Jewish atheism?


In a recent survey undertaken in the USA (Sept 2011) amongst religious groups, members of the Jewish community responded to the question about the importance of believing in G-d as a prerequisite to practising Judaism. According to the survey results, approximately half of the respondents felt that belief in G-d was not necessary in order to be a practising Jew. Yes, Jewish atheism. Daniel Septimus in his article on (‘Must a Jew believe in God?’) attempts to explore the philosophical disconnect (as he sees it) in Rabbinic/Talmudic Judaism between belief IN and belief THAT, that an acceptance mental or otherwise of the theoretical requirement OF G-d does not equate to the actual existence. Such propositional sophistry may help to calm modern Jewish minds steeped in the scientific and naturalistic zeitgeist of our day, but it surely falls foul of the internal logic and dynamic of Torah itself. If the commandments are a fabrication of Moshe, maybe even the accumulated wisdom of the ages as he saw it, then such regulations and commands are relative to his age and time and may not be true today. It would be, after all, merely human. To have disobeyed such commandments then would incur no penalty, no judgements from a G-d now disavowed. As welcome as such a thought might be, and which may even explain the trajectory towards a communal victim mentality, the Torah is insistent in its denial. The prophet Jeremiah while announcing the plan of HaShem to discipline Israel and Judah, connects such judgements to a solitary act: ‘those who handle the Torah do not know me’ Jer 2:8. Such a statement destroys the mind-massaged myth of a sanitised atheism. It connects Torah to G-d and the ability to understand it to knowing HIM, not about Him or that He propositionally exists. To be a Jew and receive the revelation from G-d that is Torah is to fundamentally define our national, communal and faith borders. And it is this word revelation that sets up the framework within which we live and function as Jews. Torah is not the collective wisdom of mankind, it is the mainstay of a national covenant between a G-d who is alive and knowable. He is not a philosophy or a theoretical higher force or power; He is the G-d who brought us out of Egypt, demonstrating that by His physical interventions into the created universe He has Life, emotion, commitment, faithfulness, Love. The definitions of His existence are predicated on His actions: deliverance, redemption, release and salvation. G-d’s very existence is a core principle of Judaism according to the internal testimony. And having established this core fact Jeremiah reminds us that to KNOW Him is to understand Him, to understand His revelation at Sinai to us. Not knowing Him is the very beginning of our problems, yet thankfully as Jeremiah later concludes in chapter 31, there will come a time when ALL will know Him, all WILL know Him.

Jewish atheism? I think not. Yet according to Halacha mere birth from a Jewish mother will suffice to define your Jewishness. Of course we hope you will go on to be observant, but even if not, being Jewish is your inalienable right (unless you’re a Messianic Jew…). The Torah would teach otherwise. To be defined by a revelational covenant binds us as a people to all the implications of that reality too. Real Jewish renewal will surely begin once we turn back to G-d once more and admit to His presence in our history, nation and personal lives. To come to terms with Him again.

Applying the right medicine

We live in an age where ‘management-speak’ rules the workplace and increasingly our own personal lives. And to be fair, not all of it is bad either. One of the tag-lines banded about so often is that we should all become self-reflective practitioners, to develop the ability to self-analyse and be self-critical with a view to self-improvement. Leaving aside for a moment the element of ‘self’ in all this which panders to our modern perception of the importance of our own individuality and self-worth (ego), the idea that we should take a sharply self-critical view of ourselves is in line with Torah thinking, and Yom Kippur was not that long ago that we should have already forgotten the positive impact of such deep inner reflection. The question however arises as to what to do when one has correctly assessed the real situation you find yourself in; what medicine or even antidote do you apply. What is the way ahead?

In the lest few weeks two very interesting articles have highlighted both the situation and the question. We ARE beginning to recognise that Judaism just can’t carry on like it is now, that we need renewal and reformation. I have quoted at some length from the article below with links for further reading:

The Pew report in the USA discusses the assimilatory tendencies in American Judaism, and the projected end of the community in that country: <The Pew report shows unequivocally that today’s American Jewry (..) derives its Jewish identity from factors completely devoid of any semblance of the source of Jewishness: Judaism.

