Monday, 23 April 2012

Interview with Atheodox Jew: Imagining an Atheist Orthodox Community

Continued from here.

CL:  After reading your bio, I'm really glad you hit on an aspect of Orthodoxy that my previous posts re: the appeal of Orthodoxy have neglected: the potential for intellectual development inherent in Orthodoxy as a result of the focus on Torah study. As an atheist, I could never fully engage, but it's interesting whether a community of "Atheodox Jews"  could offer an intellectually stimulating and honest Orthodox context that  does not currently exist elsewhere . . . i.e. an untapped religious niche/market :). 

Many atheists will dismiss this by pointing to intellectual stimulation via reading books/career etc., but those interests/activities are generally very compartmentalized in practice, and are not geared towards community building. By creating a community around Torah and its offshoots, the whole community has a unified text to discuss  - not so far off from the role of sports or TV in secular culture, but arguably more meaningful for many since it informs individual's lifestyle/decisions and links them to their heritage and each other. 

In any case, thank you very much for answering the questions  below. Much appreciate the dialogue!

AJ: Thank YOU so much. I appreciate your sincerity, depth and good-natured way. Before I get to the questions, let me put my responses in context. Part of what I say comes from a purely experiential place, sharing how I manage to adapt to Orthodoxy as a non-believer. I've found that it's entirely possible to be a religious Jew - to be observant, learn Torah, work on one's middot, do chesed, etc. - without living in a "God reality", without having to subscribe to a set of beliefs in supernatural entities, metaphysical realities, without believing that the Torah is literally or historically true. I know that puts me at odds with the system, and I can live with that. 

But there is a side of me that says no - I'm not at odds with the system. The refusal to accept unreasonable beliefs is not a "sin" - adaraba (just the opposite), it's an idealistic position in Torah, something to be proud of, to esteem to, a sign of the quintessentially Jewish anti-idolatry "bug" we've been blessed with. It is a statement that Torah ultimately strives for truth - which means that not only is non-belief "excusable", but in fact it's a "mitzvah" to cleanse Torah of superstitious or otherwise unreasonable beliefs. It's a framework that says Torah is not afraid of rejecting a part of itself, for the sake of truth. That is "Torat Emet".

So some of my responses may be in the more experiential spirit, and some may reflect the more idealistic position.

1.  How would you envision halacha to be reframed in an Atheodox context? Does it shift from law to suggestion? 

As soon as we start with the premise of atheism, the concept of mitzvah as "Divine Command" ceases to be. There is no "revelation", no "contract with God". There is something else however: an unwritten contract by/among the Jewish people - a commitment to remain a people, and to strive for a high level of conduct and contribution (to be a "Goy Kadosh" and "Or LeGoyim"). And on that count, halacha has much to contribute, both in terms of helping us to maintain our identity (laying out a system of rules/norms unique to the Jewish people), and in the detailed attention given toward refining one's personal conduct/character (especially in developing greater interpersonal sensitivity, expressed in laws "Ben Adam LeChavero" and other places).

Halacha also contributes by offering a world of intellectual and creative discourse. Engaging in the study of halacha (specifically how it develops through Mishna, Gemara, Rishonim, Achronim) is the "meat and potatoes" of yeshiva-style Torah learning. This learning is the foundation of a Talmid Chacham, a "Lamdan" (with all due respect to the idea of "Reshit Chochma Yirat Hashem"). And beyond being a fascinating, engaging, dynamic and highly intellectually stimulating activity, beyond the "lishma" enjoyment it provides, the study of halacha no doubt enriches and adds depth to our observance. Also, as opposed to discussions of "hashkafa", halacha is naturally quite "atheistic" in nature, meaning it is primarily the study of logical/conceptual interrelations, not metaphysics and theology.

