Can there be Judaism without belief in God? This was a question asked of a variety of Jewish thinkers in the September/October 2011 issue of Moment Magazine. Sadly, I was not among them. But that is what blogs are for. So, I ask myself, can there be Judaism without belief in God?
First, let me make clear what was not asked, namely, can there be Judaism without God? The issue here is belief in God and not the reality of God per se.
Since God is not the issue, the answer to this question depends on one’s definition of Judaism. Borrowing from my teacher Mordecai Kaplan, I define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jews—in other words Judaism is what Jews do and the stories we tell ourselves to explain why we do what we do. Defined this way, can there be Judaism without a belief in God? Absolutely, and we can see hints of this in those forms of Judaism where Land has replaced God, and others where Folk has replaced God.
The content of the civilization we call Judaism isn’t fixed or even self–evident. This is why there are so many brands of Judaism. The existence of “Judaism” only requires people willing to fill the meme “Judaism” with ideas that matter to them, demand that their ideas are somehow “Jewish,” and then spend their lives arguing in defense of them. This can even be done—and I am a prime example—when you know the entire enterprise is a literary creation fashioned and refashioned by thousands of Jews over millennia.
When I play the game Monopoly and put up hotels on the square marked “Marvin Gardens,” I don’t for a second believe that I own actual hotels on actual property called Marvin Gardens. It is the conceit of the game, and, since it is a game I enjoy playing, I suspend disbelief and play. When people stop enjoying Monopoly the game will fade away. The same is true of Judaism: As long as Jews want to play, Judaism will exist; and as long as Jews can reinvent the game so that we do want to play, Judaism will thrive. The danger today isn’t a lack of belief in God, but a lack of a Jews knowledgeable and daring enough to reinvent the game in their own image.
One might define a serious Jew—the kind of Jew we need to keep Judaism vibrant and alive—as a person who chooses to argue about, challenge, and reinvent the game of Judaism more than she or he chooses to argue about, challenge, and reinvent any other game, even if, like me, she knows the entire enterprise is make–believe. Serious Jews are a dwindling commodity.
So, Can there be Judaism without belief in God? Yes. Can there be Judaism without serious Jews? No.