Yes, You Can Be A Jewish Atheist
To say that Judaism is a religion is to misunderstand two things.
First, the term “religion” is a new word coined in the post-Enlightenment era, with no parallel or synonyms in any ancient language. In the pre-Enlightenment world there was no separate religious domain in one’s life; rather rituals, beliefs, and practices permeated every aspect of one’s being and society.
Many of the early post-Enlightenment scholars of religion were from a Protestant background, a tradition which is heavily focused on one’s personal theological beliefs. Unsurprisingly then, when they began to study the phenomenon that they coined “religion”, they spoke about it and defined it as though belief was at the forefront and everything else was secondary.
This was never the case with Judaism.
Unlike Christianity, there were never Jewish councils that came up with lists of acceptable dogmas, branding any dissenters heretics. While some Jewish philosophers, most notably Maimonides, did attempt to come up with a comprehensive list of dogmas, it was never accepted and normalized by the mainstream Jewish community.
Simply put, applying the Protestant concept of religion to Judaism is to ignore the reality of the 3,000 year Jewish tradition.
Second, from the inception of Judaism, Jewish identity was transferred through birth. At some point in antiquity the marker switched over from the father to the mother, but from the beginning you were Jewish because of your parents.
The importance of this point cannot be overstated. Since Judaism is passed down genetically it means that we are not simply a religion, but rather a people or a nation. A religion isn’t deserving of its own country but a nation most certainly is (think Israel).
And this isn’t just some cute idea that all Jews are part of the same family. Scores of genetic studies all point to the fact that Jews from every community across the globe have shared ancestry that dates back to ancient Israel. This point is irrefutable.
The real question is not whether or not you can be a Jewish atheist. Of course you can. And if you are personally an atheist, do not let anyone dissuade you from becoming a part of the community.
The real question is whether an atheist can be a good Jew.
But then that requires us to define “good Jew,” which I suspect would be wholly subjective and require a bit more than a short online article.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
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Can an atheist be a Jew? [Administrators note: similar questions exists on JVO at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=142, and http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id-48.]
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