It took me a while to figure out why I’ve gotten strange looks most of my life when I claim to be both an atheist and a Jew.
Every one of those strange looks comes from non-Jews who have it in their heads that Judaism is equal to Christianity is equal to Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or any other world faith. And, indeed, one can convert from whatever faith one practices to any of those other faiths — Judaism included. But the only thing one can convert into — where Judaism is concerned — is the religion. One can change one’s way of thinking to to see the world from a Jewish perspective. That doesn’t make one Jewish though in the cultural sense. And that’s what separates Jews from nearly every other ethnic group. We’re not just a religious affiliation, we’re a distinct cultural group whose religion is part of the group’s culture but far from its entirety.
A Baptist may have Baptist roots and the culture they live in can be Baptist out the wazoo. But those Baptists could convert to Methodism or Calvinism tomorrow and that’d be the end of them being Baptists. A Jew can quit Judaism and never walk into a synagogue again for the rest of her life. In the world’s eyes, she’ll never stop being a Jew however. Because what makes her a Jew — what makes any Jew a “Jew” — isn’t their version of God, it’s something deeper than that. God, after all, is just an idea of how we all got here.
In addition to this blog, I have a few others. There’s Mulligan Jesus (which I neglect and shouldn’t) and there’s The Faithesism Project Podcast which I do with my good friend Randy Lovejoy who’s also a Presbyterian Pastor. A few podcasts back, Randy and I had a guest named Dave Wertlieb. Randy and Dave are related by marriage which is how they know each other. Randy wanted Dave to be a guest because (in addition to being Jewish), Dave is an avowed agnostic. Whereas theists insists that “absolutely, there is a God!” and atheists insist “absolutely there is not!” agnostics insist that neither theists nor atheists know what they’re talking about. That is, they cannot literally “know” anything here and both the theist’s faith and the atheist’s un-faith are based on incomplete information. Randy and I both expected the podcast to focus on a discussion of agnosticism (their point of view really is the most honest), it ended up more a discussion between Dave and I about what it is to be “Jewish”. More specifically, about how Dave and I could both insist we’re Jewish while neither of us practices the Jewish religion.
Randy grew up in Texas but then traveled the world as a religious missionary. His attachment to Christianity — though it’s the faith he grew up in — isn’t cultural at all. Christianity is an ideal that appeals to Randy, a vision of the world he agrees with. Of all the Christians I know, Randy has more Jesus in him than most. But, Randy found himself befuddled by both Dave and myself. For starters, though I had never met Dave before the podcast, Dave and I hit it off instantly. That is, we had plenty to talk about including a huge pool of common experience: we’re both Jewish. Randy, at the conversation’s start, couldn’t understand how I could claim to be an atheist — and yet Jewish — while Dave could claim to be agnostic and yet Jewish. Randy was assuming that the bottom line for “being Jewish” was following the Jewish faith.
The reasons WHY Jews were treated as pariahs across two thousand years of European history is a whole set of blog posts unto themselves. Christianity grew on the back of multiple untruths — all of them Paul’s creation. Paul took various Jewish ideas and mythologies and repurposed them for the gentile communities he was grooming across Asia Minor. These communities had no knowledge of Jewish mythologies or prophesies. Whatever Paul created went unchallenged. After Justinian made Christianity the state religion and, as the Catholic Church began to assert its primacy, Jew hatred became a focus because “feelings over facts”.
For fifteen hundred years, Jews were excluded from European society, forced to live separate lives in separate communities. The word “ghetto” is Italian. The first place it ever referred to was the Jewish Ghetto in Venice — that fenced off part of town where the Jews were forced to live. Living apart from Christian Europe for fifteen hundred years, marrying and having babies only with other Jews — not a huge community begin with — caused a Jewish genetic disorder: Tay Sachs disease. Tay Sachs was born in the shtetls of Europe. And Tay Sachs can live inside a Jewish person regardless of how dedicated they are to the Torah.
I recommend the podcast Randy and I did with Dave. Okay — I’m biased. But it really is a worthwhile conversation both because of what was said about being a Jew and about being a person of “un-faith”.
When I say (and I say it at the start of each podcast) that I’m “grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today”, I am absolutely not being sarcastic or even mean. I am genuinely grateful because Hebrew school taught me to question even fundamental ideas like where we all came from. To be honest, I’m pretty convinced I dropped from the womb an atheist. Except for a twenty-four period when I was eight and thought I was in big trouble for taking a Playboy magazine to school one day? I have never looked skyward expecting a shoulder to cry on.
History says any shoulder up there is too cold to cry on anyway.