All that said, in terms of actual practice, I see no way around the fact that some areas of halacha either have to be reworked or simply abandoned. What is the criteria for deciding which halachot are problematic? I don't have a hard and fast rule to offer, and the reality is that such criteria will probably emerge spontaneously out of popular sentiment, but here is one possible approach:

The Torah tells us not to put a stumbling block before the blind or curse the deaf, because "you should fear your God". Likewise, Sodom was known as having no "fear of God". What do these instances of "fearing God" have in common? Simply, to curse a deaf person or sodomize your guests is below the level of what is minimally acceptable for civil society (or at least according to Bronze Age Near Eastern criteria). That is what the Torah means by having no "fear of God" - it refers to a lack of the most basic civility.

I use this as the basis for a guideline. In order to determine whether a halacha should be revisited/changed/abandoned, we need to look at the norms of modern, civil, free, enlightened society. Whatever halacha (rule or practice) falls "below" what such a society can allow (rendering it "uncivil", as contravening the goals of free society or basic human rights) - that halacha needs to be changed, repudiated or eliminated. Any practice which is beneath the dignity of the wider society is in effect a "Chilul HaShem" (if not halachically, then in spirit), and a Torah community cannot, and should not, conduct itself in that manner. And since the rules of halacha represent a human contract, not something etched into the heavens, we can change it as we see fit. (Though rather than simply bypassing halacha, we may opt instead to creatively reformulate halacha so as to reflect and support such change.)

2. In my post “The Country Club” I listed four groups that I think are marginalized in Orthodox Judiasm (in no particular order): Women, Homosexuals, Atheists, and People who marry non-Jews (and I have since learned that people considered Mamzerim would also be marginalized).  Would a Humanistic Model of Modern Orthodoxy demarginalize all groups, or are some taboos (e.g. on intermarriage) too ingrained for the Orthodox community to overlook/revise?

 Excellent question. In the "Country Club" post, you spoke about official club rules vs. member sentiment. That would be one way to frame this discussion, since some of the marginalization you mentioned is halachically sanctioned, and some has nothing whatsoever to do with halacha and instead is a function of community sentiment (norms & taboos). So for instance, to my knowledge being gay or marrying a non-Jew should have no impact in any way on a person's halachic standing (they can be given an aliyah, give testimony, etc.). Of course in reality, they do face potential rejection by their communities. Being an atheist may affect one's halachic status, depending on the extent of the non-belief, how that person expresses it, and whether that puts the person into the category of "kofer", "apikores", etc. But again, even if one's non-belief is deemed not to affect their halachic standing, it no doubt presents a formidable social/communal challenge. "Mamzer" is of course a halachic category and has its implications. (Same with blindness, deafness, mental retardation, deformity, and other factors beyond a person's control.) 

And yes, women are certainly treated differently in halacha, and I would agree it's not all in the spirit of "vive la différence!" - some of it is indeed experienced as marginalization. Since free societies have essentially rejected inequality of women before the law and in terms of opportunity, a Torah community can do no less than afford women equal status, e.g., in terms of divorce, testimony, counting as part of a minyan, functioning as a Rabbi, a Dayan, etc. The same goes for homosexuality - if it is illegal and immoral in a free society to discriminate against gays, a Torah society can be no worse in that regard. (Yes, Torah should ideally strive to be "better", but at the very least it shouldn't be worse.) As far as belief in God, there is absolutely nothing "uncivil" about being an atheist in modern, free, predominantly secular society. Besides, how could Atheodoxy marginalize atheists! 

As for the question of marrying a non-Jew, a couple of points. Again, there is nothing "uncivil" about interfaith marriage, and if anything it would be uncivil to marginalize such a person. However, in many cases intermarriage is a decision to remove oneself from observance, and in effect to "leave" the Jewish people by virtue of one's children having less (if any) identification as Jews. Is it "wrong" to do so in any absolute or "spiritual" sense? No. Do we, as autonomous, free people have every right to decide how to conduct our lives? Absolutely. But nonetheless it's a decision to break a very basic social contract, one which sees maintaining a Jewish people and being a part of it as something with inherent value. And that, I believe, is not something to be done lightly.

