Judaism has always been a pluralistic religion, its proponents ranging through extreme orthodoxy to conservatism and reform. But there is another group of Jews who consider themselves no less Jewish than their more observant brethren. This group follows no mitzvot. They are unlikely to keep kashrut. In fact they are never likely to be found in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. This group of Jews don't even believe in God. However, Jews they are, and as Jews they identify themselves. This group are Jewish atheists.
In this article, Nahum Ben-Daniel, a freelance journalist, interviews Nigel Kersh, an atheistic Jew living in Israel who feels he has a message to deliver.
NBD: Nigel Kersh, you call yourself an atheistic Jew. Is that not a contradiction in terms?
NK: No, I don't believe it is. I don't define my Judaism in terms of my religion but in terms of my culture. Judaism for me is a bit like a pizza pie. One part of that pie is the Hebrew language. Another piece is Jewish festivals. Yet another is Jewish food. Another is Jewish history. Then there is Israel -- a large piece of that pie, Jewish jokes, Jewish music, Jewish literature and philosophy, the bible… The only piece of that pie that I can't swallow is the concept of a Jewish god.
NBD: The bible? But I thought you said you were an atheist? How can the bible be part of your culture?
NK: Of course it is! Aren't we called the People of the Book? The bible is the most important piece of literature in the entire history of the Jewish people! But to me, that's all it is, a piece of literature. Yes, there are correlations between the bible and reality that have been unearthed by archaeologists. Many name places found in the bible have been identified as real places in Israel. Jericho, Hebron, Jerusalem are all mentioned in the bible, and these are places that we can visit in Israel today.
NBD: But you say that all the bible is to you is just a piece of literature. What exactly do you mean by that?
NK: I mean that the bible is supposed to tell us the history of the Jewish people, but in reality I see it as more legend than reality. I don't believe Adam was the first man or that God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites during their flight from Israel. I do believe that that it's likely that the people of Israel had become enslaved in Egypt and that a leader of some stature was able to free them from slavery, but I don't believe God had a hand in that delivery from slavery, other than the fact that the Israelites believed He did.
NBD: Because you don't believe in God, right?
NK: Correct. I can't ascribe acts of miracle to a god whom I don't believe exists. The bible is the central book in our history, but I see God as an historical character rather than the all-powerful, all-seeing being as He is normally portrayed.
NBD: I want to bring you back to your statement that you consider yourself a cultural rather than a religious Jew. How exactly do you manifest your Judaism without resorting to religion?
NK: Look, religion cannot exist without a belief in God. Why follow the mitzvot unless you believe that God has commanded you to do so? Why go to the synagogue to pray for thanks, for forgiveness or whatever, unless you believe there's someone up there listening? I experience my Judaism by living in Israel. Here I live according to the Jewish calendar, working on Sundays and taking holiday on Jewish holidays and Shabbat. I celebrate those holidays with my family by celebrating the festivals in a secular fashion, without worshipping any supernatural being. I bring my children up to believe first and foremost in Mankind. I teach them that God is not responsible for the way things are in this world, but that the good, and the bad can be controlled by men and women whose lives are determined by their own hands.
NBD: So how exactly do you celebrate Jewish festivals without the traditional prayers, ceremonies and rituals?
NK: That's a fine question, and one with which I'm in constant turmoil with myself. For example, at Pesach, we follow a non-theistic service devised by the Machar congregation in Washington in the United States. Machar is a community of secular, humanistic Jews who maintain a cultural Jewish existence, not linking that existence to any belief in God. The service goes along similar lines to the traditional Haggadah, although it is focused more on the Exodus story than is the traditional Seder. Did you know, for example, that the Haggadah that is traditionally read during this festival doesn't even mention Moses? We mention the story of the liberation from slavery of the Israelites and tie this into modern themes of liberation and slavery in our own day. We talk of the ten plagues in Egypt and tie those in with modern day plagues like poverty, war and racism. We also go through all of the symbols from the traditional service - bitter herbs, matzah, charoset. Friends whom we invited to share our Seder last year said that it was the best Seder they'd ever attended.
NBD: You say that you're in constant turmoil over the celebration of Jewish festivals. Why is that?