What both the Pew survey, as well as common sense, confirms is that the only honest and sustainable justification to be Jewish is belief in the holiness of the Torah and the sanctity of the commandments therein. You either truly believe in divinity or you ascribe the holy texts to the lunatic ramblings of dessert wanderers, driven mad by infinite sand and desolate horizons. You simply can’t have it both ways.>

These are indeed noble sentiments addressing a real question, the loss of Jewish identity and how to get it back again. The author points correctly to where the solution is to be found: in rediscovering what Judaism is about. That is impossible without engaging with the G-d who gave us this revelation beyond worth.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, a popular rabbi in the UK who heads the Spiritual Capital Foundation, wrote at length recently on the same topic and problem in the Jewish Chronicle 6.9.13 ‘Talking about G-d is the last taboo’, but addressing the need for renewal and its focus more directly: <If we are to advance a Judaism that is compelling and relevant to the majority of thinking Jewish adults today we need to move beyond the simplistic and uni-dimensional concept of God that is taught to children and to develop a theology that captures our experience of God in an increasingly complex world.

We need a theology that takes account of such issues as evolution, biblical criticism, feminism, universalism and pluralism. We need a theology that reflects the reality of the State of Israel and Jewish power rather than one that echoes Jewish victimhood. The cost of not continuously renewing our theology is to allow a growing rift to develop between God and our lived experience, rendering God irrelevant. Judaism gave the world the gift of monotheism. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to ensure that it remains more than a cultural artefact.

We need our rabbis, educators and thinkers to engage deeply in questions about God and His place in our world so as to shape a powerful, relevant and compelling God-Conscious Judaism for the 21st century.>

His brave and determined words face up to the reality of our situation and reach forward for answers. His courage is to be applauded for dealing head on with the real issue for Jewish identity in a modern and post-modern world: We need to talk about G-d. To stop hiding in historical issues however severe and begin to positively map out the territory that is Jewish and Israeli.

But it surely must be even more than this too. To talk about G-d is to ask the timeless question ‘who is G-d?’ This is not to ask ‘who’ in the historical sense of the G-d of our Fathers, but who He is in terms of His nature, character, yes even ‘personality’. What can we expect of Him? The questions edge towards a more fundamental issue: to know who G-d is, is to know Him. Knowing is relational and not mental or academic. It is why He defines Himself as ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’, historical acts and events DEFINE who G-d is. We know Him by His deeds. How many of us have that deep a relationship with G-d to recognise when He acts in our lives, and even more, would know it to be HIM because it fits our experiential and theological expectations. That G-d chooses to self-declare as the One who delivers, sets free and redeems from Egypt is crucial to our understanding of who He is. Our G-d brings freedom. It is also why in the first century that many of our people from all classes and strata of Jewish society accepted Yeshua as Mashiach because in and through Him they could see and experience the freedom, redemption and salvation promised in Judaism as a hallmark of G-d’s activity in the affairs of men. Such public demonstrations brought forth the response in the people ‘G-d has visited His people’ (Besorah according to Lukas).

So let’s talk about G-d. Let’s begin the discussion and debate before it is too late. Our Jewish identity hangs on us knowing who our G-d is, before we cease to care.

Jews for Judaism

Well, what else would we be for? Judaism is, after all, what Jews do, isn’t it? And of course it is this obvious response to the truism of the phrase that the so called ‘anti-missionary’ organisation thus named expects. I have no issue with Jews ‘doing’ Judaism, nor with an organisation that attempts to ensure that Jews continue to ‘do’ Judaism. Judaism is what has been given to the descendants of Avraham as the revelation on Sinai; our precious call and task (and consequent national spiritual responsibility) to inform the nations too of the righteous standards of the Creator G-d in whose image ALL humanity was and is made. When we see this, we can, and should, only conclude that Judaism IS good. It IS G-d’s good gift to us as His people.

So, how odd then that the word Judaism has become such a byword for something that is wrong, incomplete or old-fashioned. Worse, as David Nirenberg wrote recently in his Jewish Chronicle essay (‘Anti-Judaism – a prejudice far more deeply embedded than anti-Semitism’, ‘Judaism’ has come to be a negative emotional, mental and cultural concept that people use to make sense of their world and the problems in it. It also explains the modern rise of anti-Judaism where anti-Semitism is too risky a cultural option. This cultural, spiritual framework, where ‘Judaism’ is seen as a problem, an unreformed (and unreformable?) relic of the past, can only produce a twisted view of a current reality.

