I get this question so often (especially online) that now you get an entire blog post just on this topic!
So, here’s how.
1) Judaism is a religion, but being Jewish isn’t necessarily.
Jewish people have at various times considered ourselves and been considered by others a faith, a nationality, an ethnicity, a race, and a culture. While the distinctions between some of these categories are blurry–and some of them are recognized mainly by anti-semites–that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
For instance, the fact that groups such as Nazis and Soviets considered Jewish people a separate and inferior race has obviously had a huge effect both on Jewish history and on how many Jewish people see themselves. To use the obvious example, Hitler didn’t hate the Jews because they worshiped the wrong god or because they didn’t eat cheeseburgers; he hated them (among other reasons) because he considered them genetically flawed and therefore dangerous to his vision of a perfect Germany.
(Weird how Nazi types can never seem to decide if Jewish people are genetically flawed or genetically so fucking good at money shit that we literally run the whole world. It’s enough to give a Jew an identity crisis, for fuck’s sake.)
Anyway, Nazis and Soviets don’t get to define us–we do. And for many of us, the significant things about being Jewish have less to do with prayers and more to do with food, music, language, ethical values, history, overcoming oppression, bad jokes, holidays, drinking alcohol, arguing all the time, and so on.
Because Jews have historically tended to marry and have children with other Jews–not just for religious reasons but because non-Jews have typically wanted nothing to do with us–Jewish people are particularly susceptible to certain genetic abnormalities, and there are certain phenotypes particularly associated with Jewish people (i.e. My hair, olive skin color, and facial structure) just like there are with other ethnicities.
None of this means that all Jewish people are culturally, physically, or historically identical, and it’s extremely irritating when people use that as evidence against anything I just said. (It’s also extremely irritating that non-Jewish people feel the need to argue with anything I just said, period.) There are also distinct ethnic subgroups that evolved after Jewish people were expelled from the area now known as Israel/Palestine. The Ashkenazim, like me and my family, are the ones who ended up in Eastern Europe. The Sephardim settled in Spain and Portugal and were exiled from there in the 15th century. The Mizrahim hail from the Middle East and Central Asia. There are also smaller groups, such as the Beta Israel from Ethiopia and the Kaifeng Jews from China.
These subgroups differ in lots of ways, including language, customs, and religious observance. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally speak Yiddish, name their children after relatives who have passed away (this explains both my first and middle names), and pronounce Hebrew differently than other groups of Jews. Sephardi Jews traditionally speak Ladino (and potentially tons of other languages depending on where exactly they were from), name their children after living relatives, and sometimes face racism from their Ashkenazi cousins, which is bullshit, but there ya go.
I could go into a lot more detail about non-religious aspects of being Jewish, but that’s a good start.
2) Belief in god isn’t particularly central in most Jewish communities and practices.
If you’re not Jewish, you may not believe me if I told you that in my many years of attending Jewish services, celebrations, and events in a variety of different traditions and communities, the subject of any individual’s belief (or lack thereof) in god hasn’t ever really come up. But it’s true.
While Jewish prayers and texts obviously reference god copiously (usually with terms like “Hashem,” “Elohim,” “Adonai,” and other clever ways to avoid using god’s actual name which is forbidden), individual belief in god isn’t central to most Jewish conceptions of how to be a good person. That tends to focus more on doing good deeds, not breaking commandments, and generally not being an asshole. I say “most” because of that whole thing about two Jews, three opinions. Jewish rabbis and scholars disagree with each other on just about every single detail of Jewish history or practice, and while certain views get a lot more consensus than others, the idea is that you’re supposed to argue about it.
So while there are probably rabbis out there who would say that I’m a bad person–or even “not a Jew”–because I don’t believe in god, they are in the minority and you’d probably have to go to certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Jerusalem that I honestly try to avoid in order to find them. I’ve never had a rabbi take issue with my personal beliefs. I’ve never been questioned about my personal beliefs at synagogue, or expected to express or defend them. I have never had a Jewish person of any level of observance react negatively to finding out that I’m an atheist; many of them simply say that they’re atheists too. The one time I clearly remember telling a rabbi that I don’t believe in god, it simply led to a friendly debate in which the rabbi challenged me to explain the mathematical improbability of life on earth. (You may not agree that it’s mathematically improbable, but regardless, nobody told me I was going to hell.)
The vast majority of rabbis and other Jewish leaders that I’ve interacted with did not express or even show any sign of judgment or dissatisfaction with me about my beliefs or level of observance. They simply wanted me to participate to whatever extent I felt comfortable, because they liked seeing more young Jewish people get involved in the community and help it grow and improve.
3) Because I fucking said so.
Here I have to admit that I find it irritating as all heck when random people (usually on OkCupid, usually with a skeptical tone) ask me “how” I can be both Jewish and an atheist. First of all, it’s eminently googleable. Try it.
Second, even if all of that stuff I just wrote wasn’t a well-known and accepted viewpoint within most Jewish communities–why does it matter?
People identify how they identify. There are also many atheists from Muslim and Catholic backgrounds who still include that in their personal identity, although they usually call it “ex-Muslim” or “lapsed Catholic.” But that’s because Islam and Catholicism don’t have a long tradition of secularism dating back centuries. Within Islam and Catholicism, atheists don’t get a prominent voice. As far as I know, there are no secular mosques or churches within Islam and Catholicism. There are secular synagogues, and rabbis who lead them.
Point is, many people who were raised Muslim or Catholic but who no longer believe in god still identify with various aspects of those cultures, whether it’s giving up something difficult for Lent, celebrating Eid, or simply acknowledging that their upbringing affects them even today and that whether or not they believe in god, they still care deeply about their religious families or about issues facing those religious communities.
Religion isn’t the only category in which some people have complex and seemingly contradictory identities. There are bi dykes and lesbians who sometimes date men and nonbinary femmes and people who identify with different genders depending on the day and mixed-race folks who call themselves “Black” in certain contexts and “mixed-race” in others and asexual folks who have sex and biromantic homosexuals and homoromantic bisexuals and straight queers and married poly people and Jewish atheists. Sound confusing? Good! It’s not supposed to be simple.
Identity is complicated because humans are complicated. The vast majority of the times you feel like someone’s identity is contradictory, it’s probably because you’re defining words much more narrowly than they are.
If you think that “Jewish atheist” makes no sense, chances are you have a very narrow and ahistorical view of what it means to be Jewish (and probably what it means to be an atheist, too). Chances are I’m one of the first Jewish people you’ve ever really talked to about what being Jewish actually means.
And I get that. I do. But I’m getting pretty tired of having to justify an identity that feels obvious to me and to provide evidence of my own existence.
Every time I hear “but how can you be both Jewish and an atheist,” it feels extremely invalidating. The way this question is usually phrased implies strongly that the correct answer is “you can’t,” and that I’m somehow mistaken about one or both of these identities, and that you, a person with no Jewish background and clearly very little Jewish knowledge, know better than me.
Here’s a fact: polls and studies consistently find that about half of Jewish people are agnostics, atheists, or otherwise doubters of god’s existence. Less than half of Jewish people consider themselves “religious.”
Jews who openly question god or deny god’s existence are hardly unknown and include Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Franz Kafka, Isaac Asimov, Howard Zinn, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Baruch Spinoza, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and Albert Einstein.
So I think I’m in pretty good company, and I don’t need to be corrected when I say that I’m a proud Jewish atheist.
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