Friday, July 17, 2009
Jewish Atheists/Agnostics/Secularists Wanted
Over on Feministe and previously on her blog Dear Diaspora, Daisy Bond wanted to hear from:
"Diaspora Jews of my generation who, like me, are concerned with this task, but all responses are welcome. I would also very much like to hear from those Jews who are most at risk of being left out of the conversation: queer folks, Jews of color, Jews from “intermarried” families and those with only one Jewish parent, those who are themselves married to or in a relationship with a non-Jewish person, those who grew up secular or just not very observant, those who didn’t get a traditional Jewish education (Hebrew school, bar/bat mitzvah, etc). I want to hear from you! And I want you to know that Judaism is yours, that your have every right to it, that your voice and your concerns and are important and relevant and should (must!) be part of this discussion."

The conversation was regarding what we wanted in the future of Judaism and the conversation has been brisk and enlightening.

My particular interest is of those of us who are connected to Judaism but do not have a connection to a god or divine source. This includes people who have converted, those who feel left out of the larger Jewish community and anyone who has a connection to Judaism, the culture, but not the supernatural are welcome to this discussion.

As a bit of background, I grew up in a very traditionally reform synagogue and household. Lit Shabbat candles every Friday night, didn't eat shrimp or pork but didn't keep kosher either and kept separate dishes and did bedika chametz the night before Pesach, etc. As a young adult I went to HUC-JIR and had planned to become a rabbi until I realized that I was pretending to believe in God and it was incompatible, at least in my mind, with getting smicha. I promptly stopped practicing and yet, the culture, and yes, even some of the rituals, hold great meaning for me.

On this blog I have written about the Omer, Purim, tashlich, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and mikveh. I have also written a screed about Jews and tattoos. I am pretty well drunk on the punch people but I go into even the most liberally-minded Jewish programs and the prayers turn me off.

So, my questions are:

What do you do to maintain your culture?
Have you found a community that welcomes you and makes you feel included?
Do you attend synagogue? If so, how do you deal with the God stuff?
What other questions need to be asked?

I look forward to hearing your answers and questions.


Stumble It!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger molmar said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Mazhira Black said...

I am an atheist Jewish bi woman from an interfaith home where no one really 'practiced' anything growing up.

I was unfortunate enough to come to a fundamental Christian university for my undergrad and they pushed me toward my Judaism. I am in a small town so I had only one synagogue option which was the reform one here in town.

I was lucky to find a small reform community that openly accepts me. They know about my upbringing and my parents (I even recently celebrated my bat mitzvah with them). At the same time I have been spending the last two years discovering my Judaism I also have been pushed farther and farther from believing in any divine being.

I look at the god stuff at synagogue more as tradition than as something contemporary that applies to me. My significant other who is atheist has a problem with it and is very reluctant to participate with me in any way in observances.

I used to eat kosher but now I am vegetarian so it is moot. I have a mezuzah, I taught hebrew school during the year. I have enjoyed the community that has accepted me and I find it important to practice and be a part of the synagogue as a connection to the community and to my heritage.

Blogger Ellen Bloom said...

My maternal grandparents were observant (conservative); my paternal grandparents were not...they were culturally Jewish but really more intellectuals. In my parents world and in mine, we were taught to assimilate...try to blend in. However, marrying outside of the faith was frowned upon.

I was not given any Jewish education. I learned about my religion by asking questions, reading and watching others. At one time in my life I felt the need to connect to a larger Jewish group and attended services at a few reform synagogues. The zeal of this group turned me off.

Since that time I have taken my own divergent path of worship. I believe in all people, not just one god. I'm a humanist and an artist. I will always appreciate the devout Jew and their dedication and purposefulness. I love the tradition of Judaism, but the religious life is not for me.

Blogger a Nadder said...

I wouldn't really consider myself Jewish as a primary cultural identifier -- it certainly forms part of my culture and it's something I draw on but it's not the only thing, or even the main thing (which I think is quite normal for an atheist).

I guess the way I keep the cultural influence up is through two ways:
1. Jewish friends (which still form more than half of my friends) which have a closer connection to the Jewish community than I do.
2. Reading about Jewish issues as part of my wider interests -- whether it's Jewish blogospherics, analysis of Israeli issues, the Bible from a secular perspective etc.

