Why “Atheist Rabbi”?

Why “Atheist Rabbi”? January 16, 2012

In the wake of the attack on my blog, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about how and why I apply the term atheist to my blog and myself.  Atheism is a word that evokes so much emotion, yet carries only the kernel of one idea.  Since I have a few new readers, and no doubt some who are not atheists, I will do my best to explain myself and the reasons I started this blog.

As a kid I was fascinated with magic and the paranormal.  My fascination was not because I believed in it, but because I could not understand why anyone else would.  In college I majored in experimental psychology, specifically in what is now called cognitive psychology.  What I learned there began to answer my questions about how and why we humans hold superstitious beliefs.

My other major was Hebrew literature, and that was the path I ultimately followed.  Raised as a nominally Reform but really secular Jew, most of my exposure to the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish writing came as an adult.  Having more aptitude for literature than for science, combined with the fact that I was raised with a deep attachment to the Jewish community which blossomed in my college years, I entered the Reform rabbinate.

At the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, one of the goals was to promulgate a reasoned and rational approach to Jewish religion.  Yet other than in official texts such as prayer books, there was little inclination to articulate a modern understanding of God.  In point of fact, we mostly learned about Judaism through historical or literary methodologies.  And when we did broach the subject of reconciling our texts with science, the approach was what Steven Jay Gould later called non-overlapping magisteria.  Science and religion were two completely separate endeavors.  The former was interested in “how” and the latter in “why.”

For me, this became a problem.  Working in a religious milieu, I found that in the real world, beyond the doors of rabbinical school, “how” was as important a question as “why.”  For most people I encountered, one question made no sense without the other.  My first eleven years, spent on university campuses, drew me close to many people who were working endlessly on the questions of “how” and, inevitably, crossing into “why” territory as a result.  Neither could I separate the two.  Each made claims that contradicted the other.

I tried to lose myself in observance.  I took comfort in one biblical passage in particular:  “All that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear (Exodus 24:3-7).”  This is a passage that is often interpreted for Jews in doubt to teach that observance will lead to belief.  And there is some sound folk psychology in the idea that if you repeat an act or set of acts enough, you will come to adopt the justifications for performing them.

So I davened (prayed) and observed Shabbat and kashrut and so forth.  As a closeted gay man, I could only hope that God would take note that I was married to a woman and doing all of this.  But deep inside I suspected, just as I had about magic, superstition and the paranormal, that there was no one there to take such note.

And, unfortunately for God, as it were, I kept digging into the origins of, well, just about everything.  I learned more about archeology’s findings, more about what literary critics of the bible were discovering, more about what biologists had revealed and more about the findings of cosmologists and physicists.

And then the damn burst.  At the age of 38, I gave up on the notion of the supernatural once and for all.  I buried it in the same grave that I had long ago laid to rest magic, superstition and the paranormal.  I decided to embrace reality.  Thankfully, I discovered Mordecai Kaplan.

Rabbi Kaplan, whose philosophy of God is nearly extinct today, posited that Jews were just one nation among others and that God was a human invention.  But God still had power!  The enormity of the idea alone gave God life as the “Power that makes for salvation.”  Kaplan’s God was entirely a functional process lacking any metaphysical reality.  This was a powerful idea for me.  It allowed me to speak about and “to” God while understanding that I was really just talking to myself, a fact of which I was already quite aware.

Time, however, has not been kind to Rabbi Kaplan’s ideology of God.  His Reconstructionist movement did not adhere to his ideas.  His prayer books addressed God in familiar traditional theistic ways.  As my colleague, Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, pointed out to me, this created a cognitive dissonance.  Most people will eventually reconcile such a dissonance and, echoing that passage in Exodus, it will usually lead to belief.

But not always.  In my case it did not.  It did, however, lead to headaches.  Surely, I thought, there must be a better way to preserve what is meaningful and life-affirming in Jewish practice while not surrendering to supernatural, metaphysical fantasies.  Thankfully, there is.  This is how I discovered Humanistic Judaism.

