God. It sounds like more than a few Christian congregations I know of.

To put the movement in context, Brachear gave readers this helpful statistic:

Chalom contends that the integrity and emotional resonance of Jewish traditions are what appeal most to American Jews. According to the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001 by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about half of the 5.3 million Jews in the United States identify themselves as “secular” or “somewhat secular.”

Alas, an interesting story line and a helpful use of statistics were its only valuable traits. Otherwise, the story was rather shallow and uncritical.

For one thing, Brachear’s story had an obvious Biblical analogy: the story of the molten or golden calf. I think she should have asked Rabbi Chalom whether he saw any parallels between his movement and that of the Jewish people waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain top. For example, does he think that his members are worshiping a molten calf and if not, why not?

For another thing, Brachear’s story was uncritical of Chalom’s theology. While it’s difficult for a reporter to question an educated religious figure, Brachear defers to Chalom in a pre-Watergate era sort of way:

– Chalom says that his movement is “keeping people Jewish.” Really, how so?

– Chalom does not believe in God. Why not? Does he consider himself an agnostic or atheist?

– Chalom never mentions that God establishing a covenant with the Jews is the very foundation of the three great monotheistic religions. How can he overlook this fact?

Look, Brachear likely was under time restraints with this story. She probably didn’t have much time to report and write it. But the fact that a Jewish movement proclaims independence from God is a big deal. How about waiting a day or two to report it out?

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  • Will

    Why is what is definitely not a new story “a big deal”? Not only has Humanistic Judaism been around for quite some time, but I remember decades ago a hooraw about a self-proclaimed “ignostic” rabbi .. He refuses to call himself “agnostic” because he thinks it is IN PRINCPLE possible to know whether or not God exist, just that we do not know. (A distinction constantly elided in the sacrosanct Popular Usage of “agnostic”).

  • Izzy

    Also, this is very similar to Reconstructionist Judaism, where G-d has been replaced by Man, yet Jewish traditions (in the words of Reconstructionism “folkways”), assume greater importance.

  • NewTrollObserver

    Actually, ignosticism refers to the idea that the mere talk of ‘God exists’ is a meaninglessness statement, because ‘God’ cannot be defined in a positivist manner.

    Agnosticism would find adherents among both deniers and affirmers of the possibility of knowing whether God exists.

  • Jerry

    Chalom says that his movement is “keeping people Jewish.” Really, how so?

    I see you’re not Jewish:-) I was raised to be culturally Jewish. We occasionally attended Temple for the usual secular reasons such as weddings. Being Jewish is a cultural identity to many, not a religious one. One can read history as being the story of wise, charismatic philosophers and heros who inspired people using the coin of the era: religion. People speak of the “wisdom of Solomon”, for example. Having a Rabbi openly embrace this is a wee bit of a surprise to be sure, but not a dramatic one for me. So “keeping people Jewish” means making sure that people continue to self-identify as Jews and maintain the cultural accoutrements of that identity.

  • ira rifkin

    Will and Izzy are correct; there is nothing new about this story, nor is it a “big deal.”

    What we have here is an example of one of journalism’s, and journalism criticism’s, primary failings; ignorance of history leading to a lack of historical context in a story. That and the widespread journalistic failure to differentiate between Judaism and Jews.

    Simply put, Judaism is the traditional religion of the Jewish people, but Judaism is and always has been far from monolithic and not all Jews have adhered to whatever the dominant mainstream Judaism of their age may have been (this is certainly true today).

    Examples include: Baruch Spinoza and other Sephardic Jewish “free” thinkers of the 17th century, Theodore Herzl and other political Zionists, Ahad Ha-Am and the cultural Zionist movement, and the 19th and 20th century Yiddish nationalists, most if whom were wiped out in the Holocaust or the Soviets. We can go further back and include the Hellenist Jews and the historical roots of Hanukkah, and Karaite Jews.

    Ironically, one of the only Christian movements around today that understands the difference between Jews and Judaism is Messianic Judaism. You can be a Jew and believe Jesus was the Messiah, although that makes you an apostate according to mainstream Judaism and your children are likely to identify as fully Christian. Plus, the Messianists and their Christian enablers tend to misunderstand Jewish cultural ties while overemphasizing Jewish bloodlines (the children of Abraham shtick). In short, a Messianic Jews remains a Jew, even by Orthodox Halachic, or religious legal, standards (providing certain pre-existing conditions are met), but he/she is not practicing Judaism. The same goes for Jews who take up Buddhism and even become monks.

    Even Humanistic Judaism has been around for a half-century or so in an organized manner, and numerous stories have been written on the movgement. I’ve written several myself; each time I changed jobs as a religion writer and was stuck for a new High Holiday or Passover story I’d pull the Humanistic storyline out of my file and foster it upon a new editor lacking in elemental knowledge about American Jews.

    Rather than go on, may I suggest “God-Optional Judaism” (Citadel Press) by Judith Seid for anyone interested in learning more. It provides an excellant overview of this important aspect of Jewish history.

  • Brian Walden

    This reminds me of the story from a few weeks (or was it months) ago about how young people are starting to move toward traditional expressions of their faiths. Several people quoted in the article questioned whether the young people are also adopting orthodox beliefs or if they’re just drawn to the traditions. I think that most of time orthodoxy and tradition go hand in hand, but I can see how even traditions divorced from orthodoxy can appeal to people in our modern world.