I don't really consider myself part of the Jewish community as such because I don't really spend too much time on community functions etc. However the times when I do people are quite welcoming, probably because the furthest to the right my friends (and their extended friends) go is liberal Modern Orthodox.

I can't sit through any services without having a good laugh (on the inside) since I probably know a bit more about Judaism than many Jewish atheists and know enough Hebrew to tell, say, how ludicrous a lot of the prayers/Torah readings etc are. But those few times I've been in such a situation I've found it quite entertaining because of the amusement.

I guess another question that can naturally be asked is where to from here for secularist Jews as a group and a movement? No answers from me for the moment though!

Blogger Labyrinthine said...

I went to a Jewish elementary school for four years. My family doesn't practice except when my mother declares an occasional family meal that happens to fall on a friday or saturday to be "shabbat" or when her father decides we need to have apples and honey in the general vicinity of rosh hashanah.

My dad and I are both atheists. My ex boyfriend with whom I am good friends is reform jewish and gets really angry at the orthodoxy. He openly admits that his belief in god is not dependant on god's actual unproveable existence, just something he considers part of himself and helpful to his life. That's the sort of believer I can respect! (My current girlfriend is from a secular jewish-background family sort of like mine, and doesn't really do god/religion at all.)

I still remember a little hebrew from school - at a conservative-jewish-parented friend's shabat dinner I could join in on the refrains.

However I do not identify with judaism at all - I recognise that it must have contributed to my personal philosophy/morality as a kid, but it's not the community I want or need. My mother periodically tries to get me to go to jewish youth network events or whatever. For me, though, the geeks and the arts kids are My People. I hated my primary school, it was too insular. There weren't enough people and none of them were like me. I know that's not a jewish thing so much as a tiny private school thing, but I think it's rubbed off a little.

So, you know - I define myself areligiously but when religion is the topic at hand I still have that connection to judaism. I have a deep mistrust of religious organisations in general, though (mostly on the basis of extrapolating from the power-corrupts axiom) so while I'm good with individual religious people, anything heirarchical about it just gets on my nerves.

Blogger Glenn said...

I'm an atheist who was raised Conservative Jewish--I lost my faith a few months after my Bar Mitzvah, decided the whole God thing was profoundly silly and stopped participating in anything officially Jewish. Until this year, when my father died, my mother decided that it was her duty to say Kaddish every week and I decided I didn't want her to go alone.

I still feel a bit of a conflict between going to shul, enjoying much of the singing & the genuinely nice people, and the fact that I don't personally believe in one bit of the actual content. I'm not "out" as an atheist there; I'm not sure what the reaction would be if I were, so I can't really say I feel included in the community.

Even when I still considered myself a practicing Jew, my family was never very traditional--we didn't light shabbat candles, didn't keep kosher (well, my mom's a bit weird about that...we had bacon and ham and mixed meat with dairy, but pork chops were never allowed in the house). We did about half of a seder for Pesach. I identify culturally as Jewish-American mostly because of an affinity for bagels with lox & schmear, a tendency to pepper my speech with a few Yiddish terms, and the fact that I sympathize more with Israel than most people I know. There's also the stereotypical bookishness, I suppose.

Blogger Mark said...

I've identified myself as an Atheist for a few years now and have bounced the ideas around in my head namelessly for a few more than that. My parents know but are convinced that it's a phase, that along with my predilection for shicksas...

I have continued practicing certain traditions that I can either allow myself to find a slightly more humanistic quality to or can ignore the woo woo in favor of the positive messages and good times otherwise involved. Likewise, as other people have said, I still identify myself as a Jew culturally.

I have a few hangups that I've been fighting with morally for the past few years, though.

As a kid, while the rest of my family wasn't, I was incredibly engrossed in the religion. As a part of my Bar-Mitzvah, I learned (not memorized) trope to do my torah portion and haftorah. I studied mishnah, summer camps and, as a special part of my Bar Mitzvah, I learned the entire Musaf service from start to finish. Afterwards, I was pretty regularly the hazzan for that service because I was good at it and I liked doing it.

Point being, there are a few things that I really do miss now that I have completely dismissed all of this stuff as superstition:

Particularly, the musical aspect. I'm a musician, a cellist, but I really liked singing and it was an outlet I didn't particularly get anywhere else because I could enjoy the singing below the veil of "I'm doing this for God."

