We need to stop seeing atheist Jews as bad Jews

David Baddiel’s book strikes a blow for an often ignored but significant group among us


LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 30: David Baddiel poses for a picture as The National Lottery presents a special performance of 'Three Lions' with Lightning Seeds, David Baddiel, Chelcee Grimes and Lioness legends, at the Electric Ballroom on July 30, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for The National Lottery)

April 28, 2023 12:38

Thank goodness for David Baddiel. He is neither a theologian nor a boxer, but he can certainly deliver a religious punch.

This is apparent in his latest book, The God Desire, about why he is an atheist. Its importance is that it expresses the position of a significant percentage of Jews who no longer accept the existence of God.

For too long, there has been a conspiracy of silence over their presence. They still talk Jewish, eat Jewish, mix in Jewish circles, support Israel, adhere to Jewish values, follow Jewish rituals and consider themselves very Jewish.

But they find services problematic. When the central prayer, the Amidah, declares “You support the falling and heal the sick. You free prisoners”, they silently scream, “untrue”.

It is not just the prayers that jar for them, but the very concept of a god who created the Earth — along with the entire cosmos and all the black holes — yet who also established a special covenant with Abraham and his descendants and, still today, listens to their prayers.

Like Baddiel, they see no evidence for a divine hand in crafting the universe. It may be awesome, but where is the proof of a god behind it who cares about individuals and has personal relationships? Big bang suffices for them.

Like Baddiel, they would like to believe but cannot do so. They know it can be very comforting to feel someone is in charge of this vast space, and is also looking after you personally.

Their continued identification as Jews, despite these objections, highlights the fact that we are more than just a faith. The old debate over whether we are a race or a religion has never been answered satisfactorily, with it being a mix of many factors, which is why you do not stop being Jewish even when you stop believing.

Jewish atheists still belong to synagogues, hold a seder and light candles on Friday night. They do not do it for the God they do not think exists, but for the sake of their parents, their children or their own sense of Jewish identity. It is not hypocrisy but a refusal to stop being Jewish just because one part of the overall package is not for them.

The ability to be a Jewish atheist has been made easier by the fact that Judaism has never prioritised theology as the way to get to heaven, but has concentrated much more on mitzvot. Christianity offers salvation through faith, Judaism does not.

It is noticeable, for instance, that the formulation of the 613 commandments goes back to Talmudic times, whereas the Thirteen Principles of Faith did not become accepted until the 12th century.

It explains why the saying, “to be a good Jew you don’t have to believe in God, you just have to do what he says”, may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but reflects the reality of Jewish life.

This begs the question: if Baddiel is right about the prevalence of Jewish atheism, why do so many Jews still believe, despite any cast-iron proof for God’s existence?

His answer is death. People see death as a defeat and not only very painful but a terrifying journey into who-knows-where. God, he says, is “a shield” who will guide us and protect us and was invented precisely to solve that problem.

But just because we want something to be true, does not mean it is true and, for Baddiel, that desire is central to his thesis: we invent God to help us overcome thoughts of our annihilation. Hence the title of his book, The God Desire.

Once again, Baddiel echoes the thoughts of many modern Jews, who wish death was not the final chapter but reckon it probably will be.

They envy those who have the certainty that they will meet members of their family again. Like him, they are reluctant atheists, wishing things were different but seeing no alternative.

God fearers will oppose atheism and will be keen to prove His existence on various grounds, while rabbis will explain how seemingly difficult prayers can still have meaning once you delve deeper. It is not enough.

A mindset change is needed whereby we no longer view those who do not come to services as lazy or bad Jews, but recognise that it can be out of a conviction that needs to be respected, even if it is not endorsed.

We should also accept that Judaism is more about values than doctrine. The Jewish heretic is the person who acts the wrong way, not who lacks the right beliefs.

We cannot pretend anymore that Jewish atheists (or agnostics) do not exist or that they have no place in the Jewish community. Baddiel has opened the lid and the reality has come tumbling out.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of The Naked Rabbi

April 28, 2023 12:38

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