Deity dilemma: God doubters look for place in Jewish life

For Sally Ann Berk, it feels like coming out of the closet.

No, not that closet. Berk is an atheist.

The Oakland resident is a married mother of a 13-year-old son who attends Oakland Hebrew Day School. But her worldview, while grounded in Jewish culture and ritual, does not include a deity. To state that publicly, she says, is “something people don’t really talk about, like it’s like something shameful.”

She feels no shame, and she is not alone. With its core principle of peoplehood and ancient embrace of “wrestling with God,” Judaism has long boasted a skeptical strain, just like Berk’s.

“A lot of people have doubts and questions,” she says. “That’s the nature of being Jewish. I get my spiritual fulfillment when I’m out in the woods.”

Though precise figures don’t exist, studies suggest a sizeable segment of American Jews, including synagogue members, share Berk’s unbelief.

A study spearheaded by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in Los Angeles is aiming to find out just how many nonbelieving Jews are out there seeking a way into spiritual life, and what the Jewish community should, or should not do, to accommodate them.

“There’s an unvocalized tension at the core of synagogue services,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the institute’s executive director, who says she meets many Jews looking for spiritual connection without God. “The rabbi speaks about God and nobody really knows what that means. It’s not sophisticated, it’s not developed.”

Judaism does not require belief in God as a condition of membership. It’s a paradox with which many theologians and practitioners struggle.

“Judaism teaches us that it’s less about God hearing our prayers than about what we do when we walk out the door,” says Cantor Nathan Lam of the Stephen S. Wise Temple, a large Reform congregation in Los Angeles. He used to run a “doubters’ minyan” for students at the temple’s Milken Community High School.

Sally Ann Berk

Maintaining an internal balance between the demands of faith and intellect is part of being a modern Jew, he says. Judaism recognizes that balance by focusing on the need to perform rituals, he says, rather than by looking into the practitioner’s heart. Other Jewish views hold that belief in the heart is required in performing the Torah’s commandments.

“I teach [that] even if you don’t believe in God, act as if you do,” Lam says.

Self-described Jewish atheists and doubters often focus on the words in the prayerbook, typically the only part of the Jewish faith they encounter. They bristle at the constant praising of a God they doubt exists and don’t believe is involved in people’s lives as the prayers suggest.

“I think a lot of people stop praying with a congregation because they can’t make the words mean anything in their lives,” says Cantor Ellen Dreskin of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y., who says she interprets the words in the prayerbook “metaphorically and poetically,” not literally.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie

In the Humanistic Judaism movement, prayers have been scrapped altogether. That movement, founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, adopts many of the rituals of traditional Judaism but deletes the references to God.

Alana Shindler serves as head of the rituals and celebrations committee for Kol Hadash, a Humanistic congregation in the East Bay.

She and fellow congregants celebrate the Jewish holidays and Shabbat. All are welcome at their gatherings in the Albany Community Center — God being the possible exception.

“We take the prayer out of it and look at the meaning of the holiday,” Shindler says. “Most have a humanistic component. In Yom Kippur, the notion of repentance to those you have wronged, trying to be better than the year before, those are very humanistic. They have nothing to do with praying to some God writing something down in some book.”

Not all atheist Jews have Humanistic congregations nearby, and if they want Jewish fellowship they have to look elsewhere.

Rabbi David Wolpe

The Institute for Jewish Spirituality study, which will be conducted by Diane Schuster, a researcher and lecturer at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, will interview Jews who are “in search of a spiritual experience that is deep, meaningful and transformative but that is not linked to religious liturgies or practices that rely on God language or reference to a Supreme Being.”

The results will be used by the institute to develop retreats for “Jewish doubters,” as well as training programs for clergy who work with them.

Among those doubters is Fremont native Megan Ziman, 19, who attends U.C. Santa Cruz. She grew up in an active Reform household, loving the rituals and holidays of Judaism.

While she says she admires and respects people of faith, she personally cannot go there.

“Where I struggle, with science it’s harder to let loose and have total faith in a feeling, which I don’t really have,” she says. “Feeling spiritual doesn’t have to mean religious.”

The New York–based Jewish Outreach Institute reaches out to Jews who share Ziman’s views. At its national conference in May, a session on how to engage Judaism without God was on the workshop schedule.

Attending a Tu B’Shevat seder earlier this year with Humanistic congregation Kol Hadash in Albany are (from left) Eva Bluestein, Alana Shindler, Gladys Perez-Mendez and Lee Spanier. photo/bernie rosen

“There is a recognition that some people find spiritual sustenance and nurturing through the intellect that is not necessarily tied to anything related to the Divine — that is, to God,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute’s executive director. “We wanted to include this session both to recognize those who access Judaism in this regard and to affirm it as a vehicle for doing so.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, says he has “no doubt” that many people in his synagogue say the prayers without believing in God. Even the Bible admonishes against idolatry, but not against atheism, he points out.

“But I’m not eager to make accommodations to create a Judaism absent God,” he says. “I think it would be not only not necessary but inadvisable.”

Some Reconstructionist congregations have changed their God-language, and others even have completely removed references to God, says Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.

“There may have been some who experimented with it, but I don’t know if it’s become a regular service,” he says. “My objection wouldn’t be that they have expunged reference to God. My problem would be if they did not allow people to hold a deistic viewpoint.”

That seems to have been the main objection of Reform leaders in 1991 when they rejected Congregation Beth Adam’s bid for membership in what was then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).

In rejecting the Cincinnati congregation’s application, Reform leaders opined that while individual Jews may not believe in God, a Reform synagogue may not declare such a position.

Rabbi Robert Barr, the longtime spiritual leader of Beth Adam, says the rejection was politically motivated and did not involve the “deep religious conversation” that he says needs to take place.

“The Jewish conversation is so trapped by the liturgy of our ancestors, we can’t get past it,” he says. “People are afraid to say that language and worldview no longer speak to me, but I am authentically Jewish and I need language that expresses it.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, outgoing president of the URJ, was at the meeting where Beth Adam’s application was turned down, and he agrees with the decision. While a congregation that disavows a belief in God would not be expelled from the URJ, he says, neither would it be admitted. And he hasn’t heard of any Reform congregations espousing such a position.

“While individual Reform Jews may have questions about God, they are generally content to have Jewish liturgy that mentions God,” he says. “People seem to be able to live with the contradiction.”

Jewish atheism can serve a purpose by pushing Jews to demand meaning from their faith and its leaders, says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Paraphrasing Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Brander says atheism “is the pained response when religion becomes static, when God is described in childish ways. I think it’s much better that people struggle with the issue, that they want a religious experience rather than not going to synagogue at all.”

That’s why Berk and her family belong to Oakland Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Abraham. She says she finds ritual “very fulfilling. I’m not bereft without belief in divinity. We have Friday night dinners almost every Friday with neighbors. If somebody said you have to believe in God that would be my closest definition: the loving feelings of community.”

Similarly, Kol Hadash member Shindler says simple unbelief is not enough to sustain the kind of Jewish life she wants.

“Atheism is where I started, but not where I ended up,” she says. “Atheism doesn’t give you your values.” 

Sue Fishkoff, formerly with JTA, becomes editor of j. on Sept. 1.

Dan Pine is a j. staff writer