I feel like if I were to stand up there again and do it in front of the congregation in which I grew up, it would be hypocritical and perhaps even selfish. There I am, their link to God through those prayers and I am a completely empty conduit. I'd be standing up there doing all these prayers and to me they mean nothing beyond the beauty of the melody riding on top of them.

Thanks for having a thread where we can talk about these types of things! This is something I've never really been able to talk about with people who actually understand what I'm going through.

Blogger Glenn said...

Braynstorm, I totally know what you mean about many of the beautiful songs. There's nothing quite like the experience of being in a congregation singing, a capella, so many melodies that convey a sense of sadness, of joy, of the spectrum of emotions & experiences felt by a millennia-long tradition of people. I too considered "but the songs are pretty!" (to put it shallowly) a patronizing reason to go, before the situation with my parents I mentioned above.

Since I've been going again I've felt a conflict similar to the one you describe whenever I'm called up for an aliyah--on the one hand, the congregation is honoring me by calling me to the Torah, but on the other hand, it's not an honor I'm equipped to value in the same ways they do...but on the other other hand, considering how tiny the congregation is, there usually isn't anyone more serious about the religion from whom I'd be "stealing" the honor. Now, does that make the exercise meaningless? I'm not sure that it does. The rabbi and everyone else gets whatever they want out of the rituals--if you're the conduit to their God it's only on a relatively superficial level, I think--so if you or I get different things out of the rituals than they that such a problem? Again, I'm not sure.

This is something I've never really been able to talk about with people who actually understand what I'm going through.

I'd like to echo this! It's rare for me to find this type of discussion, online or off.

Blogger Unknown said...

What do you do to maintain your culture?
Coming from an interfaith family that was not hugely observant to start with, there's not much for me to maintain by many observant Jews' standards. =P

For me, the biggest remaining connections to the Jewish part of my heritage are food and the Hannukah traditions we observe when we (my apathetic Lutheran husband and I) go see my parents at Christmas and Hannukah.

Food is a big one. Matzoh ball soup year-round, latkes at Hannuka, matzoh, Manischewitz goodies, and charoset at Passover, hamantaschen (Grandma's recipe) at Purim, and blintzes whenever I have an excuse (Grandma again), apples at Rosh Hashana. I recently learned to make borscht, and I want some of Grandma's kugel recipies...

I will say that, even without doing anything for them, Rosh Hashana and the high holy days have always feel more like the start of a new year than January 1st ever did. I even observed the Yom Kippur fast a few times after leaving home, even though I never had growing up. (I had to stop because low blood sugar does Bad Things to me.)

Have you found a community that welcomes you and makes you feel included?
Ahahahaha. No. I'm the atheist daughter of a Jew (my father) and a Catholic (my mother), and my religious education was a mixture of mildly-observant Jewish and Christian holidays and teachings. According to some observant Jews, I'm not supposed to exist; the fact that I do is destroying Judiasm in America.
(Yes, I'm somewhat bitter. It hurts when the new rabbi at the old family synagogue decides that inferfaith families aren't okay. Apparently he missed the plaque right by the front doors commemorating the temple's first interfaith marriage ceremony performed back in the 60's.)

Do you attend synagogue? If so, how do you deal with the God stuff?
I don't currently (see previous question), but back in high school I was technically already an atheist while my family still attended temple and church on the major holidays.

The God stuff didn't bother me much at synagogue - a combination of most of the prayers and songs being in Hebrew, and their content. Church services were and are much harder for me to tolerate - because they're all in English, it's harder to ignore the God stuff, and I have emotional and moral issues with the heart of Christianity. It's easier for me to offer praise to a god for his requiring us to observe holidays with fire (yay) or even by eating matzoh (much less yay by the end of the week, but acceptable), especially in a language that I don't know. It's much harder for me to praise a god specifically for creating and killing someone so that he doesn't "have to" torture the rest of us eternally anymore. Even though I don't believe in either version of the god of Abraham, and even though he's is a genocidal ass in some stories in the Torah (the Flood offended my moral sensibilities even when I was five), _what_ the prayers praise him for makes a difference.

What other questions need to be asked?
I grew up in a fairly non-observant infertaith family, so there are Jewish traditions that were never "mine" that nevertheless appeal to me. (For example, my grandmother spoke Yiddish but never taught her children.) Is it the bad kind of cultural appropriation to adopt or try to adopt some of them now? Can someone with no past or current connection to Judaism become a secular Jew? What kind of community should secular Jews be trying to build?