NK: The idea of Jewish Atheism is not new. In fact it probably goes back some hundred years or more. Despite that, its proponents are very few. This surprises me, as we know that the vast majority of Jews are non-observant. There are, I suppose, many Jews who have become assimilated, who may have married out of their faith, and want nothing to do with Judaism. There are others, like me, who feel that they want to perpetuate their link to the Jewish people through their children. We identify ourselves as no lesser member of the Jewish people than the most observant ultra-orthodox Jew living in Mea Shearim. But the conflict I have is when I want to celebrate Pesach or Chanukah, or even Shabbat I find myself using the religious model as the basis for celebrating that event. I find myself performing the Shabbat ritual with wine, with challah and with candles. Am I using these symbols because I can think of no others? It's sometimes a challenge to adapt theistic rituals to non-theistic ones, but it's not impossible.
NBD: Is there anything that doesn't adapt?
Yom Kippur is a problem. I used to fast, purely as a means of identifying with all the Jewish people in the world who were doing the same thing on that day. Then I looked at it and realised that they were doing it for repentance, or to make a point of identifying with those less fortunate than themselves. As far as repentance goes, I feel that for me, the concept is meaningless. How could I ask forgiveness from some being in whom I have no belief? As for the identification with others less fortunate than myself, I think that we could all do a little more than go without food and water for a day. Having said all that, I do find Yom Kippur a difficult day. This is a day when even my secular friends will find themselves going to the synagogue - for reasons best known to themselves. It's a hard day to find oneself at odds with the majority of one's People.
NBD: You told me before the interview that you had a "message to deliver." What exactly did you mean by that?
I was born in Glasgow in Scotland. On a recent visit there, I was
told that the number of Jews in the city was between three to four thousand.
This number has fallen from a high of over 15,000 Jews. As a person
who believes in Jewish continuity I found this very depressing. Why
has the number fallen so dramatically? Intermarriage? Emigration?
Loss of faith? Disillusionment? Will the decline continue?
Probably. In fact, if we're to believe demographic experts, we can
expect the number of Jews in the world to fall significantly in the next
50 years leaving only two concentrations of Jews -- those in Israel and
the US. But, back to Glasgow. What solution is the Glasgow
Jewish community offering to combat this fall in its population?
The answer -- "Kollel", the Lubavitch movement and "Limmud."
In other words the community is trying to combat a move away from religion
by the young Jewish members of the community by offering them more religion!
It isn't working and it won't work. The numbers speak for themselves.
In my opinion what is needed is a solution that meets the needs of those
Jews in Glasgow and all over the Diaspora who have become disillusioned
by traditional religious Judaism and offer them an alternative. We
need to show them that being Jewish means more than just going to shul
on Yom Kippur. Show them that being Jewish means more than going
to shul for three months before their sons' barmitzvahs just to win the
rabbi's approval to teach their sons their torah portions. Being
Jewish means learning Hebrew. It means studying the modern and ancient
history of the Jewish people. It means meeting with friends and studying
the great works of Jewish literature. It even means going out and
enjoying a night watching Jewish comedian Jackie Mason on stage.
This entire, rich, cultural tapestry is waiting to be reclaimed by those
Jews disenchanted by the religious model. This is the message I want
to offer to the Diaspora. Without it the decline in the world's Jewish
population will continue leaving Judaism the remit of the ultra-orthodox.
This I see as the beginning of the end of all that I would like to see
treasured and maintained by all open minded and freethinking Jews everywhere.
here are some more Atheism titbits...
I know a lot of Atheists, many of whom hate the reaction they get when they tell people what they think. We've all seen it, the rolling eyes, the open mouth, and the obvious questions.
But there's one thing that you can tell people and get an even stronger reaction, one so strong that even I am hesitant to tell someone unless I know I'll have the time to explain. You see, I'm a Jewish atheist. Telling people this has almost always followed with a long drawn-out explanation of how the two ideas are not mutually exclusive and how I'm "really an Atheist" even though I also call myself a Jew as well. Manyother Jewish Atheists have written me on this subject aswell, so I'm going to use this month's column to straighten out this small misunderstanding of how Atheism and Judaism can logically coexist in the same mind.
The central idea here, which is not often understood by non-Jews, is that there is more to Judaism than just religion. Yes, Judaism is a religion by definition, but since the Jews have been together as a people for so long there has grown a culture around that religion, which does not necessarily need the religion to survive. For instance, if I was to talk about knadlach and kreplach, most of you would think I was having some sort of seizure. Jews, however, would know that the topic was food - really good food - right away, without the idea of God ever entering the conversation.
