Judaism Is for Nonbelievers, Too

Because of Judaism, our story is as big as our people, encompassing all of our values and aspirations from generation to generation.
September 14, 2020

This is the time of year for Jews to feel like hypocrites. We come to synagogue every year, pick up the machzor and recite words that we’re not sure we believe. Do we really think there’s a monarch in the sky? Does God really shift from one throne to another? Do we really think that the words we recite will avert an evil decree? 

There are good reasons that lead many to reject belief. For example, Elisha ben Abuyah, known as Acher, one of the great heretics in the Talmud — and one of the greatest rabbis of his generation — experienced trauma when he witnessed a father tell his son to climb up a tree and fetch an egg from an elevated nest. The boy scrambled up the ladder, shooed away the mother bird — then tripped and plunged to his death. Watching that tragedy, Acher exclaimed, “If this is possible, then there is no judge and there is no justice.” 

Here’s the background you need: The only two biblical commandments that explicitly promise long life are “honoring your parents” and “shooing away the mother bird.” The boy obeyed both commandments and yet he died.

Despite abundant reasons making it hard to have faith, so many of us return to services year after year. We recite these old prayers that some of us believe. Others don’t believe them at all. Maybe that’s why we sing so many prayers in Hebrew — to blur the gap between our words and our convictions. 

Nevertheless, we return and sing. That is because Judaism is bigger than dogma, more fundamental than metaphysics and more soaring than any articulation of faith. In the Jerusalem Talmud, God says to one of the rabbis, “Would that the Jews abandon me but keep my Torah, its light would bring them back.” If God has to choose between our loving Torah or our believing, God prefers that we engage with the Torah. God is not an egotist. Mitzvot and community matter.

It may seem like a whopper to claim that Judaism is bigger than belief or religion, that it has always been the very breath of the Jewish people. Yes, it is a big claim but it’s true. Just look at the Torah itself. The Bible doesn’t have a word for “religion” because the modern understanding of religion — a discrete set of beliefs or observances — is not a Jewish concept. The Torah understands that Judaism encompasses who we are and what we do: our culture, people, land, values and language. Judaism is so much more than just a creed. The Talmud doesn’t just stick to “belief,” it addresses every subject under the sun.

We need religion, whether or not we are believers, because there is no human enterprise more capable than religion for building community, teaching compassion, inculcating morality and kindness, harnessing education for success, balancing optimism and pessimism and fostering creativity. Regardless of our beliefs, we all can grow into better versions of ourselves by dialoguing with Jewish wisdom and walking a path of Jewish spirit.

A cure for loneliness

Our need for Judaism is made obvious by the way so many of us feel drawn to the holy days. If we’re honest with ourselves, whether or not we are talking to God, we love talking and singing with one another. The way that religion can build community is unequaled in the world. One leading manifestation of emotional pain is chronic loneliness. And Americans are more alone than ever. Even before social distancing, we ate meals alone, went to movies alone and longed for people to call us. Religion shatters that isolation, turns around and opens up people to the importance of each person. 

Consider Judaism’s insistence that a minyan (10 adult Jews) is needed to recite our most sacred prayers. It’s not that God can’t hear until there’s a 10th person in the room, it’s that we need one another. Religion for us is not what we do with our solitude, it’s what we do with the people in our community. 

One of my rabbis, Keilah Lebell, highlighted the need for community with a teaching in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah. The way the sages used to determine the date of the New Year was by asking people to travel to Jerusalem so they could attest that they had seen the new moon. After the rabbis had two witnesses, then they could proclaim the date for Rosh Hashanah. But what happens if 100 witnesses go to Jerusalem to testify? After finding two witnesses, there are still 98 people who took the trouble to get there, expending money and energy out of a sense of public duty. Do you say to those 98 people, “Too late. Go home?” No. 

Regardless of our beliefs, we all can grow into better versions of ourselves by dialoguing with Jewish wisdom and walking a path of Jewish spirit.

The rabbis of the Mishnah teach that even after there are enough witnesses, we still interview each person because everybody represents something unique that only they embody. Similarly, a Torah scroll is not ritually fit if it is missing even a single letter. All the letters together make a Torah, and Judaism also requires all of us together.

There is nothing like religion to build community. Those of you who are synagogue regulars know that if you don’t show up on a Saturday, someone will call you and say, “We missed you. Where were you? Are you OK?”

A story big enough to hold us

Part of what helps build this community is the extraordinary way that Judaism repeats its fundamental stories again and again. This repetition reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are not living isolated lives and that we are, in fact, the Children of Israel. We discover our best selves through the paradigmatic stories of our people: creation, Sabbath, Egypt, slavery, freedom, wandering to a Promised Land, commandments, trying to build a kingdom of righteousness, failing, getting exiled again and trying to get it right this time. 

That story is not just about one of our own biological lives. It is not just about our circle of loved ones and children. Because of Judaism, our story is as big as our people, encompassing all of our values and aspirations from generation to generation, linking our heritage to our destiny. It is the allure of a worthy future that inspires us to organize our present and to live lives of purpose. And there is no grander future than knowing we are journeying toward a Land of Promise together.

Linking ourselves to this encompassing narrative also means that our story must include other people. The Chasidic master, Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov, taught, “If someone seeks your aid, act as though there is no God and you be the one to help.” Rav Kook used to teach that the danger of religion is that you can say, “Well, God will take care of it.” But Judaism teaches us to act as if there’s no God and do something to fix the problem ourselves. When we step up and take responsibility, we grow in compassion and connect with others, reducing their loneliness and ours.

