What if Judaism was God-less?
An exploration into how those who do not subscribe to God can still derive tremendous meaning and value from Judaism.
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This essay might rub people the wrong way, but I hope you will read past the title. And let me be clear: I am not advocating for or against believing or not believing in God; nor am I arguing the existence of God!
Rather, this essay’s purpose is to hypothesize how people who do not subscribe to the belief in God can still derive tremendous meaning and value from Judaism.
Especially since, according to a Pew Research Center study published in 2020, less than half of people in Israel, Canada, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. say belief in God is necessary to be moral. And since 1991, the share of people who say God is important to them has decreased in Western Europe, with a median of just 22-percent saying belief in God is necessary to be moral. Conversely, people who connect belief in God with morality is particularly high throughout developing countries, such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, Turkey, and the Philippines.1
In 2012, I started working professionally in marketing, and I learned that good marketers put more of an emphasis on promoting a product’s benefits, as opposed to its features. If we could imagine, for a second, that Judaism is a product, I would say that God is one of its features. And like with any product, every user doesn’t use every feature. Just think about the device on which you’re reading this essay. All of its bells and whistles are there because some people use them, even if you don’t.
For example, I once heard Mark Zuckerberg talk about Facebook’s Marketplace feature, which he said is used by less than 10-percent of users, an admittedly minor number. But ultimately, he said, it was still worthwhile for Facebook to continue developing this feature and serving these 10-percent of users.
In Judaism’s case, the problem is not necessarily having less-used features; it’s when we overemphasize a certain feature (i.e. God), we risk overshadowing Judaism’s many other features and benefits such as, for example, the ridiculously timeless and valuable amounts of Jewish wisdom. For argument’s sake, let’s presume that some of this wisdom, which is documented in the Torah, originated from God, but much of it came from Jewish scholars and sages who interpreted and analyzed the Torah thereafter — what is known as the Gemara in the Talmud.
This is why I think some of us Jews are guilty of overemphasizing certain “features” at the expense of Judaism’s countlessly valuable benefits. And I think this overemphasis has pushed a lot of people away from Judaism, both Jews themselves, as well as our non-Jewish family, friends, and communities.
What if, instead, we said:
This is what Judaism encourages, and this is how Jews have done certain things and have thought in certain ways, as opposed to: This is what God encourages and this is what God says we should do and think.
And what if we talked about our origins as follows:
So there was this legendary guy named Moses, who gave us the 10 Commandments, which turned into 613, and then he led us back to our homeland, Israel. From there, we developed through scholars and sages (rabbis) and were eventually expelled from the land of Israel and dispersed throughout the world, constantly being persecuted and blamed for other people’s problems, because we behaved and thought differently, and certain people didn’t like that level of intellectual tenacity.
This story about Moses sounds a lot like Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince in the fifth century BCE who, upon seeing people poor and dying, realized that human life is suffering. He renounced his wealth and spent time as a poor beggar, meditating and traveling, but remained unsatisfied and settled on something called “the Middle Way” — which means that neither extreme asceticism nor extreme wealth was the path to enlightenment, but rather, a way of life between the two extremes. Eventually, in a state of deep meditation, he achieved enlightenment (AKA nirvana) underneath the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening).
Gautama later became known as the Buddha, and he taught about Four Noble Truths. The first truth is called dukkha (suffering), which teaches that everyone in life is suffering in some way. The second truth is samudāya (origin of suffering), which states that all suffering comes from tanhā (desire). The third truth is nirodha (cessation of suffering), which says that it is possible to stop suffering and achieve enlightenment. The fourth truth, magga (path to the cessation of suffering), is about the Middle Way, which are the steps to achieve enlightenment.
Some people, especially those in the Western world, seem to be bewitched and mesmerized by the spell of Buddhism and the way it’s represented in the media. We’re now saturated with the promotion of mindfulness meditation, which comes from Buddhism.
“But Buddhism is not all about meditation,” said Paul Harrison, a religious studies professor at Stanford University. “Buddhism is an amazingly complex religious tradition. Buddhist monks don’t just sit there and meditate all day. A lot of them don’t do any meditation at all. They’re studying texts, doing administrative work, raising funds and performing rituals for the lay people, with a particular emphasis on funerals.”2
This sounds a lot like what ultra-Orthodox Jews do — study texts, do administrative work for their places of study and worship, fundraise, and perform rituals for the lay people. But Buddhism, unlike Judaism, does not feature any kind of deity or god (although there are supernatural figures who can help or hinder people on the path towards enlightenment).3
I think this is one of the reasons a lot of people (some 530 million worldwide, not to mention millions of non-Buddhists who engage in Buddhist rituals like meditation) are attracted to Buddhism. And I think it’s one of the reasons a growing group of people get stuck with Judaism. If they don’t believe in God, they might not feel Jewish. And if they don’t feel Jewish, they probably won’t do Jewish.
For instance, is it a coincidence that some of the top contemporary Buddhist thought leaders — Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Ram Dass, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Tara Brach, Shinzen Young, Ayya Khema, Surya Das — were born Jewish? And that notable figures like Leonard Cohen, Jeremy Piven, Yuval Noah Harari, and Goldie Hawn consider themselves JewBu’s (Jewish Buddhists)?
Aside from Buddhism, why is it that some of the most intellectually impressive Jews are/were far from religious, such as Albert Einstein, Moshe Dayan, Woody Allen, Golda Meir, Bill Maher, Stan Lee, Sigmund Freud, Larry King, Franz Kafka, Elie Wiesel, Sam Harris, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Leon Trotsky, David Ben-Gurion, Amos Oz, and Karl Marx?
“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses,” Einstein wrote, “the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”4
And yet, religion has survived and thrived for more than 100,000 years. It exists in every culture, with more than 85-percent of the world’s population embracing some sort of religious belief.5