And Jews love to eat! Heck, we use chicken fat as a spice! We talk with our hands, use guilt like it's going out of style, and utilize a host of Jewish-only mannerisms and traditions that have nothing to do with a deity (at least not directly). Some of us speak a little Yiddish, we all know at least half the score of "Fiddler on the Roof," and knowledge of how to dance the Hora is instinctive.
The extent to which a Jewish Atheist celebrates Jewish Holidays is an individual judgement call. After all, all Jewish holidays are at least somewhat religious, so I judge them on my own "secular" scale. Yom Kippur, for instance, is the Jew's holiest day, on which one spends all day in a synagogue, fasts, and is forgiven for sins. To me, there is very little culture and a whole lot of religion here, so I don't celebrate this holiday. Conversely, Passover in my family is celebrated by a big meal and a family get-together, with a little religion tossed in. For me, the cultural part of this day outweighs the religion, and so this holiday is one I celebrate (although I don't pray).
Granted, there is a gray area here. These same holidays may be celebrated in different ways in different families, so the scale may tip in opposite directions for some people. For instance, some families celebrate Passover with hours of prayer and religious discussion.. I certainly can see why some other Atheists might not want to involve themselves with that - I certainly wouldn't. Likewise, many Jews would say that the fasting and socialization makes Yom Kippur a cultural holiday as well, but my scale tips to far toward religion on this one.
I saying Jews are the only religious group with their own culture? No.
I would not presume to say that no aspects of other traditions identify
without identifying a god.
However, I do know that Jewish people have similarities in attitudes and background that go beyond a belief in God. It is these cultural aspects which makes the term "Jewish Atheist" just as logical as "Black Atheist" or "New York Atheist."
So next time someone tells you they're a Jewish Atheist, bear in mine that this is not indecision or hypocrisy, rather it is the logical combination of culture and lack of religious belief.
Can I finish your Varnishkes and Kasha?
his love for Varnishkes and Kasha, "NJ Dave" stays fit being State Director
American Atheists and working as a profession inventor. He welcomes food
-- and mail -- through firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I have said many times before, the purpose of this column is not to promote the "us vs. them" mentality against the theists, rather to promote understanding and tolerance.
we all know that many theists are so closed-minded about us that they won't
even talk to us, let alone try to understand us. This is usually not
their fault, as they are told terrible things about us by people they trust, their preachers, whose whole livelihood depends on their parishioners staying in
It is this prejudice and conflict which is one of the main factors keeping atheists in the closet and theists in ignorance. With dialogue, not prejudice, both sides will benefit and the country will become a freer place. In this article I will therefore mention many of the myths about atheists that are popular among theists, as well as my usual responses. With any luck, this will prepare atheists for future confrontations and therefore make them more confident to announce themselves, as well as allow theist readers to better understand the atheist mentality.
Myth 1 ~ "Atheists are all the same" -- You can understand why theists believe this, after being told this over and over by their preachers. This belief is reinforced by the fact that believers must be bound by much more than a simple belief in God. For example, Catholics must also have the same stances on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality in order to be called a "good Catholic." It only goes to follow that atheism must be similar.
However, atheism is not a religion, rather the absence of religion. As such, we are bound only by our atheism. We are republicans and democrats, men and women, gays and straights, blacks and whites. We accept every person as they are as equals, and delight in our diversity (not many religions can say that). We disagree with each other on many issues, and discussion is encouraged and common. Above all, atheists demand the right to disagree, even if it means with each other.
Myth 2 ~ "Atheists have no morals, since they don't believe in God" - What a sad world it is when people can seriously say that humans need to fear eternal damnation in order to do good. It is the one statement which at the same time stirs both anger and pity in most atheists; anger because it is a bigoted, prejudicial statement which serves no purpose except to promote intolerance, and pity because it highlights the speaker's ignorance and willingness to accept such crap without question.
At the risk of validating the question, a reply needs to be made in order to expose the speaker to the idea that what they've heard is wrong on so many dimensions. It must not be answered with anger, but with compassion.
