Conservative rabbis give their take on the question:
Is it okay for Jews to not believe in God?
Rabbi Eric Woodward, Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania:
“That’s not an easy question! First, what does ‘okay’ mean? Does it mean, ‘Are you still Jewish if you do not believe in God?’ Or does it mean, ‘Is belief in God a mitzvah and disbelief a sin?’ Second, what does it mean to ‘believe in’ something? What is belief? Does it mean asserting that something is true? Or does it mean something like the phrase, ‘I believe in you.’ Third, what do we mean by ‘God’? Do we mean God as depicted in the Torah? Or in theology? Or in Kabbalah? Do we mean God as we imagine in a naive way, or God in a complicated way?
I ask these questions not to be an annoying philosopher, but to preface what I think, with all of the reservations derived from the questions above: It is hard to believe in ourselves. It is hard, these days, to believe in our society, in our world, in the power of hope or love or knowledge. To me, ‘belief in God’ means something like ‘belief in the possibility that God wants the world to be better and we have a role in that.’
I think this view is the essence of Judaism—this is what the exodus from Egypt is about. Can you be Jewish without subscribing to this? Yes, but I’m not sure Judaism has any meaning without this concept. Is such a way of life ‘okay’? Sure. But Judaism wants us to be more than okay. And to me, God is some Being that is greater than I am, that preceded me into the world and that still cares about me and the world around me. And that described the world as ‘very good,’ not simply ‘okay’.
Judaism wants us to live for something. (And to die for something.) Judaism has content. This content has shifted over time, and it shifts with our own psyches and concerns. But our great tasks as humans are to live in accord with the holy content—Torah—of Judaism, and to build a world that reflects it. And to come out believing in ourselves, in our world and in God.”
Rabbi Hector Epelbaum, Temple Beth Israel in Sunrise, Florida
“A real challenging question. When you teach a child to walk, at first you stand very close. The child can only take one step and then you must catch him. But as he grows, you move farther and farther away so that he/she can walk to you. And the final result will be a huge hug, a smile and doing it again. Like a good parent, God moves farther away, which gives us the opportunity to not believe in God. But God is still close by, waiting. What we need to do is to learn or learn again how to walk to God.
Can we be human without God? Can we be Jews without God? Just imagine ourselves not enjoying a Passover Seder, not trembling during Yom Kippur, not rejoicing as we dance with the Torot on Simchat Torah? Can we reject history and traditions? Can we walk through life without God’s inspiration?
The first question asked in the Torah is: ‘Ayekah’ where are you? God’s question to Adam in the Garden is not about geography, but rather spiritual, emotional, psychological understanding. Where are you in this moment? And we can reverse the questions, asking God ‘Ayekah’ where are you, more as an expression of our needs than the curiosity to determine God’s physical location.
God speaks in many voices. Not only did the Holy One speak in thunder and lightning on a mountaintop; sometimes God speaks to us in the ordinary voice of human beings, in the wisdom we learn from others. And many times, God speaks to us through our parents, through our traditions, through the prayer book and through our leaders. ‘Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,’ Heschel said. ‘Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed. God loves and wants to be loved.’
A child was drawing a picture with intense concentration. His mother asked him what he was doing. ‘I’m drawing a picture of God,’ he said. ‘But no one knows what God looks like,’ his mother said. The child looked up proudly. ‘Well, they will when I’m finished.’ Lets start drawing.”
Rabbi David Wise, Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center in Hollis Hills, New York
“We ordinarily pose questions in this format when it comes to matters of practical behavior such as, ‘Is it ok to eat a BLT?’ or ‘Is it ok to own stock in a company that sells BLTs?’ I’m picking on the BLT because it’s a symbol for questions of ritual and ethical behaviors, which are moderated by halakhah, a system of Jewish law that grapples with behavioral norms. Matters of faith, on the other hand, are not so easily subjected to behavioral norms.
It’s not that no one tried. Most famously, the Rambam did this in establishing 13 principles of faith. ‘Ani ma-amin be-emunah shelemah—I believe with perfect faith’ was his formulation. We might recognize these doctrines poetically, in the form of Yigdal. But the Rambam’s effort was not accepted by most Jewish codifiers and thinkers. After all, who really has ‘perfect faith’ in much of anything? What’s more, one can live an ethical life motivated by something other than faith—perhaps by a commitment to a social contract with a tribe, be it a religious, national or some other kind of group.
The way I choose to frame the question is as follows: Does a relationship with God frame my life with meaning? On the flip side, would the absence of a relationship with God leave me impoverished? The short answer for me, and I think for serious Jews, is ‘yes.’ Am I certain that there’s a God? No. Does my belief in ‘Something Greater Than I’ (that we call ‘God’) imbue my life with structure, discipline, humility and purpose? Absolutely. My commitment to Judaism’s ritual and ethical norms is a constant reminder of the possibilities of a world that includes God. And in liminal moments—those moments of transition in life, from birth to death and everything in between, Judaism has us say a berakhah, invoking God’s name for the purpose of highlighting the power of that relationship. The more often we consider that relationship with God, the more ‘ok’ we will be as Jews, and as human beings.