November 12, 2019

To Be Fully Religious, One Must (Partially) Embrace Atheism!

When someone tells me they‘re an atheist and that they don’t believe, I often surprise them by saying I agree with them, at least to an extent. That the “god” most people see in their minds is something that I, an Orthodox rabbi, and atheists both reject. Typically, atheists have chosen, wisely, not to believe the anthropomorphic conception of that “bearded fellow in the sky,” the quintessential Western vision of Divinity. To gain access to the true essence of God, I believe people have to first reject the false gods that society has created. As people, we evolve spiritually, and some may feel guilt for coming to deny the God that we are so used to believing in; this is necessary for religious development. Only after we deny the God we have come to know, we can more honestly embrace God: the manifestation of metaphysical truth.

Such an approach is not foreign in Jewish thought. Maimonides was an advocate of “negative theology,” also known as “Apophatic theology.” In this approach, people cannot say what God is, only what God is not since anthropomorphic descriptions are deceptive and destructive to the soul. He uses quite harsh words for religious simpletons, those people who disregard intellectual scrutiny in favor of a simple piety:

The majority of the people simply accept the words literally, without concern for any possible deep esoteric meaning.  They do this because of their foolishness and ignorance.  They are not aware that there is in fact a deeper meaning than what they can understand in their simple-minded fashion. We should feel sorry for this intellectually impoverished class because, in their stupidity, they think they are showing respect for the sages by taking them at face value (Commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek).

Many devout Jews abandoned the God perspective they were given as children but never developed an evolved perspective. They pay mere lip service to the Divine conception, what George H. Smith called “implicit atheism” (also known as “weak atheism” or “soft atheism”) where one is merely absent of theistic belief without coming to reject it.

To be sure, it may be the heart, more than the mind, that is the place of Divine intimacy, even revelation (Likutei Moharan 138). Human spiritual engagement takes place in this dialectical tension, wrestling for equilibrium in the always-oscillating mind and heart.

Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev taught:

There are people who serve the Creator (blessed is He) with their human intellect, and there are people who, so to speak, gaze upon the Nothing – and this is only possible with God’s aid (may He be blessed), rather than through the human intellect… And in truth, when a person is at that level at which God helps him to gaze upon the Nothing, then his intellect is annulled in this reality, and he becomes dumb – for his human intellect is annulled in this reality (Kedushat Levi, 127).

Achieving religious truth is not a job merely relegated to an armchair philosopher. Rather it is through a human faculty more transcendental than the intellect that one comes to unite with higher realms. Rav Kook taught that there is a serious cost if we don’t have the courage to ask the big questions to help us refine our spiritual wisdom:

Every definition of God brings about heresy, every definition is spiritual idolatry; even attributing to Him intellect and will, even the term divine, the term God, suffers from the limitations of definition.  Except for the keen awareness that all these are but sparkling flashes of what cannot be defined — these, too, would engender heresy…Soon, however, it turns out that religion has not fallen, but has become clarified.  In the recent turn of the human spirit toward pure faith the last subtle shell of anthropomorphism is giving way, which consists in ascribing the attribute of general existence to God, for truly whatever we ascribe to the term existence is immeasurably remote from the Divine. This denial has the sound of atheism.  It is, however, the highest expression of religion when it becomes well clarified… (Orot, Essay #5, “The Pangs of Cleansing”).

When we reject so much, it will look to some like atheism but we must have the courage and perseverance to continue to evolve and seeker higher levels of truth. He taught further:

There is denial that is like an affirmation of faith, and an affirmation of faith akin to denial. A person can affirm the doctrine of the Torah coming from “heaven,” but with the meaning of “heaven” so strange that nothing of true faith remains…. And a person can deny Torah coming from “heaven” where the denial is based on what the person has absorbed of the meaning of “heaven” from people full of ludicrous thoughts. Such a person believes that the Torah comes from a source higher than that!… Although that person may not have reached the point of truth, nonetheless this denial is to be considered akin to an affirmation of faith…. “Torah from Heaven” is but an example for all affirmations of faith, regarding the relationship between their expression in language and their inner essence, the latter being the main desiratum of faith (Orot Ha’emunah, 25).