Humans have the idea of right and wrong imbedded in them by their own brains, as well as their upbringing and society. Atheists do good, not out of fear of reprisal, but because it's the right thing to do. We value family, society, culture, and, of course, freedom. Many of us will - and have - defend these values with our lives. Examples:
1) Many Catholics make judgement calls on
moral decisions against their church. For
example, some use birth control or have
abortions, despite what their church
preaches. If these people can make moral
decisions despite what their church preaches,
then atheists can make similar choices
without a church altogether.
2) Slavery was not only acceptable 200 years
ago, it was considered a good deed by many,
and defended using the bible. The bible was
also used to justify the Holocaust, the
Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition.
Why is this relevant? Because it shows that
the bible can be used to defend even the
most immoral and unethical ideals, and is
therefore not an adequate yardstick to
measure moral or ethical behavior.
3) Finally, mention bad religious people.
Remember that Hitler was a religious
Catholic, and that Jeffrey Dahmer said grace
before he ate his victims. Mention also that
one need only open a newspaper to find yet
another story about allegations against
priests for sexual misconduct, often with
children. Don't forget our good friends Jim
Baker (who swindled millions from his flock)
and Jimmy Swaggart (asked for forgiveness
only after being caught using prostitutes).
4) Always couple these statements with the
fact that, while atheists make up 8-10% of
the population at large, we only make up 1%
of the population in prison. I mean, think of
it, what if 8-10% of the population (on top of
all the religious criminals) decided it was OK
to steal, rape, and murder? We'd have chaos!
These will serve to prove that religion and
ethical behavior are not even slightly related.
Expect these statements to piss off the
theists, and this is where you must mention
that what you said is verifiable and that their
statement is openly prejudicial against 25
million people. This is the opportunity to
open their eyes to the fact that just because
we're different from them doesn't make us
Myth 3 ~ "Atheists believe in evolution, but that doesn't answer as many questions as creationism"- Atheism is not a scientific theory, rather a lack of religion. We do believe in science, and that all questions will eventually be answered with science if they are not answered today. It's gone well so far, giving theories regarding evolution, geological movement, and the Big Bang, all supported by evidence, but not necessarily endorsed by all atheists.
Creationism does not give all the answers, either. Furthermore, it goes so far as to choose which questions to answer, and discourages the asking of the rest. Believers are loath to discuss where God came from, or what he was doing before the creation. They refuse to give good answers for the many biblical inconsistencies or for the terrible injustices in the world, because they know that no such answers exist. They merely answer with "there are things which we mere humans cannot fully understand" or "the Lord works in mysterious ways". In the end, religion doesn't answer as many questions as it raises.
Myth 4 ~ "Atheists cannot know there is no God, since you cannot prove he doesn't exist" - Again, this is a two sided coin, but the theists are loathe to admit the other side. Atheists don't need to prove the non-existence of God, any more we need to prove the nonexistence of Zeus or Jupiter. Can theists prove God over any alternatives? Of course not. Nobody can prove God exists, yet they will stand on their heads saying they're sure. Well, if they can be sure despite evidence to the contrary, we can be sure in light of evidence in support of atheism.
Myth 5 ~ "Atheists seek to remove religion from society, and to force all people to be atheists" - Absolutely wrong. We seek only the freedom for people to make their choice on their own, free of intervention from the government or public school system. We seek the freedom not to support religion through taxes, forced participation, or special privileges of any kind.
That being said, your thoughts are your rights, and none of our business. Wear your jewelry, celebrate your holidays, and pray in your house, church, or in public if you like. Just don't force your religion on other people. That's what we're all about.
This is in direct contrast to many of the world's religions, including Christianity, which include worldwide expansion as one of their central objectives. Isn't it amazing that they falsely accuse us of doing what they do openly, only with atheism it's evil?
To try to force atheism would by hypocritical, since we would be placing pressure from the state on people to believe a certain way. But let me give a good analyogy to our objectives and at the same time answer this charge using the money we use every day.
"In God We Trust," is the (U.S.) government actively promoting religion.
"In God We Do Not Trust," would be the (U.S.) government promoting atheism.
We advocate the complete omission of the statement thereby rendering the money neutral.
We feel the same way about the rest of the government. It should be the "Switzerland of the religious debate," while at the same time being the protectorate of the individual.
Myth 6 ~ "Atheists are so closed-minded, they can't see that miracles happen every day!" - Some people look for miracles where none exist (they never do). Allow me to put things in perspective: Someone's cancer going into remission is no miracle, but we can talk when disease suddenly disappears from the face of the earth overnight without help from medical science. Food getting through to a hungry village: human perseverance. Starvation vanishing from earth without a reason overnight: Miracle. One more time: A child is born - science; The spontaneous end of birth defects - Miracle. Got it?