Now, what about someone who marries a non-Jew, yet the non-Jewish partner (or child) "identifies" as Jewish? Do they need to convert? What about the larger "who's a Jew" question? I'll give you my personal view on this. I see as the most decent, civil and reasonable approach (and counter to normative halacha, at least as it's currently understood) to say that anyone who either practices and lives as a Jew, or who counts themselves as a Jew, puts themselves in the same "boat" as the Jewish people (for better or for worse) and is dedicated to their well-being - that is a person I'd like to count as a Jew. If they want to immerse in a mikvah, because that is an act which Jewish tradition associates with starting one's identity as a Jew, great. If not, it's certainly not a deal-breaker.

So to answer the question, is Halacha "law" or "suggestion"? I'm not sure it's either one. It has a social contract aspect. It has a self-identity aspect, an idealism/"higher conduct" aspect, an intellectual-engagement aspect. And then there are parts of halacha which don't hold up to contemporary standards of civil and free society and have to change.

3. Since the "social contract" in the atheist context is really a cultural one - i.e. behavior that indicates one is participating in a  a culture - how is intermarriage breaking a "social contract" any more than marrying a completely non-observant Jew? (The wording of your answer suggests that intermarriage would continue to be strongly discouraged, but I don't really see how intermarriage is that different from marrying secular - except that it is  hugely stigmatized in the community.) 

Yes, I was actually thinking about this question as I wrote but somehow didn't address it. Here goes...

Very true, marrying a non-observant Jew (or becoming non-observant) can likewise result in one's (or one's children's) dissociation/dis-identification from the Jewish people. However, marrying a non-Jew is typically a compounding factor, as the person is coming in with a different religious identity, different set of cultural norms, potentially different beliefs. Granted, the same could be said for a person who is halachically "Jewish" but grew up in a Christian home, and the opposite could be said of one who is halachically "non-Jewish" but who grew up Jewish - who again I would like to call Jewish by virtue of the person's identifying as such.

My main point is that self-perpetuation of a people is a reasonable goal, which means that discouraging attrition is a significant value (part of the "contract"), and one way of doing that is to discourage intermarriage as a general rule. That said, I agree that other factors which would result in attrition/dis-identification should also be discouraged, and I recognize that not everyone fits the "general rule". If one can marry a non-Jew and pass on a robust Jewish identity, all the power to them. Lastly, I want to emphasize that personal autonomy is key, and if Jewish identity is not something a person wants to embrace, that is entirely their prerogative.

4: To stay “Orthodox”, it would seem some forms of halacha would have to remain binding to a certain extent. Are there any halachot that you see as non-negotiable  - shabbos/kashrut for instance?

AJ: Once there's no "mitzvah", all halacha technically becomes a "rishut" (a matter of personal preference) - nothing is "binding" per se. The question then becomes what do we value, what do we enjoy, what do we feel is so integral a part of Jewish observance and identity that we simply "have to" maintain it in order to keep the culture intact? Brit Milah falls into that category for most Jews. So does having a Passover Seder. For Orthodox culture, Shabbat and Kashrut definitely fall into that category, and in fact so do most observances. There is a certain rhythm, a "gestalt", to Orthodox life, which all the various observances together help to create. That said, I think there is a certain amount of change, including lapses in observance, which could be absorbed in the system, and it would still retain the feel of "Orthodox life" - or if not exactly "Orthodox" then a robust, vibrant, distinctively Jewish life which is capable of sustaining itself.

5. What would the role of the tradition of Torah literature and thought be? How could it be reframed in a non-theistic Orthodoxy? (I'm imagining as a "historic chain" that links us to our ancestors . . .but the reverence might shift in currency. Jewish art/literature etc., are also chains - would they be elevated in stature?)

Yes, there is an appeal to linking back through history and feeling connected to something that spans not only our lifetime but the lifetime of our people. But that's just one aspect. Like halacha, Torah on the whole has a strong moral/pedagogical component, a self-identity component, an intellectual engagement component, etc. Somehow, we are who we are as Jews, by virtue of our continued involvement with Torah - and often times by our very opposition to Torah. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a shiur (Torah lecture) and come away with a feeling of great clarity, understanding, and sense of mission - precisely because I completely disagreed with it! So whether we're inspired by, and in full agreement with, a particular piece of Torah, or whether we find it terribly wrong-headed and hard to stomach, Torah learning is a win-win proposition. 