An education for character

To truly understand our need for Judaism, look no further than our broken Western education system. I attended one of the world’s most famous universities, taking history and literature courses from leading scholars. In history class, we focused on dates or names, resource allocation and the nature of government. Yet we never asked, “What does this have to do with living a better life today?” Similarly, in literature classes, we learned about the life of the author, the nature of writing and their use of language. But we never inquired, “How does this novel change us?” These questions are not permissible in the academic study of literature. But these very questions are what motivated the authors to write in the first place.

In Judaism, we read precisely to answer questions about meaning. We don’t read the Torah just to learn about the Iron Age or to understand ancient syntax. We read the Torah because we intuit its deep wisdom speaking to us, elevating us and projecting our story on an ancient screen. When we read the Torah, we are expected to seek what we can learn from those stories today, what this poetry asks of us and how it plays out in our lives. 

Unlike secular education, in which you read a book once and then never read it again, religious education selects a handful of transformative books and then affirms that in each rereading we will discover new insights and make them accessible through repetition. Even though we know how the story ends, we don’t know how our story will end, so we prepare for our journey with these timeless and timely texts. If you read a book, watch a film or view a piece of art once, they are merely entertainment. But if you engage with them repeatedly, they become portals to wisdom that remain accessible during difficult times. They intertwine with our very selves.

Because of Judaism, our story is as big as our people, encompassing all of our values and aspirations from generation to generation, linking our heritage to our destiny.

A balance between optimism, pessimism and resilience

Just as we need Jewish education to direct our vision and fortify our pursuit of meaning, we need Judaism to ground us in a realistic integration of long-term optimism and short-term resilience to get past life’s bumps.

We live in a culture that values optimism, but the kind of optimism it values is often superficial. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me, “No worries.” Every time, I want to shriek in response, “Have you read the newspaper lately? Of course there are worries.” Excessive optimism is a drug and a distraction. For the sake of a false sense of comfort, it forces us to ignore the needs of others and the wounds of our hearts. Judaism deflects this excessive optimism by asking us to recall and ritualize tragic moments, opening our hearts to grief and consolation. Our memories keep us human.

But excessive pessimism is just as toxic and pervasive in our culture. Jewish history refutes the sterile nihilism that it can’t get better. We are the people who constantly achieve the impossible. No people in the world have wandered in exile for thousands of years, returned to their ancient homeland and rebirthed their ancient language. But we did. A full heart and a mature life require a blend of optimism and pessimism as well as hope and acceptance, which is precisely the counsel of Judaism.

There is a profound story in the Talmud of the rabbis wanting to terminate the yetzer harah (the evil impulse) because it was causing illness, death, lust and violence. So God permitted the rabbis to isolate the yetzer harah. Shortly afterward, the rabbis discovered that chickens stopped laying eggs, artists stopped creating, people stopped falling in love and getting married and nobody had children. Reluctantly, the rabbis realized the world could not exist without the yetzer harah. So they returned and asked God to liberate and release the evil impulse. God consented, but the rabbis decided to blind it in one eye, to weaken its power before releasing it. 

We need both the yetzer tov and the yetzer harah. We need a dose of optimism and pessimism to lead optimal lives, which is why Judaism teaches us to manage both through its pervasive blend of memorializing tragedy and celebrating joy. That’s rabbinic realism.

A creative muse

Beyond inspiring a realistic sense of hope and mobilizing us to bring that hope to fruition, religion also cultivates art and imagination. The world’s great museums are filled with religious art. The world’s great cities are crowned with spectacular religious architecture. And much of the world’s great literature is inspired by religiosity. Why? Because nothing inspires human imagination the way that religion does. 

Of course, a great deal of contemporary art is inspiring. But compare the way we look at secular art with the way we relate to religious art. For secular art, people go to a museum and see an exhibit that is themed by what period it was made in, or by a particular artist or school. The pieces are collected in a room together, and visitors stroll through, looking at the artist’s use of paint and reading snippets of the artist’s biography. But at no point does someone turn to you and ask, “What do you know about yourself or about emotions differently because of this painting?”

By contrast, religious art heightens our capacity for joy, grief, hope or empathy. Imagine a Catholic who goes before Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” the magnificent statue of Mary with the corpse of her son Jesus on her lap. But you don’t have to be Christian for that poignant statue to break your heart. Pondering that image invites us to visit our own heartbreaks. Gazing at the figure of Mary, we realize we are not the only ones who have suffered. 

In many ways, religious song evokes our emotions just as religious art does. This holy season is rich in chords that help us soar and in minor keys that soften our grieving hearts. How can we not tremble with the yearning in Avinu Malkeinu, whose underlining minor cadence evokes somebody sobbing, somebody whose desire for purpose and wholeness has been repeatedly shattered? But in Avinu Malkeinu, we hear that they will not give up, so we know that we don’t have to either. We return to these tunes each year because they remind us to feel, sob and renew. 

Be honest, be yourself, be religious

Religion is too big to leave to the believers, and I say this as a believer. I love God and God has been a big part of my life. But I don’t write to my fellow believers now. I write to those of you who are drawn to these holy days because you are honoring someone for whom it’s important that you are here. I write to those of you who reverberate to the sound of the shofar because being a Jew matters to you, and whether or not you believe, you know that on this day, your place is with your fellow Jews. I write to those people who may not believe what’s in the prayer book but do stand with the history and the tradition that generated it. I write to all who want to join in the great future that is coming. To all of you, I want to say, you are not hypocrites. You are heroes. Like the rest of us, you need the growth that can emerge from engaging with Torah, with mitzvot and with Judaism. So be honest, be yourself and be religious.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A professor of philosophy, he also is dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, where he ordains Conservative rabbis for Europe. To dig deeper into this approach to religion, spend time with “Jewish Religiosity” by Martin Buber, “Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Botton, and “A Common Faith” by John Dewey.   

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