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Deity dilemma: ‘God doubters’ look for place in Jewish life

by sue fishkoff & dan pine, special to j.

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For Sally Ann Berk, it feels like coming out of the closet.

No, not that closet. Berk is an atheist.

The Oakland resident is a married mother of a 13-year-old son who attends Oakland Hebrew Day School. But her worldview, while grounded in Jewish culture and ritual, does not include a deity. To state that publicly, she says, is “something people don’t really talk about, like it’s like something shameful.”

She feels no shame, and she is not alone. With its core principle of peoplehood and ancient embrace of “wrestling with God,” Judaism has long boasted a skeptical strain, just like Berk’s.

“A lot of people have doubts and questions,” she says. “That’s the nature of being Jewish. I get my spiritual fulfillment when I’m out in the woods.”

Though precise figures don’t exist, studies suggest a sizeable segment of American Jews, including synagogue members, share Berk’s unbelief.

A study spearheaded by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in Los Angeles is aiming to find out just how many nonbelieving Jews are out there seeking a way into spiritual life, and what the Jewish community should, or should not do, to accommodate them.

“There’s an unvocalized tension at the core of synagogue services,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the institute’s executive director, who says she meets many Jews looking for spiritual connection without God. “The rabbi speaks about God and nobody really knows what that means. It’s not sophisticated, it’s not developed.”

Judaism does not require belief in God as a condition of membership. It’s a paradox with which many theologians and practitioners struggle.

“Judaism teaches us that it’s less about God hearing our prayers than about what we do when we walk out the door,” says Cantor Nathan Lam of the Stephen S. Wise Temple, a large Reform congregation in Los Angeles. He used to run a “doubters’ minyan” for students at the temple’s Milken Community High School.

Sally Ann Berk
Sally Ann Berk
Maintaining an internal balance between the demands of faith and intellect is part of being a modern Jew, he says. Judaism recognizes that balance by focusing on the need to perform rituals, he says, rather than by looking into the practitioner’s heart. Other Jewish views hold that belief in the heart is required in performing the Torah’s commandments.

“I teach [that] even if you don’t believe in God, act as if you do,” Lam says.

Self-described Jewish atheists and doubters often focus on the words in the prayerbook, typically the only part of the Jewish faith they encounter. They bristle at the constant praising of a God they doubt exists and don’t believe is involved in people’s lives as the prayers suggest.

“I think a lot of people stop praying with a congregation because they can’t make the words mean anything in their lives,” says Cantor Ellen Dreskin of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y., who says she interprets the words in the prayerbook “metaphorically and poetically,” not literally.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Rabbi Eric Yoffie
In the Humanistic Judaism movement, prayers have been scrapped altogether. That movement, founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, adopts many of the rituals of traditional Judaism but deletes the references to God.

Alana Shindler serves as head of the rituals and celebrations committee for Kol Hadash, a Humanistic congregation in the East Bay.

She and fellow congregants celebrate the Jewish holidays and Shabbat. All are welcome at their gatherings in the Albany Community Center — God being the possible exception.

“We take the prayer out of it and look at the meaning of the holiday,” Shindler says. “Most have a humanistic component. In Yom Kippur, the notion of repentance to those you have wronged, trying to be better than the year before, those are very humanistic. They have nothing to do with praying to some God writing something down in some book.”

Not all atheist Jews have Humanistic congregations nearby, and if they want Jewish fellowship they have to look elsewhere.

Rabbi David Wolpe
Rabbi David Wolpe
The Institute for Jewish Spirituality study, which will be conducted by Diane Schuster, a researcher and lecturer at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, will interview Jews who are “in search of a spiritual experience that is deep, meaningful and transformative but that is not linked to religious liturgies or practices that rely on God language or reference to a Supreme Being.”

The results will be used by the institute to develop retreats for “Jewish doubters,” as well as training programs for clergy who work with them.

Among those doubters is Fremont native Megan Ziman, 19, who attends U.C. Santa Cruz. She grew up in an active Reform household, loving the rituals and holidays of Judaism.

While she says she admires and respects people of faith, she personally cannot go there.

“Where I struggle, with science it’s harder to let loose and have total faith in a feeling, which I don’t really have,” she says. “Feeling spiritual doesn’t have to mean religious.”

The New York–based Jewish Outreach Institute reaches out to Jews who share Ziman’s views. At its national conference in May, a session on how to engage Judaism without God was on the workshop schedule.

