Must a Jew Believe in God?

The centrality of God in Judaism may not be as straightforward as you think.

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How important is belief in God? Can one be a "good Jew" without believing in God? These questions--articulated in this way--are relatively modern ones. However, while normative Judaism has always been God-centered, some thinkers--both ancient and modern--have conceptualized Judaism in ways that make beliefs about God less central. 

From the Ancient World to Modernity

The common quip that "there were no atheists in antiquity" is more or less true. The existence of God (or gods) was taken for granted in the ancient and medieval world. Even the medieval philosophers--Jewish, Christian, and Muslim--who tried to prove God's existence were concerned more with displaying the rationality of religion than demonstrating the existence of a deity.

Atheism and agnosticism only emerged as real options in the modern era, as consequences of secularization, the separation of church and state, and above all, the reliance on science for explanations of natural phenomena.man and GOd

However, grouping all pre-modern forms of Judaism together doesn't do justice to the issue at hand. One might argue that belief in God was less central to Jews of the rabbinic era (the few centuries following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) than it was to Jews in the Middle Ages, not because God was less important, but because belief itself was. Though Jews tended to believe in certain shared concepts--e.g. one God who led them out of Egypt, the eventual messianic redemption--official beliefs or dogmas were not formulated until the Middle Ages.

Rabbinic Judaism demanded action--the fulfillment of the commandments--not the assertion of specific beliefs. Perhaps the most striking example of this position is a commentary on the verse in Jeremiah, which states: "[They] have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah." To which the Pesikta D'Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century midrash, glosses: "If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah."

Rabbinic Judaism, as well as biblical Judaism, has a concept of belief, but not--many would argue-- in the sense of affirming propositions, e.g. asserting that God exists. Scholar Menachem Kellner, for one, points out that the biblical word emunah, "belief" or "faith" connotes trust, belief in, as opposed to the affirmation of propositions. Of course, one might argue that trusting in something implies that that something exists, but the distinction between belief in and belief that helps in understanding the priorities and emphases of the rabbinic worldview.

This approach to belief changed in the Middle Ages, when Jewish philosophers began proposing official doctrines of Judaism. Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith is the most famous list of creeds; it includes several dogmas about God including the assertion that God exists.

The actual principles articulated by Maimonides were not terribly revolutionary. What was revolutionary was Maimonides' claim that belief in these principles was essential to one's Jewish identity.

Traditionally, Jewish identity had been defined biologically. According to rabbinic Judaism, if one's mother was Jewish, than one was Jewish, regardless of one's actions or beliefs.

Referring to his thirteen principles, however, Maimonides wrote: "When all these foundations are perfectly understood and believed in by a person, he enters the community of Israel, and one is obligated to love and pity him in all ways in which the Creator has commanded that one should act towards his brother." For Maimonides, one was not Jewish--at least not fully Jewish--if one did not believe in God and in the other tenets of belief that he outlined.

Many modern thinkers, particularly liberal theologians, have tried to reclaim the rabbinic attitude toward belief, stressing that religious dogma is anathema to Judaism and that the medieval creation of dogma was, in a sense, a corruption of Judaism. Though most of these thinkers, including Leo Baeck and Solomon Schechter, didn't use this rejection of dogma to question the existence and relevance of God, others have.

The Evolution of God: Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm, in his radical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, You Shall Be As Gods, describes how God becomes progressively less real (and relevant) in traditional Jewish literature. At the beginning of the Bible, God is an absolute ruler who can (and does) destroy the world when He is not happy with it. In the next stage, however, God relinquishes His absolute power by making a covenant with humankind. God's power is limited because it is subject to the terms of the covenant.

The third stage of God's evolution (or devolution) comes in His revelation to Moses, in which he presents Himself as a nameless God. The evolution of God does not stop with the Bible. Ironically, Maimonides takes it even further by positing that nothing can be said about God. We can venture to say what God isn't, but God's positive attributes are unthinkable.

The next step, says Fromm, should have been a rejection of God completely, but even he--a self-declared non-theistic mystic--acknowledges that this is impossible for religious Jews. He does, however, recognize that because Judaism has not been primarily concerned with beliefs per se, one who does not believe in God can still come very close to living a life that is fully Jewish in spirit. 

Awe Over Belief: Howard Wettstein

In a more recent discussion, Howard Wettstein, a philosopher at the University of California, Riverside has gone even further than Fromm has. In "Awe and the Religious Life," Wettstein's vision of Judaism is more traditional than Fromm's, and yet he gives more credence to the Jew who rejects a supernatural God altogether.

At the heart of Wettstein's article is a quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel that echoes the thoughts about the non-centrality of belief mentioned above. According to Heschel, "Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew. In Biblical language, the religious man is not called 'believer,' as he is for example in Islam (mu'min) but yare hashem (one who stands in awe of God)."

Working off of this notion, Wettstein claims that at the heart of the Jewish religious sensibility is a distinctive attitude toward life, a major component of which is awe. Various aspects of Jewish religious practice--prayer, Torah study, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar--are meant to facilitate this attitude.

Wettstein acknowledges that the object of this awe is God. He does, however, propose that this awe--and the meaningful life it helps to create--is also available to a naturalist who rejects a supernatural God. To demonstrate this point, he compares this "religious naturalist" to a non-fundamentalist theist, one who believes in God and Judaism, but doesn't understand every biblical story literally.

Such a person does not believe that the creation story in Genesis reflects actual events. God didn't necessarily create the world in six 24-hour periods nor did God actually rest on the seventh day.

This, however, does not negate the meaning of the story. "The notion of Sabbath, as creative retreat from creative engagement with the world, as spiritual renewal," writes Wettstein, "will be unaffected." The imagery, religious resonances, and meaning of the story are available to this non-literalist even though she does not believe it to be factually true.

Wettstein argues that a similar approach is available to one who wishes to avoid supernaturalism altogether. Just as the non-literalist theist finds meaning in the narrative of creation without necessarily believing it to be "true," so too the naturalist can find meaning in the story--and all of Judaism--without believing in the objective reality of a supernatural God.

Wettstein is not interested in philosophical reductions of the idea of God, that is, attempts to say that the word "God" really refers to some aspect of the natural world. Rather, he accepts the imagery of the Jewish God as it is, using this imagery to cultivate meaning, to find fellowship in community, and to connect to past generations.

Wettstein's approach, however, only works for someone interested in cultivating religious meaning in relationship to a concept of God, however non-literal.

In contrast, the Secular Humanistic movement, a small denomination started by Sherwin Wine in 1963, caters to those Jews who wish to identify Jewishly but are opposed to God imagery. Secular Humanistic Jews go as far as saying that believing in God devalues humans, as it suggests that the source of human value lies outside of human beings themselves.

So, Must a Jew Believe?

Nevertheless, on an official level, most Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of a Judaism without God. This is true for the liberal movements as much as it is for more traditional Jews. In 1994, the UAHC (the synagogue council of the Reform movement) rejected an application for membership from a synagogue that practiced "Judaism with a humanistic perspective" because the synagogue's principles deviated from "the historic God-orientation of Reform Judaism."

So, must a Jew believe in God? In a sense, it depends how you define four words: "must," "Jew," "believe," and, of course, "God."

In short: probably. And probably not.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.