Blogger Ellen Bloom said...

Wow, Faith! You really started something here! An excellent e-conversation....very enlightening!

When are you coming back to your other religious group...the WeHo SnB, and all those who worship yarn!?!

Culturally Jewish Ellen

Blogger Margot said...

Wow, I wish someone asked me these questions in person sometime so I could really get into it. I am a mixed Dominican and Jewish Jersey girl who is a raging queer. My grandmother refused to give her blessing to my parents wedding unless we were raised Jewish. This resulted in Hebrew school until my batmitvah while spending my summers in Santo Domingo with my mother's family avoiding the Catholic masses all my aunts were attending. We were only observant of holidays if we were spending time with my grandparents. I really enjoy those times growing up. My mother's family didn't really know what to do about their two Jewish members so we always had a Christmas tree in our house next to the menorah to make them comfortable.

What do you do to maintain your culture?
Have you found a community that welcomes you and makes you feel included?

Growing up in NJ as a queer girl, it was much much much easier for me to navigate the Jewish spaces than the Dominican ones. My mother and her family were always disparaging me for wearing boys clothes and getting dirty and just not being girly enough. As a result I hated that side of my family and clung to my Jewish side. My dad's family and Jewish friends, all of whom are reform and looking back I'm sure most of them are atheists or agnostics, ALWAYS MADE ME FEEL WELCOME no matter how I dressed or acted. They treated me like a human being with feelings. Because of this I rejected my Dominican heritage growing up and identified mostly as Jewish.

This changed when I moved away to attend the University of Washington in Seattle. I had no friends here and no family. To try and meet people I went to a few services at hillel since I had always felt at home with other Jews, despite not actually being religious in anyway, and I knew at least we would have that background in common. This turned out not to be the case. For starters I am a more masculine queer woman and the hillel I went to at the University of Washington has a conservative group of folks that attend. I also take after my Dominican family much more than my European Jewish father so I have darker skin and ethic features. People seemed not to know what to do with me. I tried to make conversation and got a lot of rejection. I FELT TERRIBLE. After some reflection I could see that being dominican and jewish and queer seemed incompatible to them. Ever since then I've been making peace with my Dominican side since I have no Jewish community that accepts me in Seattle.

Do you attend synagogue? If so, how do you deal with the God stuff?
What other questions need to be asked?

The last time I tried to do anything religious in terms of service type stuff, I got up and walked out in the middle. I don't believe in god and it feels hollow and stupid of me to say the words if I find them all to be false. I feel undeniably Jewish though but that is purely based on cultural stuff. Food is a big one, I make a lot of challa and matzoh ball soup and k'nishes when I get homesick. The funny part is I never made this stuff at home growing up. It's something I taught myself once I moved away from other Jews so I could still feel Jewish. More importantly, in the end I'm not christian and I'm not white which is the predominant culture in America. It's interacting with others that always stressed for me how different I am. So I cling to my Jewishness to not feel so alone and to know that I am SOMETHING and it's just as good as being Christian. To me Jewish people stand out and feel Jewish not because they believe in the Torah but because they use language peppered with Yiddish phrases, are familiar with our holidays and traditions, love kosher delis, know a little bit of hebrew, and eat Jewish food sometimes. I don't think being Jewish for me has ever been tied to belief in god.

Wow this is an interesting post and comments thread! I'm in the process of becoming (a lot) more observant, reading, doing a lot of questioning and kind of re-identifying myself as a Jew and finding a niche in the Jewish community, so this is also very timely.

What do you do to maintain your culture?
I keep Shabbos, I don't eat pork or shellfish, I'm doing a lot of reading, and I cover my head and knees as a rule - this is for my own comfort, I honestly do not believe that the sight of my hair/elbows or knees is going to overcome some schmuck and distract him from G-d. And if it does? I offer that maybe the problem is not mine. But I still like to wear something on my head and longer skirts - it's kind of a gentle reminder that there's something more to the world that I'm trying to figure out.

Have you found a community that welcomes you and makes you feel included?

Yes, but, they haven't gotten to know ME yet, so I'll qualify this one and say that on the surface ti's been great but this is subject to change as I reveal myself.

