Reasonable Doubts Blog


Do You Have to Believe in God to be a Jew?

Posted in Defining Judaism by Cheryl Berman on the June 11th, 2010

The interview in the Biblical Archaelogy Review that I have spoken about in previous posts has proved itself to be rich in subject matter. William G. Dever was an evangelical preacher who lost his faith and eventually became a Reform Jew. His story is, as one would expect, fascinating. It was a statement that he read in a book by George Ernest Wright, a professor at Harvard, that ultimately led him to reject religion. Wright wrote “in biblical faith everything depends upon whether the original events actually happened.” Dever, an archaeologist began to work in Israel and started to doubt the historicity of the Bible. That marked the end of his faith. But his work in Israel did not mark his end to his religious life. Surrounded by Jews in Israel, Dever eventually converted to Reform Judaism because “you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew.” He explains “I think Judaism is about practices rather than a correct theology.” Later he clarifies that he is not an atheist, he is an agnostic. I think his estimation of Judaism leads one to an inevitable question: Do you have to believe in God to be a Jew or is Judaism exclusively about practice?

If you look in the Torah itself it seems clear that certain theological ideas are integral to Judaism. The notion of the existence of God is critical to the definition of a Jew. The very conception of Judaism is rooted in Abraham’s acceptance of God over the pagan gods of his time. The notion of God’s involvement in the world and revelation are also integral to the notion of a Jew. The Tanach is replete with stories in which God is involved with mankind and interacts with certain chosen individuals. And the importance of the concept of Divine Justice is apparent from even a brief glimpse of Tanach.

And yet Rabbinic Judaism does not make a list of dogma for Jews to embrace. In fact, The Rabbis of the Talmud seem to have agreed with Dever’s estimation of Judaism. It is essentially a religion of norms, of religious practices, as opposed to certain theological ideas. For Rabbinic Judaism you are considered a Jew if your mother is a Jew; Genetics speak louder than beliefs. So did beliefs play any role in Talmudic Judaism?

It is important to remember than in the time of the Talmud the notion of belief  was qualitatively different from the notion of belief  in medieval times.  If you remember Fowler’s distinction from our first post, belief in ancient times did not mean belief in certain propositions or lists of dogma, it meant a type of allegiance or trust.   A list of dogma would would not have suited the Rabbis concept of belief.  But despite their lack of specific list of ideologies we can see that the recognition of God was of primary importance to the Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud from their ruling regarding the recitation of Kriat Shema. While generally speaking the mitzvot (commandments) do not require intent, when one says Shema he is required to focus on accepting God’s rulership (for lengthier discussions on the laws on kavana (intent) during kriat Shema see http://vbm-torah.org/archive/tefila/67-13tefila.htm and http://www.torah.org/learning/rambam/kriatshema/ks2.1.html )

It wasn’t until the medieval times that Karaism and Islam incited the medievals to define Jewish Dogma. But the ideology expressed in those medieval lists was never  alien to Judaism. I think Lawrence Schiffman sums it up nicely in his response to Dever in the article I mentioned above:

“But I think modern Judaism goes too far with the notion that you don’t have to believe anything to be Jewish. You don’t in the sense that you’re part of the community even if you don’t believe. But the question is, doesn’t Judaism really have in mind that a person will have certain types of faith commitments that are then acted out in certain ways?”

It is easy to lose sight amidst of all the technical Halakhic (legal) discourse that Jews should observe the commandments in order to mold themselves into the type of people who can become closer to God and their fellow man. The mitzvot are not ends in themselves. This is a very important point particularly for sufferers of faith crises. I have had letters from faith crisis sufferers asking me if they should keep doing mitzvot despite the fact that they are struggling to believe. This is based on a general misconception of the concept of mitzvot. We do mitzvot precisely to come to closer to God. Stopping their performance is antithetical to the faith crisis sufferer’s goals. Keep doing the mitzvot. Keep learning Torah. Keep praying. (Even if it seems meaningless.) These are the things that might ultimately bring you back. Always keep in mind that faith is a process.

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