Reform Judaism Leads To Atheism

Mark Zuckerberg’s supposed break with Judaism has inspired a chest-beating column by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan in The Forward:

…If…he has lost interest in Judaism, it is much more a reflection on us than it is on him. For those in the Reform movement…we need…to take an accounting of our accomplishments and, as in this case, our failings.

While I could not find any direct quotes in which Zuckerberg disavows the God of Israel, either the omnipotent, omnipresent version or even the “still small voice within us” humanistic variant, he reportedly labeled his religious beliefs on his Facebook profile as atheist.

Maybe Kaplan doesn’t understand atheism.  I would think that it is obvious that it is a disavowal of all the gods, including Israel’s, without regard to the bigness or smallness of their imaginary voices.

He goes on to note that Zuckerberg’s family was involved in a temple, went to Israel, and so on.  Then he offers his analysis:

We need to have a clear religious faith that we can convey to our young people in a way that is compelling and convincing. I have always believed that a liberal theology that overemphasizes personal autonomy is a recipe for disaster. So, too, is an exclusive focus on Jewish ethnic identity at the expense of Jewish religious belief.

We failed Zuckerberg and will continue to fail young people like him because the pluralistic theologies of Reform Judaism…make it difficult to grasp what we Reform Jews believe on any given issue. Our faith is too amorphous. Math and science nerds, in particular, may be the type most likely to bolt. This is ironic because one of the raisons d’être of Reform Judaism was to create an approach to Judaism that would be scholarly and scientific….

…A bright young man like Mark Zuckerberg, raised in a serious Reform synagogue, should be a devoted Jew today. We need to ask ourselves why he is apparently not committed to the God of his ancestors, and to take drastic steps to rebuild our religious ecosystem.

That’s Kaplan’s take-away?!  That less pluralism would have led Zuckerberg to be “a devoted Jew”?!

Kaplan has written elsewhere about Reform’s need for a unified theology and more religious observance.  This debate has being going on in the liberal Jewish movements since their inception and it no longer interests me.

What is of interest to me is that Kaplan, who has a doctorate in Jewish history, has so little understanding of atheism and its attraction to “math and science nerds” or anyone else for that matter.  If he thinks that more traditionalism and a more consistent theology is going to somehow produce more “devoted” Jews among our “bright young” people, he is completely out of touch with reality.

Jews who are alienated from religious ideologies did not arrive at their conclusions because no one explained them to us clearly enough.  Nor is it a result of Reform Judaism’s lack of unity or skimpy religious demands.

We Jewish atheists arrived at our position because we are heirs to a skeptical and analytical educational tradition.  When we abandon or reject theologies – no matter how supposedly progressive – it is a natural outcome of our education.  What Kaplan prescribes is the opposite of education.  He wants more indoctrination.

I am not an atheist because I reject my Jewish heritage.  While I can’t speak for him, Zuckerberg clearly feels some connection to it.  He was a member of a Jewish fraternity.  He just personally signed up Shimon Peres for a Facebook account.  These are not the acts of someone turning his back on the Jewish people.

We former Reform Jews who have become atheists are not an example of the failure of Reform Judaism.  We are examples of its success.  As Kaplan himself writes, “One of the raisons d’être of Reform Judaism was to create an approach to Judaism that would be scholarly and scientific.”

We simply took the scholarship and science to their practical and inevitable conclusions.

Were we not supposed to do that?

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  • Sol

    Very interesting post, although I think this could apply to the modern orthodox community in which I grew up as well. I was always told growing up that Judaism is not afraid of questions and that this is how we differed from Christianity. Whereas they were supposed to accept faith blindly, we were allowed to ask if something wasn’t right. However, once I started to ask questions and really look into things objectively, I found that once you pass a certain line into ‘heretical thought’ the questions are no longer allowed.

  • We need to ask ourselves why he is apparently not committed to the God of his ancestors

    It really is remarkable the lack of self-awareness people have regarding their beliefs – i.e. the notion that it’s downright crazy to believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses, but it’s perfectly reasonable (and expected) to believe in the “God of our ancestors”. Divinely written is something only a fundamentalist would believe, whereas “divinely inspired” is reasonable. “Gods” are false whereas “God” is true. Or for frum Jews… Immaculate conception is absurd, but the sea splitting is plausible. That the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Mashiach is laughable, but that there’s a Mashiach who God will send to banish all evil and show the truth of Torah – of course!

    Point being, it’s all too easy to mock someone else’s beliefs and pronounce one’s own beliefs to be normal. It’s time we become more self-aware, honest, and grow out of unreasonable thinking altogether. That is the sign of a “holy nation”, one to be proud of and want to affiliate with.

  • P. Wize

    Reform should make room for a nonsupernaturalist Judaism under its auspices. People should be able to openly interpret Judaism nontheistically in a Reform congregation. Many Reform congregants already are atheists/agnostics, Reconstructionism and Humanistic Judaism show one can have a non-theistic Judaism. Of course, once one rejects supernaturalism, one may choose to abandon Judaism altogether. To each his own.