Do you attend synagogue? If so, how do you deal with the God stuff?

Well, I recently started synagogue hopping, but found a Modern Orthodox group I really like that seems fairly liberal on the issues that matter to me. I don't know if I'll affiliate with them yet, I'm still seeking. I do believe in G-d. But, I lend equal weight to other religious belief systems. So, while for me G-d is the only one I personally pray to, I am not going to say "there is no other" because that's a pretty arrogant attitude. I feel like we have a lot of names for what essentially boils down to the same thing. It's arrogant to think we have all the answers.

I have a hard time with the anti-gay stuff, with certain restrictions and attitudes about people, women, less observant Jews, etc, when dealing with the ultra religious. I have a hard time with people being super dogmatic about anything and saying there's a black/white way it MUST be or that you must act. I'm queer, tattooed, liberal and a lot of things that Jewish law says are not good. I'm also a Jew who is passionate about her religious identity and place in this culture. The things I am are not exclusive of religious observance.

My Judaism is inclusive and it's also a process - there are a lot of perfectly valid points of observance on the continuum, including no observance at all. Me, I'm shifting my position but that doesn't mean that I expect anyone else to come along for the ride.

one regret I do have, though, is not raising my children to be more Jewish. I wish they identified with it more because they're going to mother the next generation of people who are, at least, "culturally Jewish."

Blogger dale-harriet said...

Couldn't get my comment to fit - I pooped out and emailed it!

I'm an Ethnic, traditional Jew whose religion is closer to the polytheism of old but whose ETHNOS and public persona are Jewish.

My first two children are biracial; the elder, my daughter, identifies herself as Jewish in the same way I do (I don't know how she views the concept of God); my son was bar mitzvah, but now is just sort of American Secular - and my third child (white, from marriage #2) has become Lutheran.

Yet - I DO identify myself as Jewish, and are we not a diverse and colorful bunch, we Jews?

Blogger Tidbits of Torah said...

wow, such a variety of colorful comments. I grew up in a christian home. I converted to Judaism in my early 40's (no boyfriend pushing me). I am now Orthodox. What a journey for me. Small town country gal that played in the fields between field corn and dogging cow dung.

Blogger Debi said...

Was born and raised in South Africa in a traditional, Orthodox home. Had regular Friday nights, went to synagogue (under protest) for every obscure Holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Immigrated to Dallas, TX in 2002 with my sons and because my aged parents are still in Africa I am able to be secular without feeling 'guilty'. With the Holidays coming up I would like to recognize and celebrate them in some way - but not in synagogue.

Blogger Unknown said...

To all: It is no wonder you would find yourselves in the veiws you now have. As you said most come from reform backrounds/ affiliations. This is like being taught how to perform brain surgery by a nurse. Please understand I knock no one with that comment! If you want to know more about judiasm look toward the people who try daily to follow its each and every nuance. Not to those who have picked the few things that give them enough flavor but wont interfere. I am not saying you should consider being orthodox jews. I merely state that even in the non jewish, secular world, you are not considered an intelligent person if you make decisions without information! So get your info straight!! Ask your questions to the people who have the answers. try AISH website, they have answers, in fact most of them became who they are today, from the same places by asking the same questions.

Blogger Mark said...


Au contraire.

That's why I BECAME an atheist. As I dug deeper into Judaism, that I liked it less and less.

Blogger Unknown said...


I cant possibly believe you asked in the right directions. I am not a person to do things because other people say so. I need to know why and how etc. So I asked....

sorry i just dont believe you. It is much easier not to believe in G-D.

Blogger Mark said...


I was guided in my spiritual studies by Rabbis, Cantors, and Talmudic Scholars.

I read everything from Torah to Talmud

Mishnah to Maimonedes.

The people who taught me WERE all flavors Orthodox, Frum and Lubavich, Orthodox, Conservative.

For eighteen years I meditated, davened, and studied.

Belief in god was the easy part.

Synthesizing and understanding the evidence of the world around me; comprehending the failures of the crap that was being shoveled, glibly, into my skull; and moving on towards what I consider, by far, a more enlightened future.

Undoing years of brainwashing? THAT? THAT was hard.

Blogger Unknown said...


you sound like you have been through alot, that is quite a journey. So how is it that we can see and feel so differently if we have both tried to find the truth? what exactly put you off so strongly?

Post a Comment

<< Home