Some Jews have a firm, unshakable faith in God. They find a straightforward home in the tradition. It’s not that their belief necessarily is at all simple or unchallenging, it’s just that their certain knowledge that God exists is their bedrock.
Other Jews know with absolute certainty that God does not exist. The evidence of all their senses makes that clear. That does not mean that they cannot find a home within the Jewish community, but it does take more internal struggle and perhaps a certain amount of subterfuge.
A third group of Jews feels uncomfortable with the certainty of both groups, the believers and the atheists. The agnostics find that their beliefs vary as the world around them changes — or even if it does not, and all the change comes from within their own minds.
All of those groups should find themselves equally at home in what he calls “big tent Judaism,” Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz says.
Rabbi Schwartz, who leads Congregation Adas Emuno, the Reform synagogue in Leonia where he lives has just retired from the Jewish Publication Society — he’s now its director emeritus — and has written “Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics.” In the book, he looks at the position of each of those groups in Jewish life, where he firmly believes they all belong.
“So many people say that they don’t believe, so they don’t belong,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “But there is a place for them in the spectrum of modern Jewish thought, which is more diverse and more open than most people know.
“It’s a big tent, and it’s okay for Jews to show that.”
In “Open Judaism,” Rabbi Schwartz divides theology into logical categories — God, the soul, Torah, halacha, inclusion, Israel, ethics, and prayer. He looks at each of those categories methodically, through the lenses of believers, atheists, and agnostics, moving not from right to left but from certainty to certainty before confronting lack of certainty. “I look at traditional views, humanistic views, and what I would call liberal religious views, which is an attempt to synthesize theism and humanism,” he said.
“My idea is to offer the richness of modern Jewish thought, which really hasn’t been appreciated the way it should be.
“Even for those who consider themselves to be true, hard-core atheists, today there is a strong Jewish humanistic tradition that draws from the broad ethical impulses of Judaism, which can speak even to those atheists.
“After all, where do we as a society get so many of our ethical impulses? They come from the Bible.”
He’s not a big fan of the term atheist, he added. “I prefer the term humanistic,” which describes not what a person does not believe, but what replaces that lack of belief in a traditionally defined God — a belief in human possibility. “It is a worldview that may not have originated in Judaism, but when synthesized with Judaism can turn into something very powerful,” he said.
“I just gave a sermon honoring the memory of Rabbi Harold Kushner,” the beloved author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” who died in April, Rabbi Schwartz said. “I quoted from his book. I share with him the goal of telling people not to distance themselves completely from their tradition, and from what the tradition has to offer.
“Rabbi Kushner was a disciple of Mordechai Kaplan,” the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Schwartz continued. “Kushner, like Kaplan, was not a full atheist, but he had a more limited view of God” than strict traditionalists hold. “Kushner believed in God as the source of goodness, but not as all-powerful. He said that we don’t pray to change things that are subject to natural law, but we still believe in a power that transcends us, that we can tap into; that power is the source of our courage, and the source of our love.
“There are so many approaches to belief in God. So many approaches to belief in the soul, in Torah, in Jewish law.”
Rabbi Schwartz hopes that Jews who feel that their beliefs, or their lack of belief, in what they think they must believe in order to belong “will be tempted to take a second look, and perhaps reconsider their place in the universe of Jewish thought.
“Their place, that is, in what we call the Jewniverse.”
Young people’s approach to religion has changed, he said. “Surveys that indicate that one in three young Jews call themselves Jews of no religion pains me. I want them to feel ethnically connected to Judaism, but as a rabbi I want them to be connected religiously as well.”
His vision of open Judaism “is inspired by Abraham’s tent,” Rabbi Schwartz said, where the patriarch sat, even after he was still in pain from his circumcision, looking for strangers to welcome and turn into friends. “It’s open at all times, and of course there is a place for them.”
His vision is that as Western Jews in the modern era, “we have two homes, and two heritages,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “There’s the school of Jerusalem and the school of Athens.” One represents pure faith, the other pure reason. “The majority of Jews today will say that they come from Athens, not Jerusalem, but it is not either/or. It’s both. The grand synthesis that thinkers have been working on over the centuries is never finished,” the work necessarily continues.
