Must a Jew Believe in God?

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

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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.

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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.