Sunlit Water

September 18, 2006

That’s Me In The Corner

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 6:24 pm

I am a secular Jew.  What that means is not always clear to people, particularly if they are not Jewish themselves.  What I mean by it (and others who identify the same way may mean different things) is that I come from a Jewish cultural background, I participate in what I consider the most important Jewish rituals, and I generally think of myself as part of the worldwide Jewish community, but at the same time I don’t believe in God, I don’t follow all 613 commandments, and I don’t think of my Judaism as being the most important aspect of my identity.  I consider myself both secular and religious in different ways, and the two sides come out primarily in different contexts.

There are a lot of people like me within the Jewish community in the US, and we cause endless amounts of trouble for people who look at “religion” from a Christian-centric perspective that privileges belief and faith over ritual and community as essential attributes of a religion.  The comments to this Unfogged post give an example of the kind of mess this leads to.  Is what I practice really a religion?  I’d say it is, but that does indeed make it hard to rigorously define “religion” since faith plays essentially no role in my religious practice; ritual, particularly shared ritual, is all there is.

One way that people often try to fit this kind of thing into a paradigm where religion requires faith is to say that people like me only practice the rituals we do because other people around us do believe, and we want to fit in with them for various community-centered reasons. So, the argument goes, if there were no believers around, no one would practice the rituals.

I think this kind of argument shows a serious misunderstanding of how Judaism works.  For one thing, I wouldn’t even know which people at my synagogue believe in God and which don’t; it just doesn’t come up.  Jews, even religiously observant Jews, don’t tend to talk about this stuff nearly as much as Christians do.  But even setting that aside, I maintain that a hypothetical congregation composed exclusively of Jewish atheists would still conduct services.

The main reason for that is that Jewish rituals are what Jews do, so if we’re Jews, and we identify strongly enough with Judaism to belong to a synagogue in the first place, of course we’re going to perform Jewish rituals even if none of us believes in the literal truth of any of the words we’re saying.  It’s about community and tradition, not belief.

One important distinction to make here is between what we might call “Jewish atheists” and “atheist Jews.”  The first would mean atheists who happen to have Jewish heritage but don’t feel any particularly strong attachment to it, don’t go to services, and don’t live their lives any differently from their counterparts who have Christian heritage.  There are lots of these people, and they generally don’t belong to synagogues.  The second would mean Jews, that is, people who identify strongly with Judaism as an important part of their identity, who happen to not believe in God and may or may not attend services or belong to a synagogue.  There are also lots of these people, and I am one of them.  I don’t think there are many people like this in most Christian denominations; with faith-based religions, if you don’t have faith, you’re out.  Lapsed Catholics may be the closest analogues.

I don’t particularly care if what I do counts as “religion” or not; I’m increasingly inclined to the view that the word isn’t very useful anyway.  But I do think it’s important to point out that rigorous definitions of concepts like this need to take into account all the phenomena that are popularly grouped under those concepts, and if something doesn’t fit the definition, it might be the definition rather than the phenomenon that’s to blame.



  1. I don’t think there are many people like this in most Christian denominations; with faith-based religions, if you don’t have faith, you’re out.

    IME, there are plenty of mainline Protestants like this — my aunt is one. They’re just hypocrites, in a way that atheist Jews aren’t, because the practice of Christianity requires belief.

    Comment by LizardBreath — September 18, 2006 @ 7:59 pm |Reply

  2. I yield to your greater expertise. Most of the church-going Protestants I know seem to be true believers, but then I don’t know many church-going Protestants.

    Comment by teofilo — September 18, 2006 @ 8:36 pm |Reply

  3. Your categorization of ex-Catholics is dead-on-balls accurate, in my own experience. I’m an agnostic, but I identify strongly with Catholicism for cultural and ritualistic reasons. Only after moving to the South from the Midwest did I find myself defending aspects of the Catholic tradition, even as a “non-believer.” Weird, that always is.

    You’re drawing a line very perceptively here, teo. Nicely done.

    Comment by Stanley — September 19, 2006 @ 12:09 am |Reply

  4. Thanks.

    Comment by teofilo — September 19, 2006 @ 1:18 am |Reply

  5. I have seen lapsed Catholicism as being just for show or as a nod to one’s tradition. My parents dragged us to church on Ash Wednesday and sometimes for Christmas Mass. I don’t know what that did for them, but it just pissed me off, because the packed churches were hotter than a Sevillan summer. And then they started in with the incense or whatever it is…

    Also, it seems to me that non-Catholic Christians could not accept each other without discussing faith. They even compare degrees or amount of faith and try to outdo each other in their love for Jesus.

    In contrast to both, without needing to discuss your beliefs, you have a community where identifying as a Jew equals membership. From there, you may engage in ritual and continue your tradition as you see fit.

    (Your nonmusical life nevertheless provides choice musical post titles.)

    Comment by ~Macarena~ — September 19, 2006 @ 6:20 pm |Reply

  6. Teo, very well-written. You’ve described my style of practicing Judaism as well.

    Comment by mrh — September 19, 2006 @ 9:05 pm |Reply

  7. Take a gander at Doug Rushkoff’s book _Nothing Sacred_. Good long look at all of these questions.

    Comment by Doug — September 20, 2006 @ 4:40 am |Reply

  8. Hey thanks for this post Teo — it has helped me get a deeper understanding of a novel I am reading right now in which one of the characters (Mark Rubinfine, a rabbi) has a very similar take on practicing Judaism to yours. I will write it up on my blog sometime this evening (if all goes according to plan).

    Comment by The Modesto Kid — September 21, 2006 @ 7:58 pm |Reply

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