Thank God I’m an atheist… and so is my rabbi

In Judaism, you can be Orthodox without necessarily believing in a supernatural being


LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12: Mel Brooks attends the 70th EE British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) at Royal Albert Hall on February 12, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

April 20, 2023 10:18

One of the things that my new book, The God Desire, is trying to break down is what it means to be a Jewish atheist. Interestingly, I would say as a concept, this is something more likely to confuse Gentiles, who think being Jewish is about religion, than Jews, who of course know it’s mainly about Mel Brooks, lokshen pudding, and having an absurdly low threshold for physical discomfort.

I did a musical of my film The Infidel in 2014, at the end of which each character revealed in song that they weren’t as religious as they might have seemed during the rest of the show, and one of the Jewish characters sings, “I’m an atheist, like most Jews.”

Obviously, that might be overstating it. But the internet tells me that a 2011 survey suggested that 50 per cent of Jews had doubts over the existence of God, which compares to 10-15 per cent in the case of other religious groups. Meanwhile, a couple of Chanukahs ago, my local rabbi phoned to ask me if I would come and light the menorah outside the shul that year. I didn’t much fancy doing that, so played what I thought was my trump card. “Sorry to tell you this rabbi, but I’m an atheist.” “So am I,” he replied, brightly. I thought, blimey, this is more widespread than even I thought.

The rabbi may have been joking, of course, but it still points to something, which is that to be Jewish, you perhaps need to have less of a sense of God and more a sense of ritual. And there are a lot of rituals. Judaism has, as of course you know, 613 Mitzvot, of which 248 are positive (dos) and 365 negative (do not).

Orthodox Judaism is an enormous manual, a huge list of dos and don’ts, which I think creates in its adherents a kind of OCD-like anxiety; that if you don’t say this combination of words at this time or strap this black box to your forehead one centimetre above your original hairline at another time, something terrible will happen. Foreskin’s Lament writer Shalom Auslander once told me that when he left his Orthodox upbringing in Monsey, New York City, he would walk down the road convinced that accident and tragedy was going to befall him or his loved ones at any moment. The doing of the mitzvot, in other words, is protective. It eases fear.

Many religions have this sense that following their codes will protect you from various terrors, but Judaism seems to be the most abstract. Jews don’t have a concept of hell. Nor the devil. We are frightened, I would say, of bad things happening less after we’re dead, and more in this life. But who does those bad things, really, mainly, particularly to Jews? Other humans, that’s who.

My point being that even the most religious Jewish practices are perhaps not about belief in the supernatural, but — I would suggest — a way of navigating fear and anxiety about real vulnerability in the real world.

This is not to say that Judaism doesn’t invoke the Almighty all the time — the first Mitzvah is “to know there is a God” — but His function can seem mainly symbolic. There isn’t, as there is in Christianity, a literal imagination of a Divine Character, but rather God is the immaterial point, a kind of spiritual singularity, around which this constant dance of terror and reassurance plays out.

Which is why I think it’s possible to be even a very observant Jew without a straightforward belief in God. The point of Judaism, in fact, may be observance, almost as an end in itself. Meanwhile, I have just checked out these mitzvot, and frankly I’m falling short on some of them. For example, number 598 is Wipe out the Descendants of Amalek, which I really haven’t been getting on with. Similarly, number 168 is Don’t Castrate Any Males (Including Animals) and I can tell you now I shan’t be reading that mitzvah out to at least two of my cats.
I’m also confused by number 467, which is Do Not Steal Money Stealthily, which suggests perhaps that you can steal, as long as you shout, “look I’m stealing! Over here! I’m nicking the lot!” while you do it. Basically, if abiding by these mitzot is protective, I’m screwed.

Then again, number 60 is Do Not Be Superstitious, which by not observing any other of these rules, I think I’ve been doing pretty well at.

It’s all very confusing. Thank God I’m an atheist.

The God Desire by David Baddiel is published by TLS/HarperCollins (£9.99)

April 20, 2023 10:18

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