Note: only good things are miracles, so volcanoes, tornadoes, and hurricanes don't count.
Myth 7 ~ "Atheists are pushing a negative sentiment, and have a dreary life" - Wrong We are "pushing" a very positive statement: that living without dependence on a false deity is easy, fulfilling, and positive. We strive to be a positive influence in the world, and think each person can - and must - find their own meaning of life. We are thinkers, philosophers, and we thrive on discussion and diversity. We are proud, happy, and most of all, free. Compare that to original sin and Hell.
Myth 8 ~ "If atheists are right, then religious people are wasting their time, but at least they're happy. No harm in that! If religious people are right, then atheists are going to hell. It seems logical that atheists should become religious just to be safe." I like getting this question. I sense another list coming:
1) Drug addicts go through life happy, so
would theists suggest we all use drugs and
stay home? We would be happy, and not
hurting anybody, so where's the harm? The
harm is the same for believers. They go
through life happy, but it's a false, wasteful
happiness. Atheists get happiness from
family, contribution to society, charity, and
2) Religious people should not be lumped
into one category for this question.
Remember, religions are also biased against
each other (Jews vs. Catholics Vs.
Protestants, etc), so no matter what religion
the speaker follows, most of the world thinks
they're going to hell (or other punishment),
just like atheists. Ask them which religion
has the worst punishment, and whether they
would convert to that religion on that one
factor, just in case they're right. When they
tell you how absurd that question is, remind
them that they asked it first.
3) To convert and practice a specific religion
just to ingratiate yourself with God and avoid
going to hell is pure, self-serving greed,
which is one of the seven deadly sins.
Therefore, by their own thinking, even if they
are right and I do convert, I'd go to hell
anyway, along with everyone else in the flock
whose actions are so motivated (possibly
including the speaker).
Myth 9 ~ "There are no such things as atheists" a.k.a. "There are no atheists in foxholes" - More fantasy from the believers, that there could never exist a single human whose reason and logical abilities surpass the pressure from society to believe in a deity. This is especially true in a situation of imminent death, where they believe all atheists would drop to our knees and beg God for forgiveness.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could somehow be sure that those who currently disagree with us would come around in the end and know we were right? Just like most other parts of religion, this is blatant fantasy.
There are 25 Million atheists in the U.S.A., more that Jews and Blacks combined. Many atheists became atheists not because they were born into it (like most theists), rather because we contemplated god in its many forms and decided it just doesn't make an ounce of sense. This isn't a choice, it's fact - a logical proof. We are simply too logical to believe God is anything more than fantasy.
As far as foxholes go, when I face death, as we all do sooner or later, I will use the last few remaining seconds of my life to remember my favorite moments, and evaluate my contribution to my family and society. I would definitely not waste precious time praying to a deity "just in case I'm wrong" I'm not.
Myth 10 ~ "America was founded by Christians, on Christian values, and should therefore be a Christian country".
some of the founding fathers were Christian, but some were Deists (generally
believed in God), and some were outright atheists. But a more important
point needs to be made: the founding fathers went out of their way to specify
that church and state be separate. They believed that their religion was
just that: theirs and theirs alone. They also remembered that they were
their trying to be free of the state church of England, and recognized
from their first-hand experience that true religious freedom can only come
when belief is left to the individual. It is this ideal, among others, for which our forefathers fought and died.
Individual religious choice - including the right not to practice - is still under assault in this country. Those who would prefer to make the choice for you have labeled us criminal, evil ne'er-do-wells and launched a massive campaign to keep freethinkers subdued. They have been successful, mainly because atheism is fragmented and closeted.
They continue to be successful, but we can reverse the trend. Atheists must make themselves known. If you are reading this, and you are a closet atheist, you owe it to your country, your fellow atheists, and yourself to let people know how you feel. Start by coming to our convention in June, and meeting other people like yourself. You'll be amazed at how good it feels to speak, listen, and party with people who openly agree with you. Bring a friend.
addition to his work as a State Director for American Atheists, "NJ Dave"
is a professional inventor. He welcomes e-mail at email@example.com.)
Mum, if you're reading this, you know it's just a silly phase I'm going