Attending a Tu B’Shevat seder earlier this year with Humanistic congregation Kol Hadash in Albany are (from left) Eva Bluestein, Alana Shindler, Gladys Perez-Mendez and Lee Spanier.   photo/bernie rosen
Attending a Tu B’Shevat seder earlier this year with Humanistic congregation Kol Hadash in Albany are (from left) Eva Bluestein, Alana Shindler, Gladys Perez-Mendez and Lee Spanier. photo/bernie rosen
“There is a recognition that some people find spiritual sustenance and nurturing through the intellect that is not necessarily tied to anything related to the Divine — that is, to God,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the institute’s executive director. “We wanted to include this session both to recognize those who access Judaism in this regard and to affirm it as a vehicle for doing so.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, says he has “no doubt” that many people in his synagogue say the prayers without believing in God. Even the Bible admonishes against idolatry, but not against atheism, he points out.

“But I’m not eager to make accommodations to create a Judaism absent God,” he says. “I think it would be not only not necessary but inadvisable.”

Some Reconstructionist congregations have changed their God-language, and others even have completely removed references to God, says Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.

“There may have been some who experimented with it, but I don’t know if it’s become a regular service,” he says. “My objection wouldn’t be that they have expunged reference to God. My problem would be if they did not allow people to hold a deistic viewpoint.”

That seems to have been the main objection of Reform leaders in 1991 when they rejected Congregation Beth Adam’s bid for membership in what was then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).

In rejecting the Cincinnati congregation’s application, Reform leaders opined that while individual Jews may not believe in God, a Reform synagogue may not declare such a position.

Rabbi Robert Barr, the longtime spiritual leader of Beth Adam, says the rejection was politically motivated and did not involve the “deep religious conversation” that he says needs to take place.

“The Jewish conversation is so trapped by the liturgy of our ancestors, we can’t get past it,” he says. “People are afraid to say that language and worldview no longer speak to me, but I am authentically Jewish and I need language that expresses it.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, outgoing president of the URJ, was at the meeting where Beth Adam’s application was turned down, and he agrees with the decision. While a congregation that disavows a belief in God would not be expelled from the URJ, he says, neither would it be admitted. And he hasn’t heard of any Reform congregations espousing such a position.

“While individual Reform Jews may have questions about God, they are generally content to have Jewish liturgy that mentions God,” he says. “People seem to be able to live with the contradiction.”

Jewish atheism can serve a purpose by pushing Jews to demand meaning from their faith and its leaders, says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Paraphrasing Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, Brander says atheism “is the pained response when religion becomes static, when God is described in childish ways. I think it’s much better that people struggle with the issue, that they want a religious experience rather than not going to synagogue at all.”

That’s why Berk and her family belong to Oakland Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Abraham. She says she finds ritual “very fulfilling. I’m not bereft without belief in divinity. We have Friday night dinners almost every Friday with neighbors. If somebody said you have to believe in God that would be my closest definition: the loving feelings of community.”

Similarly, Kol Hadash member Shindler says simple unbelief is not enough to sustain the kind of Jewish life she wants.

“Atheism is where I started, but not where I ended up,” she says. “Atheism doesn’t give you your values.” 

Sue Fishkoff, formerly with JTA, becomes editor of j. on Sept. 1.

Dan Pine is a j. staff writer


Posted by michaelhwitkin
08/18/2011  at  01:55 PM
Human-centered Jewishness

Thank you, Sue, for addressing, again, this important issue.  Many of us, Jews brought up in the post war America, in the major Jewish movements have experienced a disconnection from the Jewish establishment and the Jewish people. 

The Humanistic Jewish movement has enabled many of us to join with other Jews in a community to celebrate Jewish traditions in a way that is meaningful and truthful for us, without sacrificing our integrity (thanking a supernatural being that we doubt exists).

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Posted by Virginia
08/19/2011  at  10:40 AM


I hope that you do not mind my posting to this topic. I am a Lutheran Christian. I believe in God. MY “dilemma” is that I do not “believe” many of the bible stories, both in the New Testament and the Jewish Bible. I consider them “religious myths”.

I choose to “believe in God”, but I cannot prove that belief.

How do I remain with my denomination without going along with the traditional beliefs? I like both the Lutheran denomination and Judaism Reform and Conservative denominations. I do not want to upset the other people in my church.

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Posted by Jack Kessler
08/19/2011  at  12:53 PM
A Common Misunderstanding

When I was a teenager I rebelled against belief in a G_d whom I had been led to believe was a bearded white-haired old man on a throne amid clouds in heaven. 

Only when I grew up did I come to understand that what I didn’t believe in was a stupid caricature, a cartoon.

So let us get one thing perfectly clear - Hashem is NOT a bearded, white-haired, old man on a throne on a cloud.  G_d is not an Angry Santa Claus.  That is an image that has been provided over the centuries for children and those too ignorant to understand anything else. 

