I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community. While the day school I attended was devoutly pluralistic, I was wrapping tefillin (phylacteries), praying three times a day, and keeping strictly kosher. My faith in God was the center of my life and my Judaism. Eight years later, I’m an atheist, but my commitment to Judaism is just as strong.
The turning point was in my first ninth grade Jewish history class. I had just come from a Tanakh (Bible) class in which we had analyzed God’s directive to Joshua that he conquer Canaan. It was the first course I had ever taken in Jewish history, taught by a PhD in Anthropology of Religion, where we were to discuss the origins of the Torah. The teacher started the class by saying that our first unit would be on who wrote the Torah, and when. She was met with collective gasps. “This is first and foremost a history class,” she replied. “That means we’re going to talk about what we have evidence for. I don’t want to discredit anyone’s beliefs, but empirically everything we know points to the Torah being written by multiple authors over the course of hundreds of years.”
It was a shock to my system. I had grown up believing in the Torah’s divine origins. But hearing a different story from a Jewish history teacher in a class in my Jewish day school meant that it was okay to question, okay to doubt. That revelation started me on my path to Jewish atheism.
After all, if I could question the Torah’s divine origin, there were surely other aspects of Judaism that I could question. From my kashrut to God’s existence, I doubted, questioned and slowly changed my views. I started reading Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the “New Atheists,” who disdain religion and extoll the values of faithlessness. A lot of young atheists stop there, denounce and abandon religion, and lambast the faithful.
But I wasn’t content with the New Atheists’ answers. After all, I loved my Jewish upbringing, I loved reading about Judaism every night and I loved the chagim (Jewish holidays) most of all.
What’s more, unlike many atheists, I never felt forced to choose between my Jewish practice and my lack of faith. When I told my Jewish friends and family that I was an atheist, it spurred some interesting conversations, but no one seemed particularly bothered. Belief in God has never been a litmus test for my involvement in Jewish spaces. Questioning and doubting were encouraged by my Jewish day school. And so I joined a proud tradition of Jewish atheists.
Becoming an atheist never curtailed my Jewish practice. Realizing that I didn’t believe in God just forced me to ask why I wanted to keep practicing.
Last week, my friend and I were driving through her neighborhood, where she’d moved a few months ago. She, also a Jew and also an atheist, remarked “I wish I went to church here; it just seems like the best way to get to know the community.” That sentiment gets to the heart of my practice.
Church and synagogues are gateways to community, because religions provide an elegant structure to our lives. This structure is at its best when we are at our most helpless. When a close family member dies, Judaism lays out a period of mourning; the seven-day shiva, followed by thirty days of shloshim, followed by a full year. The whole community knows how to act and how to help; everyone is working from the same protocol to support the grievers. God or no God, I can’t imagine a better way than these Jewish customs to cope with life’s most challenging moments.
Still, my Jewish practice is not what it used to be. I don’t pray every day anymore, keep strictly kosher, or wrap tefillin. That’s because I practice Judaism for myself and my community, not for God. I want to celebrate the chagim because they give me an excuse to be with my family and talk and debate about Jewish issues and their contemporary meanings. I fast on Yom Kippur because it forces me to confront my own and my community’s transgressions. I always try to make a minyan (prayer quorum) because I want to offer the same support to others saying kaddish (mourner's prayer) as I know I’ll get in return.
In that sense, my connection to Judaism is straightforward. I love the ingenuity of its structured life and find comfort in its assurance that I will always have a community to fall back on. I’m not sure that these qualities are unique to Judaism. In fact, I know they’re common to all faith-based communities. But Judaism was the vehicle that showed me religion’s capacity for bringing comfort and mobilizing the collective in times of strife. As an atheist, I feel indescribably fortunate to have that kind of community in my life.
Benjy Cannon is the president of J Street U. He holds a BA in Government, Politics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.
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