This is certainly true today in the growing Messianic Jewish movement. There are some who insist on categorising this Jewish revival movement as just about anything other than Judaism. One senses the cultural and spiritual unease in words spoken and written. Unable to move beyond the narrow confines of a monolithically self-defined Judaism that has defended its borders well from all invaders, and to be fair kept us ethnically if not always spiritually protected down the millennia, many feel uneasy about reformatting the Jewish hard-drive. Yet Jewish renewal has been a constant friend of the Jewish nation and people down the centuries. We have survived because of innovation and the ability to take the living words of G-d and apply them flexibly, intuitively to each new generation.  To renew IS to act Jewishly. To have the courage to renew takes faith and a determination to see our people turned back to our G-d once more.

At the heart of the Jewish renewal called Messianic Judaism is the restoration of the Mashiach, Yeshua, the JEWISH Messiah who was born, lived and died a Jew. His followers, all Jews, continued this radical renewal of the Jewish faith, and yet, there will still be some who cannot get beyond the vague uneasy feeling that there is a problem with Judaism per se. There is not. It needs renewal in Mashiach and we continue to work and pray for that. Jews for Judaism? Absolutely.

What is at stake?

There is a very good reason why architects have to study to a high level before they begin to actually design houses and buildings for people to live in and for life to function in. Surely we all may have a dream house in our minds eye of what and how this ideal dwelling should look like etc. Few though would be so foolish as to grab a spade and start to dig, lay the walls and so on, knowing that without the right foundation being laid, mathematically worked out, and without load bearing walls correctly located, any final ‘dream’ construct will collapse and possibly cause loss of life too in the process. So too the process of renovation and building renewal; a thorough understanding of the pattern of construction and design envisaged by the original Architect is required before such a process can begin. The point? If Judaism (in the general sense of that word as the ‘religion’ outlined by the Torah and Tanach) is to be renewed then we MUST reconstruct along the lines originally envisaged by the One who first called the ‘building’ into existence.

What is at stake? Everything. If we get this basic understanding wrong then the whole edifice will collapse and cause untold harm to Israel, the global Jewish community and to the nations too who look to us for inspiration and spiritual guidance. Messianic Judaism is a renewal Judaism, seeking to renew and rejuvenate Judaism in line with original Torah precept. Many it seems in our day are trying to re-decorate the house, some even revamping the first floor with ‘Messianic’ wallpaper and shifting the load bearing walls at will. But the foundation hasn’t been touched. If the modern foundation of what has become known as ‘Judaism’ is out of true, then no amount of tinkering in the loft will save the building, in fact it could be disastrous for all concerned.. This renewal has to go right back to below ground level, back to the original plans written by the Creator and Designer Himself. And if that means re-digging the foundations, then so be it.

Mashiach Yeshua told a story about new wine in old wine-skins, that an external form needs to be appropriate and fit for service for the contents therein. Tinkering on the edges will cause the skin to burst, the building to collapse. Judaism is a ‘faith’ that is predicated on salvation, the acts of deliverance of our G-d down the ages, His desire and call to us to return to Him from our sins and wayward lives. This ‘sub-text’ is the motif (foundation) that connects Judaism and Jewish thinking, and all these threads lead to One man, One act in history that brought the possibility of salvation to all who would call on His Name: Yeshua. This ‘sub-text’ creates the right foundations for the whole building, and so we can build, reinvigorate the construction according to ancient precept and design, confident that with the core idea in place, all redesign work will function correctly.

Messianic Judaism is NOT a renewed form of Rabbinic or better Talmudic Judaism. That form exists to serve its own purposes. Messianic Judaism seeks the old paths and desires to walk in them. Nothing short of a radical redefinition of Judaism orientated around the halacha Yeshua taught will suffice. Anything else will crumble before our eyes. What is at stake? Everything. During these days of awe running up to Yom Kippur we should not just consider a redecoration plan but a thorough inspection of everything in our Jewish lives that may be out of kilter.


Everyone is talking about: demography. Barely a day goes by when the long term predictions about the number of Jewish people living in Israel discourages and the number of those marrying out disappoints. Facing the onslaught of the world, its values and beliefs, the sheer difficulty at times of living in Israel against all odds , being a part of the Jewish community can feel like being a people under siege, fighting to exist and even argue our case to exist!

In recent articles by the Jerusalem Post (12th July 2013) this was highlighted and once more the debate turned on the issue of Jewish survival. We must survive! We must do whatever it takes to survive! Now, no one will disagree with this, of course, and we must survive and will survive because the living G-d of Israel has decreed it to be so. JA Chairman Nathan Sharansky went on the record saying that the solution to this survival was to strengthen Jewish identity. We must endure that our children identify with Jewish life, nationhood and culture. Agreed. Again, Harry Triguboff argued that we could lose a whole generation of Jews unless we educate as, and teach our children to be Jews. Agreed. But the whole purpose of these proposed good acts is to… survive. It seems that to preserve the Jewish people is the highest goal; the aim of our existence is to exist; we survive so we can survive.