We dare not jump on the bandwagon of those who call for the highest piety achieved through simple and uncritical faith. My own teacher, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, challenges people to dig deeper:

But I wonder. Do we really still believe in You? Have we convinced ourselves that we believe in You while in fact we have adopted a type of atheism, or worse, some kind of idol worship, believing in two or even more gods without being aware of it? Are we just going through the religious motions but not actually believing that any of it is true?

Now, it’s possible, without judging an entire community, that those who haven’t thought critically enough about theology may have essentially embraced a version of atheism since they haven’t really achieved a complete belief in God. Even worse, they may have multiple conflicting views of who God is that is akin to polytheism, worshipping many false gods.

Even our great forefathers struggled to decipher which manifestation of God represented true Divinity. To be an existential hero is to be a religious seeker of truth, and to do so one must have the temerity to approach an atheistic viewpoint: to constantly strip mistruths from one’s heart to come closer to heaven. Rabbi Cardozo teaches:

But above all, modern commentary must make sure that the Torah speaks to the atheist and the agnostic, for they need to realize that the text is replete with examples of sincere deniers and doubters who struggled all of their lives with great existential questions. The purpose is not to bring the atheists and agnostics back to the faith, but to show that one can be religious while being an atheist; to make people aware that it is impossible to live without embarking on a search for meaning, whether one finds it or not. It is the search that is important, the end result much less so. The art is to refrain from throwing such a pursuit on the dunghill of history throughout the ages. The struggle of homo religious is of greatest importance to the atheist.

You can be observant and embrace a simple faith. There is something endearing about that approach. But to be fully committed to a religious ethic, you have to struggle, and you must kill off untrue misconceptions of past gods. I, myself, haven’t reached this spiritual level yet. I have always lived with simple faith in God and have never searched deeply enough to the point where I have come to seriously question that belief. My denial of a manifestation of God (like an angry god or a god that commands evil) was always safely preceded by an adoption of a new, and more nuanced, understanding.

For those who have gone far enough, Rav Cardozo explains that the key is to continue to observe the Torah while in existential search:

So, what did Jeremiah mean when he said to the Jewish people that it is better to be an atheist who observes the Torah than a true believer who does not? Let us listen to the words of the Midrash in full: “Would that they forsook Me but still observed My Torah, since by engaging with it, the light that lies therein will bring them back to [Me],” (Eichah Rabbah, Pesichta 2)

This is such an important Midrash to be considered in our time. Religious knowledge disconnected from a life of religious action is untrue knowledge. Before one can keep the Torah, observe its ways, and live by its precepts, one needs some intellectual knowledge of God – but that knowledge pales in comparison to who and what God really is. But, if one starts living a life of Torah, one will come to know God personally, in one’s life, and won’t necessarily feel any need to define or describe Divinity anymore. We’ll know God more intimately than any description reveals. So, the pre-Torah knowledge and the post-Torah knowledge of God are qualitatively different.

As long as Jews remain grounded in the mitzvot, and people dedicate their lives to kindness and justice, we can, and must go on, spiritual explorations and religious journeys of deeper understanding. As humans, we will never perfect our understanding of the universe, yet we are required to peruse the depths of our mysterious souls to seek the most accurate truths we’re allowed. At its best, religion is a container for a sustained encounter with mystery and wonder. It shouldn’t resolve our intellectual and spiritual tensions, but only advance them.

The Sages taught that Torah was originally revealed in the desert where one was hefker – ownerless, open –  since that is the only place a person can acquire wisdom (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7). We need to open ourselves up so fully and courageously that we may re-learn truth on the higher echelons of knowledge. To do so, let us engage in a daily spiritual refinement process replete with rejection and acceptance, doubt and certainty, seeking and finding. This is the rigorous path to true belief.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”