Archive for October, 2011

Can One Be Jewish Without Belief in God?

Friday, October 28th, 2011
by Sam Glaser


4H CloverI spent half my life agnostic and the balance, God-focused.  Growing up in a Los Angeles-based Conservative Jewish family, we never dabbled in theology but relished in our culture and peoplehood.  In the synagogue, our clergy and teachers presented everything other than belief, concentrating on what I like to call the four H’s: Holy Land, Holocaust, Hebrew and Holidays.  I can testify that there is plenty within these parameters to fill a Jewish soul with meaning and substance; one can live a happy and very Jewish life, cradle to grave.


That said, I think there’s a fifth “H” in the formula and that’s Holiness.  I’m hard pressed to recommend a way to incorporate this core Jewish value without bringing God into the picture. Post-college I started asking fundamental questions, comparing my feelings of universal connectedness to the teachings of Judaism.  On a trip to Israel in 1985 my light was turned on.  I discovered that in Jerusalem, living a holy life with 24/7 belief in God was natural, normal, even fashionable.  I could have lived my whole life in the Southern California fast lane and never opened this can of worms.Many of my deepest intuitions about God were confirmed in that City of Gold and although I didn’t realize it at the time, my Jewish “pilot light” was primed to explode.


After that trip I lived with a generous helping of cognitive dissonance since my life back in L.A. didn’t flow with the rigorous lifestyle of believers. However, try as I may, I could not go back to sleep, to return to my comfortable “unexamined life.”  After a few years in limbo I decided to take a few proactive steps to get back on the holiness track. It seems that that this “fifth H” was free in Jerusalem but in L.A. I was going to have to work for it.  One crucial step was moving into a Jewish community.  Living close to a synagogue (or in my case forty of them) was essential to normalizing a God-focused consciousness.  I don’t think I had the moral strength to make these spiritual strides in a vacuum.  Perhaps this is why God invented peer pressure.


The other change was my committing to Shabbat. I think Shabbat Candlesthe Torah emphasizes this ritual over any other because it offers consistent physical, financial and emotional evidence that one is serious about the relationship.  You can’t hope your marriage will last if you insist on flings on the side.  I remember my last gig on Shabbat: it was clear to me that the exponential growth that I was experiencing didn’t jive with the driving, shlepping gear, plugging in and getting a paycheck.  Thanks to the infernal power of Commitment, just like my marriage has bloomed beyond my wildest expectations, so too has my love affair with the Creator of the universe.


I resonate with the popular parable of the miserable bird in the Garden of Eden.  The bird complains to God that all the other animals have arms and hands and it is stuck with burdensome appendages at its sides.  God then explains that those strange limbs are actually wings and with them the bird can FLY!  Of course, this story teaches us that the mitzvot are our wings, not the burden that we might have thought.  For me, the clumsy appendages were the dietary restrictions that I ignored, the day of rest on which I trampled and the idea of standing in a sanctuary singing words I didn’t understand.  Like most Jews I was content to do it “My Way” and live with a vague, hibernating feeling of guilt.


Bird in HandIn the first half of my life, Judaism was relaxed and sweet; questions of belief in God rarely came up and that was fine.  I loved my Jewish summer camp memories, learned enough for my Bar Mitzvah that I didn’t feel like an imbecile in the synagogue and could appreciate a good deli sandwich.  Then I was shown a path and eventually took a series of baby steps towards commitment.  God gives each of us permission to take the journey in Deuteronomy:  This commandment that I set before you today is neither remote nor inaccessable from you.  It is not in heaven, so that you should say, “Why shall ascend to the heavens and bring it down to us so that we can understand it and keep it?”  It is not beyond the sea, so that you should ask, “Who will cross the sea and bring it back for us so that we can understand and keep it?”  Indeed, it is very close to you – it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.


Sure, one can be Jewish without belief in God. But I believe the Jewish people were meant to fly.