It provided me with a home where I could finally say two things that for many – and I quite understand this – are incompatible.  One is that I am a rabbi who is educated in my people’s historical experiences and writings.  The other is that I am a secular humanist who is an atheist, acutely aware that there is nothing “out there.”  As a Jew and a rabbi, I feel the tug of my history and culture.  I am drawn to the characters and plot lines of my people’s mythos.  As a secular humanist, I am interested in what is true and what is moral.

The two need not be in tension if we acknowledge that humans evolve, both biologically and culturally.  Our need for answers was once met by tales and rituals and rules that we ascribed to gods who, ancient logic suggested, simply must exist or otherwise how did we get here?  Today, those answers are available through less naive means, more challenging and certainly more incomplete.

As for morality, like most modern Jews I never asked Judaism to direct my inner compass.  I understand the difference between right and wrong because I (usually) can foresee the consequences of my actions and because I possess the human quality of empathy.  Like all human beings, I have done things that were wrong.  But like all moral human beings, I recognized these mis-deeds as mistakes caused by my own vanity, hubris or fear, but never by evil or the pleasure of watching another suffer.

One need only take a look at the world to quickly grasp that there is no guaranteed correspondence between morality and religion.  Clearly religions’s illiberal varieties are much more concerned with rewards and punishments and appeasing and pleasing gods.

In the Jewish community we hear frequent talk about “Jewish values.”  If these are defined as personal or communal practices – such as lighting Shabbat candles – then there is no need for the quotation marks.  But if they are defined as some special unique Jewish way to be a good person, then those quotation marks must remain.  For while there may be Jewishly unique vocabulary for moral behaviors, truly moral behavior cannot be the sole province of one small, ancient group.

People must be judged by their deeds, not their beliefs.  If I had a problem with all people who believed in God – as many who call themselves atheists do – I would have left the rabbinate.  As I have said before and will say again, the idea of God – irrespective of its truth – does provide comfort and inspiration to many, many highly moral people.  Who could morally deprive them of such a thing?  On the other hand, the idea of God also inspires too many highly immoral people to do very bad things in God’s name, believing that they have his approval.  (And if his will is so clear, why do they so frequently battle about it?)

I’ve said that I do love and respect the morally religious and that I do not desire to rid them of their beliefs, even though I believe that they are not true.  So why do I sometimes weigh in about more moderate forms of Judaism or Christianity?  In our modern world, more and more people are leaving God behind just as I did.  When I debate morally religious leaders I do so because I desire for those in doubt, so often unexposed to the secular humanistic and scientific views of faith, to hear our side.  I do not hope to sway the faithful, but to attract others like me.

However, and this is a big however, when I criticize the immoral acts of religious people who use God as an excuse for every bad behavior, I do not hold back.  If those people think that I hate them for their beliefs, they are wrong.  It is only their hurtful actions that I hate.  No human beings should victimize others because of whom they love or due to their gender.  No human beings should become an unreasonable burden on others when there is a way to be self-sufficient.  No human beings should deprive others of rights that they themselves freely enjoy.  No human beings should allow others to protect them while they themselves stand by.  These are just some immoral things that people do in the name of God.

When challenged, these particular believers make excuses for their bad behaviors that are steeped in the supernatural, the metaphysical and the magical.  Because all truth is known to them from their ancient sources, they argue that their behavior is approved by traditional authorities whose power is bequeathed by the almighty creator and maker of everything.

For all of these reasons, I made the decision to publicly proclaim and struggle with the reality that I am both an atheist and a rabbi.  But more significantly, I am a human being attempting to live a moral life, not because I was told to by supernatural, metaphysical, and magical forces, but because I’m just an average person, who knows right from wrong, trying to make my way through the world while doing more good than harm.

That’s what an atheist rabbi, or any good person, should do.

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