Jews Without God Are Just as Legitimately Jewish

Two responses to Eric Yoffie's op-ed, 'A godless Judaism isn't the answer': Don't dismiss the values and beliefs of so many fellow Jews committed to secular forms of Judaism.

Jews of every description have been riveted since the release of the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of American Jews.” Many voices have been raised, including here at Haaretz – in some cases to offer solutions and in others to defend the status quo.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, offered his critique of the secular and cultural Jewishness that Michael Felsen, leader of the Boston Workmen's Circle, discussed earlier. Rabbi Yoffie prefers to call it “godless Judaism,” a blanket descriptor not borne out by the data.

With all due respect to Yoffie, describing as “preposterous” an approach to Jewish life that 22% of American Jews (and 32% of Jews under 35 in this country) have chosen is not a constructive response to the survey’s findings. We’re deeply troubled by his willingness to dismiss and denigrate the values and beliefs of large numbers of his fellow Jews. We truly hope that there will be others in the Reform movement and across the spectrum of Jewish life that will instead join with us in the formation of broad coalition of individuals and institutions working together to consider new pathways to Jewish meaning and engagement for the audiences Pew has identified.

Let’s not waste this opportunity to work together toward a new, inclusive vision for Jewish peoplehood. The message could not be clearer if it were thundered down from Mount Sinai, and turning away is not an option.

Most important, we want to speak directly to the 22% of American Jews who have now been labeled “Jews of no religion” to tell them that they are valued here. The Workmen’s Circle has a 113-year legacy of creating rich, meaningful Jewish experiences that don’t have religious rituals at their center. Our movement celebrates our history, our culture, our values and our shared identity. We welcome you, and we would love to include you in our growing community.

Ann Toback is the Executive Director of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. A lifelong activist and trained attorney, Ann previously served as a trade union leader at the Writers Guild of America, East, and Assistant Executive Director from 1999-2008.

Jews who embrace tradition without a belief in God deserve as much respect and communal support as any theological faction among our people

In “A Godless Judaism Isn’t the Answer,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie argues that “the American Jewish community should not invest … in aggressively secular Jewish programs,” because only Jewish identities rooted in religion are sustainable over time. But Yoffie never clearly describes what makes an identity “religious,” and this vagueness allows him both to knock down some straw (secular)-men and to evade a concrete defense of “religion” as the sine qua non of enduring Jewish life.

Yoffie correctly notes that many prominent Jewish secularisms of the previous two centuries discarded the lion’s share of Jewish traditions and were generationally short-lived. Indeed, although other forces (e.g., Stalin and Hitler) were factors in their demise, it is likely that Bundism’s and Labor Zionism’s allergy to almost any tradition “tainted” by religion impoverished and weakened these secular movements.

However, this allergy need not be inherited by the offspring of such secularisms. Theorists of secularism, such as Chaim Zhitlovsky, warned against throwing the baby of tradition out with the bath-water of supernaturalism, and argued that secularists can and should value the historical creations of the Jewish people, including creations originating in religious thought and feeling.

Some of the current incarnations of Jewish secularism scornfully dismissed by Yoffie, (the Workmen’s Circle, secular Jewish Humanism) do just that, and Yoffie’s suggestion that secularists (I guess the open declaration of their secularism makes them “aggressive”) are condemned to build their Jewish identity without traditional texts, rituals, and social norms is simply false: Jewish secularists read and discuss Chumash, celebrate b’nai mitzva, congregate to honor ancestors, sustain community, show solidarity with fellow Jews, and express common values through Jewish song and poetry. Secular Jews make Pesach Seders, perform Purim spiels, reflect on and regret their moral failings on Yom Kippur, and weekly light Shabbat candles.

Most importantly, secular Jews feel compelled (albeit not by some transcendent, supernatural being) to live righteous lives, and hold that an autonomously generated Mitzvah is just as commanding as orders from On High. Although he asserts that “absent Torah, mitzvoth, ritual and sacred texts, there is no Judaism,” as a Reform Jew, Yoffie surely knows that there are many ways to approach cherished Jewish texts, ideas, and practices. Why is the secular approach uniquely deficient?

Is it because secularists abandon parts of the tradition they no longer find meaningful, believable, or morally acceptable? But all Jews do that — some unwittingly, and some - such as Reform Jews - quite consciously. Most of Yoffie’s co–denominationalists do not lay tefillin, just as most contemporary “traditional” Jews have fewer wives than Jacob. Things change, traditions evolve. Reform Jews embrace the transformation and development of tradition; so what‘s Yoffie’s beef with secularism? When he accuses secularists of “vociferously exclud[ing] the religious dimension of Judaism,” of lacking a “religious anchor,” of “isolating” Jewish peoplehood from “the religious,” of “rejecting” the Jewish religion, of being Jewishly “one dimensional,” - precisely what is the charge?

Godlessness; Yoffie believes secularists have the wrong theology. He tells us that “godless Judaism has never been the answer, and it will not be the answer now.” What Yoffie finds “silly” and “preposterous” is the notion that a Jewish community can endure through time without a belief in God.

But a secularist is bound to ask Yoffie: “Which conception of God must I believe in to successfully sustain Jewish identity?” Is it Mordecai Kaplan’s naturalistic “process by which the Universe produces persons?” Is it the older, supernatural “King of the World?” Will any one of the myriad conceptual variants of the divine found in the sea of Jewish thought suffice? Without knowing just what it is Jews must believe in order to survive as a people, how does Yoffie know secularists are bereft of the idea? How can he argue that theistic belief is essential without saying what it is? Is Yoffie claiming that in order to maintain our Jewish heritage we need to mouth the word “god” (or at least “my Lord,” “the Name,” or “the endless one”) empty of meaning, or regardless of giving it any specific content or having any actual belief?

Some historical Jewish secularisms may have withered in part because of a cavalier or hostile attitude toward much of their Jewish heritage, but theology had little to do with it. Many great non-theistic traditions (see Confucianism and some forms of Buddhism) have been passed on through the ages. Jews, like any ongoing historical community, require a usable past to give depth to our present and meaning to our future. A mature secularism can makes the past more usable for many Jews by moving beyond the theism many secularists find, to use Yoffie’s word, preposterous. Secularists could and should be, and most are, as tolerant about other Jews’ metaphysics as Yoffie’s says he is of their personal choices: Let individuals believe whatever gives them comfort. However, Jews who engage, inhabit and hew authentic meaning from Jewish tradition without an accompanying theism deserve as much respect and communal support as any theological faction among our people.

Mitchell Silver lives in Newton, Massachusetts and is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. His publications in include Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education (University of Massachusetts Press,1998) and A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology (Fordham University Press, 2006).

The Workmen's Circle