As far as "reverence", the sheer magnitude of all the careful thought, the endless tomes of material that have been output by Torah scholars throughout the centuries on almost every subject imaginable, is something which stands on its own as something to be revered. Jewish art and literature may be no less depthful or worthy of study, as are science and other fields of knowledge. And yes, by virtue of Torah being strictly human, it is not inherently "higher" than other areas of study. Yet there is something unique about Torah learning which fuels our identity and vitality as Jews in a way that perhaps nothing else can.

6. How would this model of Modern Orthodoxy be distinct from Reconstructionist Judaism (aside from the possible omission of references to God)? (The question could also be posed as: What would need to happen for this model of Orthodoxy to remain distinct from other more liberal Jewish movements e.g. Reconstructionist etc.)

First off, in theory Atheodoxy is not limited to the Modern Orthodox sector. In fact I could see there being a very robust "yeshivish" Atheodoxy. Imagine combining the intellectual acumen, attention to middot, and in-depth knowledge of Torah of the yeshivish persona, with a fully rational, non-superstitious, "no-intellectual-shtus" approach. I know people like this, and it's a powerful combination! So it already exists - but as I mentioned before I'm not naive enough to think the Haredi/Yeshivish world would embrace the "Godlus of Godlessness" (to coin a phrase) anytime soon. They will most certainly fight tooth and nail against it. So will right-wing MO for that matter, since it seeks to prove itself as worthy in the eyes of the Haredi world. Left-wing MO to a certain extent also wants to prove itself as "serious" about Torah/observance to right-wing MO, but the fact that the left-wing prides itself on being tolerant, accepting and open-minded means that this is where Atheodoxy has a fighting chance to coalesce, build a community, and start to gain a degree of legitimacy. But this process will be ever... so... slow. We're talking decades.

To answer your question though, what sets Atheodoxy apart from non-Orthodox movements is the same thing which separates Orthdoxy from those movements - things like learning Gemara, keeping Shabbat, being immersed in Torah and mitzvot as part of one's daily life and identity.

7. Would you see this community as having stronger allies among liberal movements or other Orthodox groups?

That's tough to gauge. Initially, Orthodox groups will not want to touch Atheodoxy with a ten-foot-pole, let alone count it as an "ally". Atheodoxy will be likened to the pig that displays its split hooves to appear kosher, but is really 100% treif. It will be likened to Lavan, which as the Haggadah says, "sought to uproot everything". Only non-Orthodox movements would dare have anything to do with a group which calls itself Atheodox. But culturally, Atheodox individuals will no doubt do exactly what they do now - live in mainstream Orthodox society. That is their cultural base, their home.

8. How would educational models approach this form of Orthodoxy? i.e. How much needs to be taught so that the next generation can carry the torch once the theistic foundation is removed? Or, in what detail would the theistic roots be taught. i.e. if the community adopts Tzemah Yoreh’s model/philosophy of davening, would children still need to be fluent in the antecedents? 

I would say as follows - the same classical Torah texts would be taught which have always been taught. However, they will be taught with a rational overlay. For instance, if we read, "Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to do X, Y and Z", it might be discussed as: "X, Y and Z are understood to be important. Can anyone explain why? Does anyone disagree?" In addition, there is value in being exposed to the traditional theological model if only to gain clarity as to why we reject such belief. That being said, I would imagine that texts with a predominantly theological emphasis, which focus on "Devekut", love and fear of God, etc., will probably generate less interest. But that still leaves considerably more Torah to learn than most people can possibly digest in their lifetime. I also hold out the possibility that Atheodoxy could spawn a new creative renaissance in Torah literature - original works, commentaries, treatises on halacha and machshava (thought/philosophy), entirely new genres for all I know.

