January 29, 2023

Do Jews Need God?

By Michelle Cove


614: The HBI eZine

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since the Pew Research Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” came out in 2013 showing that two-thirds of Jews polled said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.  I remember being shocked at the statistic when I first read it, although I’m not sure why exactly. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in God, and are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identity. I also know some atheists, to be fair, who struggle to feel connected to our religion given all the patriarchal language in prayer books and Torah stories. In a religion inundated with stories and prayers centered around God, there seems to be so much room and space to be Jewish and not believe. What makes some Jewish atheists feel at peace while others feel at odds?

For the latest issue of 614: the HBI eZine, I asked a rabbi, a few women authors, and an artist for their viewpoints on what it is to be a Jewish atheist and what the repercussions are. All of them struck me as confident and unapologetic about their beliefs.  After all, Jews are not only allowed to have our doubts, we are encouraged to grapple and question, which is pretty unique. Says Rabbi Lev Baesh, who is featured in the issue: “You should never be asked to agree blindly or to demean your own views for others (or theirs for yours, for that matter).”

There are plenty of Jewish leaders and thinkers who worry that Judaism can’t sustain without a central belief in God. In a September-October, 2011 article in Moment, entitled, “Can There Be Judaism Without Belief in God?” Senator Joe Lieberman stated: “There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it.” Rabbi David Volpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California, in the same article says: “Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations.”

What do you think? How important is a belief in God to our religion? Can Judaism sustain without a belief in God? We hope you’ll read the issue with an open mind, grapple, and weigh in with your own thoughts.

Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine


  1. Leah jacobson says:

    I believe that if one is immersed in Judaism, all roads eventually lead to G-d.
    For example, most mitzvoth are between man and his fellow man.
    After performing them, you can’t help but see the divinity in another. You see a spark of Gd. The miracle of his or her existence points to Gd. The other mitzvoth are between you and Gd, like prayer, keeping shabbat.
    During these times we feel closer to G-d because we are putting our egos to the side. And Gd is where we let him right?
    Religion aside, there is culture, ethnicity and peoplehood which can be argued have nothing to do with Gd. But working together to secure our collective Jewish identity breeds kindness, compassion, and connectedness. These relationships bring us closer to ourselves, and therefore Gd. Because Gd helps us when we help others. Gd is love & acceptance.
    We have to work to feel Gd. It doesn’t just happen. By following our religion in any way that feels “right” to us, we will get closer to Gd.

  2. Peter Kreska says:

    “…1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists…”

    First statement of the RaMBaM’s Shloshah Asa Ikkarim indeed of the 13 Principles of Faith enumerated there, most are concerned with ‘belief in G_d’.

    So according to RaMBaM’s derivation from Torah of these thirteen principles the answer is simply you do need to ‘believe’ in G_d to be a Jew.

    However I suspect that something else is lurking behind this question of belief in G_d namely what is the nature of that ‘belief’? Here we touch on something that may bring some light into the darkness of this question.

    Fundamentally there is no ‘object’ of Jewish belief. G_d referred to himself as ‘I am’ defying any conceptual ‘image’; with which to grapple with ‘the name’. Therefore it is probably correct to ascribe to Judaism a kind of Aetheism since the object of belief can only be comprehended by what it is not [after Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed].

    Fundamentally G_d is a gaping hole of transcendence which not only defies conceptualisation, but the very framework which speaks of Him denies or rather prohibits the speech! This fundamental paradox is often overlooked or simply resisted as too complex a philosophical position for Klal Israel.

    Judaism exists as ‘command-meant’, the covenant is non negotiable – it is required and demanded and through that ‘demand’ the manifestation of ‘true humanity’ is created as we are in His image – ie creators. The covenant ties each Jew to the moment of existence cognisant of the ever present ‘utterance’ of ‘Let there be!’, in order to manifest to humanity a being free from the lies of nostalgia and the fear of imagined futures. In that Mitzvot ‘moment’ eternity manifests and clears the way for a unique creation – the future – that manifests our existence and His.

    Michael Fishbane noted the follwing in the preface to Sacred Attunement – A Jewish Theology’:-

    “…The following passage provides a clue. Regarding the performance
    of religious duties, scripture repeatedly exhorts: “you shall
    do them” (va-asitem otam) (cf. Lev. 26:3), and in this way underscores
    the need to enact one’s theological commitments. The
    tasks of life are always already there, outside the self, for one to
    do and fulfill them as the commandments of God. They thereby
    exemplify the conditions of heteronomy. But the theological imagination
    often resists reducing the law (any law) to something
    “other” or exterior to the self, and reconceives it in terms both
    more personal and more interior to selfhood. For this reason,
    an ancient commentator took up our biblical text and wrought
    an exegetical revision of exceptional significance—reading the
    object pronoun otam (them) as atem (you), and thereby transforming
    the exhortation decisively. For it is now made to say, “vaasitem
    atem,” namely, that in the doing (of the commandments)
    “you will make (or refashion) yourselves”! Here is the essence of
    hermeneutical theology in a nutshell. The old words of scripture
    are spaces for ever-new moments of spiritual consciousness and
    self-transformation. But this new reading is no mere assertion of
    autonomy, to counterpoint the original heteronomous emphasis.
    It is rather a complex blend of the two. Interiority and exteriority
    are intertwined and interdependent. And lest we fail to notice,
    this blend is itself effected by the exegetical act. At such moments,
    Sinai is reborn in the mind, one must humble oneself to oneself – all ears…”

    The ‘belief’ aspect is further complicated in the Shema:-

    “Hear oh Israel…And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”

    Where the command is to ‘love’ the Lord your G_d and to recognise His unity as a unity above all unities an indescribable unity not descriptive of a mathematical ‘oneness’ signified by one but a unity that is the un-knowable nature behind the numeral one!

    Fundamentally again the ‘concept’ or ‘thought-form’ G_d is absent and we are left with a vacuous ‘place marker’ to describe the ‘hole’ in our existence that maintains our movement through time like some overwhelming pull from a ‘naked singularity’ as demonstrably real by its effect and as unknown in its essence.

    So therefore the question is a complex one not treated well in tired old metaphoric accretion of worn out ‘G_d illusions’, but rather as an invitation to the door of the ‘unthinkable’ nature of our own existence and purpose – ultimately G_d is not present because we believe in Him – HE IS AS HE IS, our more immediate pressing concern are we who we can be or indeed what we think we are – the covenant points to a praxis that can clear away the mud of ego and delusion to reveal a path, a path which still beckons and has as yet never fully been followed.

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