Is this what G-d has called us to? Were we brought up out of Egypt so we can survive? Given our own homeland so we can be preserved like some museum piece for the nations to look at? Is ‘mere’ survival the national aim of the Jewish people? We are a particular people but we have a universal message. We have Jewish roots but Jewish branches too for those of the nations to come and sit in. You can’t keep a good thing to yourself! Through us was given the oracles of G-d, states Rav Shaul; the very concepts of redemption, salvation, forgiveness, repentance, restoration, the idea of Mashiach and the truth of the One true G-d of all mankind were given through the calling and election of the nation, the people of Israel.

‘Merely’ educating in who and what we are will not set the next generation on fire with a passion to be Jewish. Bringing our young people to the feet of the One who called us in the first place, to serve Him and the national mission entrusted to us will however bring a passion with it. We shall survive because G-d is not liar and His word is faithful and true. Let us not worry about survival but serving the One to whom we owe our lives and to whom we give our allegiance. Let us concern ourselves with the calling to bring a message of hope and salvation to a world that so desperately needs it.

You’re not a Jew unless……

I was shocked, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I was not shocked for myself as my spiritual skin has grown too thick for that, but for the sheer audacity of hearing someone make a claim that so palpably couldn’t be and wasn’t true. I was told by a representative of an organisation that works with farmers on the ‘West Bank’ that ‘unless I had been to the West Bank I was not a Jew’. Not a ‘real’ one at least… After all, a ‘real’ Jew would have connections with the soil, the ‘earth’ of Ha’aretz, the ‘Biblical’ heartland of our inheritance. Leaving aside for one moment the obvious romanticism of such a statement, a romanticism that motivates many to behave in interesting ways in Israel, it did make me consider just what categories we do use to ‘sub-group’ each other. I suppose we could go on and add many more categories to the above one: you’re not a Jew unless you visit Jerusalem, place a prayer into the Western Wall, eat kosher (according to this or that community’s ruling), wear clothing from a this or that historic time period in Eastern Europe, adhere to various modesty standards, light the Shabbat candles in a certain way, stand (or sit) for Shema and so on. The list is truly inexhaustible. And we as Jews are very good at self-defining according to multiple and complicated variations on a theme.

Of course, there is one category that we CAN use to help clarify an otherwise muddled situation. Instead of applying our own human definitions according to our own likes and dislikes, personal preferences and tastes, maybe we should listen to what G-d Himself says about this. In a startling, yet not unsurprising statement, Rav Shaul declares that ‘not all Israel is Israel’. Not unsurprising because this would not have caused an eyebrow to be raised when it was written nearly 2000 years ago. Everyone was attempting to define the almost impossible, answer the elusive question that has dogged Jewish minds for what seems an eternity: ‘who is a Jew’? In the context of election and promise that is the backbone of Israeli, Jewish history, Rav Shaul summarises that a Jew is one ‘who is a Jew inwardly’. Far from declaring that the external forms of righteousness and mitzvot are meaningless, he radically draws our attention back to what actually counts: the inner world of Jewish values and a changed heart. It is not enough, nor acceptable, to have an external form of Judaism alone, nor even in the above context to have Jewish soil under your fingernails if at the same time life-giving and life-changing Jewish values are absent from your instinctive, motivational, and internal life. To have a circumcised heart, to believe in and accept the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua, IS the most Jewish thing in the world to do and be: a Jew inwardly.

Judaism is not a philosophy.

According to the dictionary, philosophy is defined as: the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. In other descriptions it is defined as a system of thought, or a created systematised paradigm of meaning attached to otherwise random events and situations. In other words, it is a human invention of creating meaning from apparent chaos, a way of looking at the world. Judaism fails this definition as a revelation from G-d, an absolute, a ‘given’, a revealed truth that is fundamentally not created nor invented by mankind. To be sure, there are Jewish philosophers (who can be failed to be moved by Abraham Heschel in his towering philosophical work ‘G-d in search of man’), and there are philosophies OF Judaism, drawn from its ethos and spirit. But fundamentally Judaism in its essence is not a philosophy.