  • Eric W

    Though my parents are Reform Jews (I was raised in both Conservative and Reform congregations), this describes my parents’ faith (or, rather, lack thereof) quite well, a “faith”/practice they have held for decades. They don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in an afterlife, and as my mother once said, the prophets were kind of “crazy.” They subscribe to and promote every liberal non-religious/anti-religious sentiment that parades itself as enlightened and proper (i.e., pc) thinking. Needless to say, they are lifelong liberal Democrats.

  • Eric Chaffee

    This Jewish “theological” position has some long history. (Even atheism is a theological position — being a statement that God does not exist.) It goes back to Spinoza, a Portguese Jew and philosopher who lived in Amersterdam in the seventeenth century (I think).

    Einstein was once asked the question: Maimonides, or Spinoza? Einstein liked Spinoza’s “God” — a God of principle; not a “diety.” The difference between the two is well-told in a book by Matthew Stewart entitled The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World.

    I know, I know, it’s a lot to ask for a journalist to be well-read in intellectual history. But it sure would have enhanced the story.


  • danr

    Defining Jewish identity is something Jews of varying degrees of religious piety have struggled with for centuries, in theory and practice. Like Jerry and Eric, I was raised culturally Jewish – my family would in the same breath vehemently affirm our Jewish identity, heritage, culture, shared sense of suffering etc. while questioning (if not outright denying) the existence of the God of Abraham (or any God). Our reformed services, and mandatory Sunday School classes for the kids, weren’t too far off from what was described above.

    Though they’ve grugingly come around somewhat, my family initially didn’t respond too kindly when I went from no faith in God, to finding faith in Yeshua (Jesus) whom I believe to be the anticipated Messiah prophecied throughout the Torah – while still affirming my Jewish heritage as much as ever.

    Which points to a unique and painful irony: it’s largely acceptable to be a ________ Jew (fill in blank with humanistic, agnostic/ignostic, athiest, reformed, communal, communist, conservative, liberal, gay, radical, hippie, vegan, wiccan). Throw the actual Messiah of the actual Bible into the mix, and you risk revocation of your Jewish badge.

  • danr

    the Messianists and their Christian enablers tend to misunderstand Jewish cultural ties while overemphasizing Jewish bloodlines

    Agreed in part (about overemphasis of bloodline), but how do Messianics tend to “misunderstand Jewish cultural ties”? Most of us were raised in the same Jewish cultural milieu as our non-Messianic Jewish brethren, hence have no worse (or better) basis for understanding than they do.
    Moreover, not all Messianic Jews are innocent victims of dastardly “Christian enablers” (read: fellow believers in Christ). I myself came to faith unproselytized, after picking up and reading the Bible on my own initiative.

  • Eric W


    There was a movie years ago, Gentlemen’s Agreement, with Gregory Peck pretending to be Jewish in order to expose anti-Semitism. If I recall correctly, he at the end excoriates the pretty secretary for hiding her Jewishness (I think maybe she changed her name and/or otherwise hid the fact), saying that her actions were more anti-Semitic than what Gentiles were doing to Jews (again, IIRC).

    Though they are quick to label us who believe in Jesus as being traitors and apostates, it is ironically Jews who don’t believe in G-d that are in some ways the real anti-Semites and traitors and apostates, for:

    1) their denial/rejection of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob eliminates the basis that Jews can claim to have a “right” to exist (if there is no G-d, no one has any “rights”; it’s all about who is stronger);

    2) if the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does indeed live, their rejection of Him is responsible for their scattering and persecution and near-obliteration, assuming He meant what He said in Deuteronomy about what would happen to the Jews if they did not keep His commandments and give heed to the Prophet that He said He would raise up after Moses.

  • Will

    Yes, I have frequently complained about the implict stance that what is defining about Jewishness is NOT being Christian (I literally had to live with the problem), just as so many think that Protestantism is just a matter of being not-Catholic.

    Should Daniel Pearl have told his captors “My father is a Jews, my mother is a Jew AND I reject Jesus, I am a Jew”?

  • Roberto Rivera

    What Will, Izzy, Jerry and Ira said. Not only is this not news to anyone who grew up Jewish, it’s not news to anyone who grew up within 30 miles of Times Square.

    Let me add another name to the mix: Ethical Culture. This movement, which dates from the late nineteenth century, is a lot like what is described in the article, only with a much better vocabulary and SAT scores. The most famous graduate of New York’s Ethical Culture School is the father of the Atomic Bomb (and a kind of person al hero of mine), Robert Oppenheimer.

  • Will

    And there is also the Synagogue of Jewish Science. Really.

  • Maureen

    It’s not the idea of atheist Jews that surprises me, or even of atheist Jews who retain a few pretty customs. It’s this whole concept of being an atheist Jew who actually bothers to go to atheist services. (I find atheist non-Jews who do this just as surprising.)

    If I were an atheist, I’d be spending a lot more premium sack time and TV time at home, or going to a movie. Sitting in a pew in order to affirm my unbelief is way too much like work!