“We accept both our religious and our ethical heritage,” he said. “There are so many entrances to Judaism. There are so many ways of thinking about it. A modern expression of Judaism can be inclusive, it can be Zionistic, it can revere tradition but embrace evolution and change at the same time.”
It’s hard to get people to focus on theology, he said. “It forces you to sit down and think deeply about what you believe in. We don’t often think systematically about what we believe, and about the beliefs we’ve inherited that really do affect our lives.” The more clarity each of us can get about what’s shaped our own intellectual and spiritual backgrounds, and how other people, coming from other traditions, have been shaped differently, “that will lead to greater self-understanding and greater understanding of others,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “That will lead to greater respect and pluralism. But I’m after something more.
“I don’t just want us just to live and let live. I want to find common ground.”
That’s because we all do have to live together, and the apparently lost art of compromise — of agreeing to go along with someone else’s beliefs for the greater common good — is easier to do when you understand what it is that you do believe, Rabbi Schwartz said. “Theology reflects our foundational beliefs, and we can’t understand ourselves fully unless we understand those beliefs.
“The idea that Judaism is a religion not of creed but of need has always been an oversimplification, and thinkers like Maimonides, with this 13 Principles of Faith, always have recognized that.
“I don’t see the label of atheism or agnosticism as a badge of dishonor,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “It is a badge of honor. Some of my peers are upset with me for saying that most liberal Jews are agonistic or atheistic.
“Agnostics — the group in which he places himself, at least some of the time — “aren’t sure from what they believe from day to day. That’s okay. The fact that we are constantly in flux bothers some people. Some traditionalists denigrate is. They say you either believe or disbelieve. But for many of us, what we believe depends on the day.
“We need to live with our agnosticism and understand that it is actually a blessing. If you are an agnostic, you are never settled. You are always trying to synthesize between belief and skepticism, and that is good.”
That got him to another ongoing problem in modern Jewish life. “Many people who are not traditional have been led to believe that what they believe is inauthentic and less valued,” he said. “How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I am not a religious Jew. I am secular,’ because they believe that the only alternatives are traditional belief or nonbelief, but there doesn’t have to be that dichotomy.
“Even if they have doubts about the traditional notion of God, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily are secular. They are giving up on religion to quickly and too absolutely. Humanism and pantheism have a place in Jewish life.
“After all, Spinoza” — Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher who wrote about pantheism, to oversimplify pathetically – “didn’t give up on his Judaism. The Jewish community gave up on him.
“There’s a line of pantheism that runs from Spinoza to Einstein to now”; it equates God and nature, Rabbi Schwartz said. “There’s also a variant called panentheism,” where God is omnipresent and omnipotent, but differently. (Rabbi Schwartz can explain the difference clearly.) “And you can be like Kaplan or Kushner, to say that I still posit a belief in God, but within the laws of nature, not supernaturally.” There’s also the theology of protest, whose angry believers cannot shake their belief in God but cannot square that belief with the evil they see in the world.
“We should not, and we cannot afford to ignore alternative thoughts about religion,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “We can’t afford to call them inauthentic. They were developed in good faith by Jews who were struggling to reconcile Jerusalem and Athens.
“The welcome sign should be big and bold for all Jews — for humanistic Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Renewal Judaism, neo-chasidic Judaism — all of them have something to contribute today.”
The “big, neglected group of people in the middle” — the agnostics who don’t always know what they believe because their beliefs keep changing, the Jews who feel inauthentic and therefore out of place — “I am concerned about them,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “This book is meant to lift them up. Being an agnostic doesn’t hold me back from the tradition. When I pray, either in Hebrew or in English, I am investing the words I say with new meanings, but there also is power in saying the same words that our ancestors have said for three millennia.”
Tradition matters, he said. “As Jews, we owe it to our magnificent millennia-long tradition to engage with it. I believe that even if you come squarely from Athens you have to study and learn from Jerusalem.
“In this book, I identify common elements to both world views. Both Jerusalem and Athens want us to be good, ethical people, although they have different ways to get there. So let’s go forward with the idea that even though we differ in many ways, we share broad common goals.
“Open Judaism means that there is a place for you in Judaism,” Rabbi Schwartz concluded. “Not just in the Jewish community, but also in Judaism.”