As much as I admire the work of Tzemah Yoreh, my hunch (as I mentioned in response to the "Question for Orthopraxers" post) is that Atheodoxers would probably prefer traditional davening (or to stop davening altogether) over davening from an "Atheist's Siddur". The reason is that davening per se is not an activity that interests most people - its appeal is in taking part in a familiar, shared communal experience, something whose details are discussed in halacha, an activity people already have a "rhythm" with - and that includes the words and tunes used in traditional davening. Could Atheodox davening have a different "spin" to it? (Maybe not being so long, for starters?) Absolutely. Like I said about Orthodoxy in general, there's a certain amount of change that can be absorbed, whereby davening is still davening. At a certain point though, it becomes something else. And that is also ok, don't get me wrong. If the "consumer demand" is there, that will determine what people do. If davening gets dropped altogether, or is replaced by learning or another communal activity, that could work as well. I for one would welcome it!

9. Do you know many people who are Orthoprax? Is your impression that people are Orthoprax by choice - i.e. they really like Orthodox culture? Or by circumstance: because they lost faith after starting families etc., and do not want to disappoint their loved ones/lose their social support system? If most are from the second group - i.e. they are disenchanted with Orthodoxy, do you think this model of Orthodoxy makes being Orthodox more palatable, or do you think given the choice, most Orthopraxers-by-circumstance would sooner just drop being Orthodox all together?

I don't know any Jewish atheists who have taken on Orthodox observance simply because they like the culture. Invariably, it's people who start off Orthodox and then realize they can't abide by the beliefs. So I'm not expecting Atheodoxy to be a "kiruv" vehicle. It is primarily intended to serve those within Orthodoxy who see the value, depth, and vitality in being a Torah-observant Jew and living in a Torah-observant community, but who value truth, who feel it is neither appropriate nor "holy" to contaminate their minds or their children's minds with irrational or harmful dogma, and who - like Avraham Avinu - would like to "cross over the river" and leave the idolatry of false beliefs behind. At least that is how I feel, at any rate. So yes, if there is no "Eye in the Sky", there are many who would sooner leave Orthodoxy altogether. But others may see Atheodoxy as offering the best of both worlds - a rich, idealistic Jewish life, where that idealism very much includes respect for reason and the mind.

10. A more personal question: What do you tell your children? Are you open with them about being atheist?

What I tell my children depends on their age. Younger children can indulge in fantasy, and I believe that's perfectly okay. Once they reach the neighborhood of Bar/Bat Mitzvah age however, I try to introduce a more "rationalist" approach so as to minimize irrational or superstitious beliefs. I have not yet declared myself an "atheist" to any of my children, but I speak about Torah and Judaism in reasoned, human terms, and in that sense I am transmitting Judaism as an atheist - i.e. "without God".


  1. I'm wondering about the choice to identify as atheist vs. agnostic.

    It seems to me that a definite denial of G-d/Higher Power would be at odds with Orthodox Judaism, but that there is arguably room more room to be agnostic. As I read it, the Torah tells of the struggle between concrete but false notions of gods, vs. belief in an invisible, non-physical, much more abstract Ultimate Power Behind the Universe. Ideas about the nature of G-d change in various sources, and the kabbalistic literature is totally wild.

    I see Judaism as being very different, in this way, from Christianity, where the main focus is on having faith in a very specific concept of G-d and theological statement. In Judaism, there seems to be room for constant searching and struggling with the nature of G-d, and a realization that it defies simple explanations and complete understanding.

    1. JRKmommy, thank you for the feedback.

      I am agnostic insofar as holding out the possibility of some sort of Higher Power/Intelligence, the possibility that reality may be far different than what we currently perceive. But to me, this is pure speculation, like postulating that we live within a "Matrix" but are incapable of perceiving it.

      The word "atheist" can be taken a number of ways. The usual understanding is the "belief that there is no God". If the "God" under discussion is the one subscribed to in traditional Orthodox theology, who dictated the Torah word for word, performed miracles in the desert, appeared to Biblical figures and spoke to them, continually monitors us and expects/demands that we keep the commandments, then I am an atheist. I don't believe such a God exists.

