How can I be Jewish if I don't believe in God?

Question: I was brought up Jewish, I am a Zionist, and I am proud to feel Jewish. However, I might not believe in God, I cringe at many practices undertaken by our (and any) religion, I am not kosher and I struggle to motivate myself to go to synagogue. Am I, and how can I, be Jewish?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

You were born and raised a Jew, you are committed to the state of Israel and the Jewish people - and you wonder if you can be defined as Jewish?!

A born Jew is always a Jew, regardless of how committed one is to the faith and practice of Judaism. Being Jewish is an existential definition; it is who you are in your very essence and nothing can ever change that. This is because at your core is a Jewish soul bequeathed to you by your Jewish forbears. It is, to put it in other terms, your spiritual DNA.

In the same way you cannot change your physiological make-up, you cannot alter the fact that deep within you resides a Jewish essence. Furthermore, being Jewish is an all-or-nothing scenario. You either are or you are not. There is no such thing as varying gradations of Jewishness. The scrupulously observant Jew is no more Jewish in essence than the most non- observant Jew. Where these two Jews differ greatly is in their commitment to Judaism.

The observant Jew takes his Judaism seriously. He is steeped in its history, culture and traditions and he structures his life around its teachings. The non-observant Jew on the other hand does not live his life in accordance with Torah’s teachings. This may make him an apathetic Jew but it in no way detracts from his core Jewishness.

The question you ought to be asking is not whether you are Jewish but whether or not you are living life Jewishly.

I would argue that to a large extent you are living Jewishly. One of the most important expressions of Judaism is the feeling of responsibility and connectedness to other Jews which you clearly have.

As far as your doubts about the existence of God, your phrase "I might not believe in God" betrays a deep inner struggle. This is not the language of a hardened atheist but rather of someone who is wrestling with faith and doubt; something that any intelligent person of faith will experience at some point or another.

I would however encourage you to try to learn more about the meaning behind Jewish ritual and practice. There is depth and beauty in all of God’s mitzvot. Sometimes, at first glance the beauty is not apparent.

Yet by studying their meaning and embracing their practice, one comes to appreciate their power to positively transform our lives and to enable us to connect with the Creator.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

You have asked the wrong question. Assuming that your mother is Jewish, then you are Jewish. It is as simple as that.

The better question is: what sort of Jew are you?

This highlights the fact that there are so many different ways of being Jewish - for some it is a matter of race and descent; for others it is about faith and belief; for others it is to do with culture and the way we think, laugh, eat and behave.

Some Jews mix all these elements together in their lives, others select some of them, and all are right when they claim a Jewish identity.

This may sounds rather unsatisfying - so much better to have a water-tight definition of Judaism that all can recognise - but it is one of the ongoing mysteries of Judaism that it cannot be neatly packaged.

That is why we can have people who call themselves "atheist Jews" : you cannot be an atheist Christian - you have to believe - but there are many Jews who have Jewish parents, subscribe to Jewish ethics, identify with Israel, support Jewish charities, appreciate Jewish history, bring up their children likewise, but do not believe in God. Rabbis may not approve of them, but that does not make them non-Jewish.

Perhaps it might be ideal if you did all of the above and were a person of faith, but if that was the only sort of person allowed to be Jewish, then we would disappear very quickly and be far less colourful or creative.

It means that you are far from being an outsider, but part of a significant group within the Jewish community who value certain parts of Jewish tradition and not others.

The best way forward for you - and the many like you - is not to focus on what you do not like about the community, but get involved in the aspects that do attract you. Eat what you like, but participate in Jewish social action groups. Do not go to services, but help promote links with Israel among both Jews and non-Jews.

Have your own beliefs, but support interesting projects happening at your local shul; and if there are none, then initiate something and advertise it on the internet and elsewhere for others like you. You are far too Jewish to let all your energy and pride be wasted.

    Last updated: 3:30pm, June 17 2009