What Can Jews Do When They Don’t Believe in God?

On ‘Judaism Beyond God’ by Sherwin T. Wine

Image by Gabriele Picello from Pixabay

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969. In 1985, he published Judaism Beyond God. It was revised in 1995. This book is “for those Jews who are not traditional, [and] who want to integrate their Jewish identity with their personal convictions.”

Who is a Jew?: On Jewish Identity

“Jewish identity is a kinship identity,” he writes. “Race, nation, and religion” don’t quite fit the bill on their own, but it’s something like that.

Jews worry over and drag out the question of “Who is a Jew?” mostly to avoid settling on an uncomfortable answer that would demand that they change their ways and instead to allow themselves to continue behaving in ways that feel convenient. Some might unconsciously hope that Jewish community will dissatisfy them so they’ll have a more concrete reason to stop showing up.

Some Jews resent being Jewish. If they need to intellectualize their resentment, they often say they choose universalism over any group identity or label. “The preservation of Jewish identity becomes a moral offense [to them] because it maintains unnecessary barriers between people,” Wine explains.

Nonetheless, most Jews value their identity and

would be reluctant to give it up, even if they could. Their ambivalence is a union of discomfort and attachment. They feel guilty about the discomfort and vaguely noble about the attachment. They would like to do something constructive with their Jewish identity. They would like to make it a comfortable part of their life. They would like to attach their deepest convictions and strongest values to it. They would even like the approval of their ancestors for what they choose to do with their existence. But they do not know quite what to do.

Zionism complicates the question. “If Jewish identity is tied to language and territory,” he asks, “what is the status of secular Jews who do not speak Hebrew and who do not live in Israel?” The Zionist argument then naturally slides into the claim that Israeli Jews can be secular (because living in Israel makes them Jewish enough already) but that Diaspora Jews must be religious to earn their identity.

Faith and Reason in Inner Conflict

God isn’t commanding our attention as much anymore, no matter how we understand “God.” Reconfiguring our understanding of God is a surface solution that doesn’t solve the problem.

The developments of Enlightenment philosophy and modern scientific advancements have diminished Jews’ desire and ability to believe in the God of the Torah. Already, by the end of the 20th century when Wine was writing, the rapidly changing technological aspects of the world were overwhelmingly powerful and influential. Another significant challenge was that the rabbis had come up empty-handed when attempting to craft theology that responded to the Holocaust, and everyone saw this failure: The question “Where was God?” simply had no comforting, consistent, or acceptable answer.

Theism, halakhah, and piety had largely been exchanged for reason, humanism, and dignity. “Dignity has emerged as the primary value of the secular age,” Wine writes.

As a result, Jews find themselves in a double-bind: If they abandon the Torah, won’t they be responsible for the disappearance of Jewish identity? But if they outwardly embrace the Torah despite not believing in it, won’t they lack integrity? This situation makes Jews feel guilty.

Some Jews lean all the way toward secularism; others, toward religious fundamentalism; but the majority, at least in the United States, are ambivalent. That’s the way Wine describes the Reform and Conservative movements: “They wish to disown neither faith nor reason. They want to have both.” For people in these movements, Jewishness becomes “a cultural and nostalgic experience” while their actual life philosophy “is a private commitment — or a commitment exercised in a group other than a Jewish one.” In this imagining of the way the world works, “if Moses and Einstein met each other, they would have a friendly conversation.” Unfortunately, people who have a foot in both worlds have to constantly rationalize the obvious disconnect. They tend to keep the old prayers and ritual observance and then deliver a humanistic sermon. Absurd, yes, but “emotionally satisfying” for many people.

These major American Jewish movements, the so-called “Ambivalents” in Wine’s language, lost steam, however, and “ultimately plugged into Zionist energy to keep their own sluggish enterprises going.” It often seems now that “loyalty to the Jewish people and allegiance to the state of Israel” are connected at the root, and again, Jews would rather let that conflation stand than go through the discomfort of untangling it. Today, these “Ambivalents” do not know who they are without Zionism and cannot let go of Zionism even though the State of Israel doesn’t really need them in return. Israel is something they hang their hat on so that their Jewish identity is pinned to something.

How Can Jews Practice ‘Judaism Beyond God’?

In a few broad strokes, here’s the important parts:

Holidays: In his book, Wine names ten major Jewish holidays that should remain central to Humanistic Judaism.

Shabbat: He says that Shabbat can be “a weekly time to affirm the importance of our Jewish identity” without feigning the “abstinence” that is traditionally required on a day of rest. In this way, “we become free to make it as Jewish as we want, in whatever way we want, and for however long we want.”

Prayer (or the lack thereof): Humanist Jews “insist that meditation and message fit together.” That means not reciting prayers (meditations) in which they don’t believe, realizing that no follow-up message — neither a sermon nor any other kind of apology — will excuse that ideological betrayal. Instead, Humanist Jews can rewrite prayers, meditations, and reflections so that the words reflect their actual beliefs. It’s OK to be nostalgic for prayers we used to know, but it’s more important to use words we believe in. “The question ‘Is it true?’ is more important than the question ‘Is it Jewish?’” he says. “The Sh’ma is Jewish, but it is not, from our perspective, true. The Kaddish is Jewish, but it is not consistent with what we believe.” We need to trust that our own beliefs and practices, not someone else’s, make something authentically Jewish.

Bar and Bat Mitzvahs: Mitzvah ceremonies for children can involve the study of history or ethics without requiring a Torah reading.

Study: Collective Jewish identity can be based on whatever actual Jews have made of it. More emphasis should be placed on relatively modern Jewish history than on ancient characters from the Torah. Meanwhile, the Torah can be honored as literature, “but let no humanist worship it or imagine that Jewish identity and ethical living depend on it.”

Here’s the Book

If you’re looking for Wine’s book, you can find it at the International Institute For
Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. Judaism Beyond God. (1985, revised 1995). Ebook by the Society for Humanistic Judaism, 2016.

Writing on dignity, democracy, and the pursuit of truth. Author: ‘Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty’ https://tuckerlieberman.com/ten-past-noon

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