      In fact I am a bit of an "anti-theist" - I am against the idea of believing in a God that serves as an agent of explanation (of natural or human events) or justification (what human beings should/shouldn't do).

      But mostly I live as an atheist in the literal sense - living a meaningful Jewish observant life "without God".

      I fully concur, there is a long-held tradition of struggling with God and faith, and that mine is a departure from that tradition. But struggle with God I believe is best summed up by Kohelet (albeit describing the pursuit of "wisdom"): "It is an awful task God has given to human beings to be afflicted with... It is all vanity and striving after wind."

      How so? Because questions about an ineffable God constitute a line of discussion where by definition it is impossible to make any tangible progress, yet which people feel obliged to partake in nonetheless. It is an orientation that romanticizes that which is "unknowable" or "paradoxical", and romanticizes the existential angst and loneliness which results as a kind of "holy suffering".

      It appears to be "depthful" because as deep as you go you never seem to reach the bottom. But that is because there is no bottom, and something that has no bottom in fact has no depth. It is, to quote Kohelet again, "a vexation of the spirit".

      So while I understand that people are drawn to such struggles, I feel that it's a "mitzvah" NOT to go there, not to divert my energies toward questions which bear no possibility of resolution, but rather to engage in all the other rich, fruitful areas of Torah (and other things in life) where there is progress to be made, satisfaction to be had.

      That is where I'm coming from. It's a more pragmatic orientation rather than a philosophical orientation.

      I hope that speaks to your point. All the best...

  2. You do know that meaningfulness you feel in your life is a mere illusion, right?
    Not that that means God exists, just that if God doesn't exist, all your meaningful life is actually nonsense. I suppose that to be an atheist, you have to put this problem aside and not think about the ultimate meaninglessness of it all.

    And JRKmommy, to identify as an atheist or agnostic is a choice, what you believe isn't. You can say your an atheist all you want (and you might even convince yourself you are one if you say it enough), but what you actually are is another matter. It's funny that we feel a need to place ourselves in certain categories. Why don't you just be who you are and believe what you believe without labeling yourself and worrying about how others label themselves.

    1. What is better, to live a life that one knows is (ultimately) meaningless, or to deceive oneself that one's life is meaningful, when it ultimately isn't?

      The answer is probably different for different people.

    2. E - I use "meaningful life" as a purely subjective term. My life is meaningful when I derive meaning from it. Period. I don't have any need for there to be "ultimate meaning" in any universal, cosmic, objective sense. That's a belief system that I no longer subscribe to, or derive any comfort from.

      You make a good point about the distinction between "who you are" and "who you say you are". In "real life" I don't go around talking about atheism or thinking about myself as an atheist. I do exactly as you said - I just believe what I believe, am who I am, and that's it.

      That said, there is a place for describing oneself. CL says up front, "I am a secular Jewish atheist." That helps me learn something about her, and I take it as a given that it's a generalization, that of course it doesn't give the full picture. And sometimes labels are more than description - when I say "Atheodox" I'm making a point for purposes of public conversation that there is a place for an "idealistic non-belief" coupled with Jewish observance.

  3. gender segregation is such an essential part of yeshivish orthodox culture, so I really can't see a cultural orthodoxy that espouse the values the you propose.
    Modern Orthodox less so, but they still adhere to segregation in their religious culture, though much less so in the chol aspects of their lives.

    1. kisarita,

      Good point. Although I think it may be possible to have a degree of healthy "separation" without it necessarily becoming "segregation". Segregation I think of as one group being kept out, apart - by law or by philosophy. That has to end. However, I think there is wisdom in having a healthy respect for man-woman borders, and I think there's even a place for men to do "their thing" and women to do "their thing" (if that's what the culture wants), just so long as it isn't taken too seriously and it doesn't overly limit people's freedom.

      So I agree it's a tough issue, but not entirely black & white either.

      Best, AJ


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