The trap however is easy to fall into. Mankind constantly strives to better itself, to create ever better societal and cultural models of values and frameworks, be they political or moral. The more recent fad of the fashionable ‘self-help’ manuals is illustrative of not only the disillusionment of the corporate value system to be replaced by the individual, personal meaning-giving ‘lifestyle’, but also of the drive in us all to ‘understand’, to fill the G-d-shaped vacuum of life. It is easy to see Judaism in this way. Many celebrities (and others) do exactly this, for example chasing Kabbalah for its esoteric enlightenment and cognitive, quasi spiritual high that fixes the momentary need in a me-first generation. An easy trap, yes, and one that sadly even the esteemed departing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks failed to avoid just last week when he commented to a group of freshly ordained rabbis at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London ‘Never forget, if you lift (Torah) high it will lift you high’ (JC 12th July 2013, p12).

Seen this way, Torah is reduced to another of the ‘self-help’ manuals of our time. Follow the way of life laid out in this text and you will have success. These words, sadly, could be said of any text of our time written by any of the current plethora of modern ‘gurus’ trying to help mankind. Surely we should and must understand that Torah, in itself, has no power to change us or give us success in life. While some will undoubtedly argue (rightly) that the words contained therein are living and powerful, they are only this because of…. the fact that there is a living, speaking, powerful G-d behind them who continues to speak and change lives today. Words are cheap and plentiful, the question is who speaks them. If our G-d speaks then lives can be changed. It is this encounter with the G-d who IS, who is alive, that fundamentally can, will and must change things, lives, situations, not a reading however close of a text or philosophy. Beliefs, practices, theology and philosophy will shape and form your life and maybe even give it some substance, but only G-d can change it.

Judaism is not a philosophy. If it is, we reduce it to the mundane and human. It is not a ‘success manual’. It is the way of righteousness to all who would believe and embrace the encounter with the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov who is alive.

Maintaining a false dichotomy

Many years ago I remember an elderly man talking to a group of school children in a synagogue explaining to them that at the heart of Judaism was ‘deed not creed’. He went on to say that Judaism isn’t about what you believed, but how you acted. In essence, he concluded, as long as we adhere to the Shema, the rest is commentary. The children seemed to be impressed with these ‘wise’ words spoken by a Jewish man of such wide life experience. They troubled me then, and still do. Yet we still find such ‘parolen’ casually marshalled together to defend our faith against those who seem to espouse a merely faith-framed religion. The words have become a part of a demarcation zone, handed down and rarely challenged, Even an eminent Rabbi of Benjamin Blech’s standing cannot resist the inevitable draw of this statement (p48, Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism) when he concludes ‘Judaism places deed over creed’.

Pause for a moment and consider this: as long as we do the ‘right thing’ what we believe is unimportant? Now, to be fair, I know that no Rabbi ever means that when these words are spoken, but to say them utterly undermines the reality of the Torah and the full revelation given to us by G-d. It is precisely because we believe and have faith that we act in a certain way. Just one example will suffice: it is logical for a pantheist to worship a tree because the a priori belief is that deity is resident in all the natural order and objects. Belief frames actions. Avraham was willing to leave his home nation and family (action) because of his nascent faith and trust (belief) in the One true G-d who had revealed Himself to him. So for Moses Mendelssohn to state ‘There is not in the Mosaic Law a single command ‘Thou shalt believe’. Faith is not commanded. Only actions are.’ (ibid p48) is to miss the point completely. The reality of this false deed/creed divide is seen even in the first commandment: ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’, in other words a bold statement of historical, verifiable deeds which revealed the nature and character of our G-d; a statement and action that actually demands a response from us. And that response as an act of belief and faith is to keep the commandments that follow. Belief, faith, trust always precede action. These precede it because they frame our response to G-d and who He is, how He has revealed Himself to us. The commandments only make sense (the deeds) once we have established who we worship (the creed). As the leader of the first Messianic Jewish Din in Jerusalem said 2000 years ago ‘some will say ‘you have faith, I have deeds’, Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds’. Indeed as we know from the Scriptures ‘without faith it is impossible to please G-d’. Belief, faith, trust, accepting the yoke of Torah, all these and more connect in the spiritual realm to generate the deeds that follow true faith and belief. To act kiddush hashem is to fundamentally demonstrate the false dichotomy of the deeds v. creeds paradigm. Avraham believed G-d and had faith. Let us construct a Judaism that reflects this reality today in faith AND deed.