There is room for nonbelievers in Judaism’s big tent

There’s a reason why we publish our annual Synagogue Today supplement. Despite the steady erosion of assimilation, despite the persistently gloomy economy threatening our institutions, synagogue remains the center of Jewish life for most Jews.

We want to honor that relationship in all its dimensions.

The supplement this week features upbeat stories — two about new rabbis joining local congregations, one about synagogue life in the rural South, another about a virtual tzedakah box, courtesy of modern digital technology.

However, the article that may draw the most reader attention is our cover story about Jews who don’t believe in God. Apparently, there are a lot more of them than some might have imagined.

The article not only probes the reasons why some Jews have abandoned belief in a deity, it also looks at the response to this phenomenon from leaders within the Jewish religious community.

Most of those leaders do not want to write off atheist Jews as a lost cause. They have concluded there is room for them in synagogue life, and that they must somehow be made welcome.

We certainly do not judge Jews who don’t believe. It sometimes is hard in this modern world, where science seeks to explain everything, where cruelty and despair run rampant, to retain faith in a loving God.

At the same time, given that we live in a hyper-secular age, we value the religious Jewish community that wields faith as a force for good. Belief is an unmatched animating power when it comes to repairing the world.

Two points the cover story does make clear: A vast number of atheist Jews still desire to actively take part in Jewish life — including participating in Jewish religious rituals and holidays —  and synagogues need to do more to welcome these people, even if there can be no compromise on bedrock prayer and ritual.

Over the millennia, the Jewish people have shaped a religious culture so elastic, it can today even accommodate nonbelievers. We are more than a theology: We are a nation, a people, a vast culture. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we are multitudes.

Skepticism is a default setting in Judaism. The very name “Israel” means “wrestling with God,” and thus it is incumbent upon us to question conventional wisdom.

If there is much atheists may learn from believers, it is no less true that believers may learn from the doubters. We can easily find enough common ground to come together in our houses of worship, even if some will take a pass on the worship part.

J. Staff