The fact that you no longer believe the fable you were told about as a child does not mean there is no G_d.  It means the bubbe meisse you were told is not true. 

Literate people have never believed that.  Greek philosophy shows that not even Roman and Greek pagans believed that Zeus and the other gods were literally over-sized human beings as shown in statues.

I would point out that in the Middle Ages the hardest thing to believe about religion was that G_d created the universe out of nothing, and that nothing preceded it.

Modern astronomy has established that the universe came into existence in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.  If that is not creation out of nothing, then what would be? 

Further, the physics is that the Big Bang is when space-time came into existence.  Before time existed there was no ‘before’.  So the two major obstacles to belief in creation have been laid to rest by the ten or eleven observational bases for believing the Big Bang theory.

The Big Bang also implies that everything in the universe has a common origin, has a common cause, a common destiny, and everything that happens or can happen is the expression of the same common process.

Even Deism, the theory that G_d created the universe and then abandoned it, does not survive the Big Bang theory.  The Big Bang does NOT posit that something happened at a moment a long time ago and then nothing happened since.  What it does say is that universal expansion started then and continues now, not a moving outward into space, but an expansion of space itself.  Which is to say that the act of creation, the expansion, is continuous and is going on now, this very instant, and will go on forever, to the best of our knowledge.

None of this should be confused with pantheism.  All possible universes throughout eternity are, according to Spinoza, the Face of G_d - a surface or manifestation.

To deny the unity of the universe one would have to engage in the same denial of Big Bang observations as the fundamentalists use to deny the existence of dinosaurs.  Nothing but closing one’s mind to evidence will support the atheist’s unexamined 19th Century mechanistic assumptions.

One can easily extend this argument to the results of Feynman’s two slit experiment in the 1940’s.  He found that the quantum mechanical wave function collapses in the presence of an observer.  Since the wave -particle duality is a demonstrated fact, there must be a physical significance to there being an observer.  Human beings are recent, quantum particles are ancient.  Yet their properties depend on an observer. 

What kind of conclusion can an atheist draw from this?  The usual shrug of the shoulders is merely denial - that again puts them in the company of hard-shell fundamentalists whose beliefs are not open to reason or observation.

The widespread atheism among Jews is not a proof that G_d is dead, it is a proof that the level of Jewish education is pathetic.

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Posted by Jack Kessler
08/19/2011  at  01:16 PM
Yes, Virginia...

Is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ true?  Yes, ask anyone who has ever been young and in love.  It is absolutely true, every word of it. 

Was there actually a person named Romeo Montague and another named Juliet Capulet?  No, of course not.  It is a story made up by Bill Shakespeare. 

The fact that something is not literally true does not mean that it is not completely true in every other way.

Life is too big and too grand and lovely to be understood in only one simple way.

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Posted by RSegev
08/19/2011  at  01:45 PM
An orthodox Jew view

Years ago I attended a lecture by Prof. Isaiah Leibowitz, philosopher, scientist and Orthodox theologian.
One of the statements he made in his lecture stay with me to this day.
According to Prof. Leibowitz Judaism, contrary to Christianity, is a legalistic religion and a person is not judged by his belief, but by his acts. There is no salvation through repenting and affirmation of belief. God judges a person only according to whether he fulfilled the 613 mitzvoth.

Personally, I grew up agnostic. After reading Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” I think I can accept a Deist approach to religion, which accepts the concept of God, but rejects institutionalized religion and takes the Old and New Testaments and the Koran for a man written fairy tale.

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Posted by hershl
08/19/2011  at  05:52 PM
Secular Jewish vegvayzer/madrikh/Leader

In addition to the Humanistic Jewish movement, there is also a similar-sized Secular Jewish movement, made up of affiliated Sunday Schools and communities of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) and the 111-year old Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle with approximately the same number of members as the other two.

These schools/communities/branches do more than merely eliminate the deity from traditional rituals: they create new observances, relevant to our times, drawing on the forms of religious practices (dates, titles) but, in content, on the riches of Jewish culture, especially that created in Yiddish and more recently in English. They respect the past but are not bound by it.

Check out,,

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Posted by judex
08/19/2011  at  10:15 PM
Deity Dilemma

We have to do with our, probably, limited Human Thinking !

The Universe and all its Laws witness the existence of a great Engineer that we call GOD.

Since GOD has given us the Power to Think, I believe HE does not bother with us anymore.

Will GOD judge us later for our Actions ? Maybe / Maybe Not. Most People think YES.

I think that there is a GOD who does not bother with us ! This is why Many exclaim “Where is GOD when it hurts ? !!!!”

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