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Why are so many Jews atheists and agnostics? (revised)

According to Rabbi Levi Brackman in a recent YNet article, attributes the root cause of overwhelming Jewish atheistic tendencies to a tragic ignorance of Judaism’s most profound teachings and ideas; most of these Jews, argues Brackman, have a juvenile understanding of monotheism–as taught in Judaism. In other words, “Its their stupidity, Stupid!”

Well, after reading Brackman’s article on why so many Jews happen to be atheistic or agnostic with respect to matters pertaining to religion, I found myself partially agreeing with some of the points he raises, which I think are significant. For me this was a surprise since I almost never agree with this Haredi-lite writer.

Over a decade ago, I wrote in my book, “The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God,” that many Jewish intellectuals have seldom grappled with the issue of God—at least within the matrix of Jewish theology and tradition.

Over the years, I have noticed that a fairly large percentage of Jewish adults never advanced beyond their prepubescent ideas of God that they had when they were in grammar school. Even less are familiar with the various books of the Bible, especially Job, which deals with the hard questions of how we can reconcile the belief in a good God with the immense suffering that exists in the world. A knowledge of Jewish texts may only serve to enhance our appreciation of the questions that our Sages grappled with and may perhaps offer some guidance to a generation grappling for answers . . .

Arguably, one of the 20th century’s greatest and most original Jewish mystics, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, explains the problem that we are facing today with great acuity, “The greatest impediment to the human spirit, upon reaching maturity, results from the fact that the conception of God is crystallized among people in a particular form, which goes back to childish habit and imagination. This is an aspect of making a ‘graven image’ or a “likeness of God,’ against which we must always beware, particularly in an epoch of greater intellectual enlightenment.[1]

However, I must take issue with the substance of  Brackman’s views, namely,  that the rise of atheism among Jews is due to the Jewish “ignorance,” of its greatest metaphysical and theological classics. Such an approach is tragically myopic, not to mention insulting and condescending.  There are other equally–if not more–compelling explanations to consider.

It seems to me that real issue is that religious power has become so abusive and autocratic in its ex cathedra proclamations concerning faith, which can plainly be seen in terms how  the Haredi world exploits its dissenters and critics. People are understandably disillusioned with the anti-rational tendencies that are routinely promoted in the black-hat and hassidic rabbinical schools today.  Frankly speaking, I am amazed there aren’t more Jewish atheists and agnostics than there currently are!

One immediate example that comes to mind is how the Haredi community banned the writings of Rabbi Nate Slifkin, who argues that the evolution is not incompatible with Jewish tradition.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schnersohn,  believed that the sun rotates around the earth, and the list of intellectual foibles keep on coming! When rabbis are so wrong about science and happen to be critical of contrarian views, why should we, as the public, take anything they have to say seriously?

Obviously, the behavior of Haredi Jews destroying public property in Jerusalem, not to mention their savage attack on the Intel synagogue, surely does not inspire respect for a belief in God. Haredi Judaism seems dedicated to bringing out the worst atavistic and retrograde impulses from its mindless followers. Unfortunately, the Israeli politicians continue to indulge these social misfits, as their power base continues to grow because of the large families the Haredi traditionally have.

If the Haredim really wish to re-create the ghetto, perhaps they should consider moving back to Poland or Russia and Hungry. However, one must whether these countries would want to welcome the Haredim and Hasidim back to their former European homes. These suggestions are not meant to be spiteful, but are really constructively intended. In Europe, their Haredi and Hassidic children would never have to deal with Zionism again.

One suspects that once religious leaders eventually start teaching their students how to show a reverence toward life, many people considering themselves “agnostic,” or “atheistic,” might start reconsidering their original positions. Maimonides himself says that God is Mystery, while Abraham Joshua Heschel adds that God is the Source of wonder and radical amazement.

One suspects that Jewish atheists like Christopher Hitchens and others are merely continuing a long tradition of questioning the canons of faith and tradition, much like Spinoza himself did back in the 17th century.

I feel reasonably  confident that such questioning will ultimately lead to a life and discovery of real faith once we learn to live our faith properly and welcome the skeptics of our people back to the dinner table and listen to their soulful-searching questions in the spirit of love and tolerance. Even if we fail to win over the hearts and minds of our dissenters, at least our own faith will grow as a result of an honest exchange of ideas.


[1] Ben Zion Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook, (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 262-263.



Discussion

  1. rabbi arthur segal  November 26, 2009

    dear reb micha’el:
    love your blog postings and wisdom imparted.
    thanks!!!
    arthur
    rabbi arthur segal
    jewish spiritual renewal
    jewish renewal
    rabbiasegal at aol dot com
    www dot jewishspiritualrenewal dot org

    (reply)
  2. Renton  January 17, 2010

    First off, I apologize for my English since I’m Catalan speaker.

    I’m christian but I have a jewish uruguayan friend who happens to be agnostic. I want what’s best for her and thus, I do not want her to lose connection with her Lord.

    I sent her off and on, mails with the transcriptions of videos I find in You Tube, or translations of articles of rabbis.
    Anything I sent her have one thing in common: they deal about God, His Nature, attributes, anything related to the Lord (her Lord).

    She laughs at me and accuses me of wanting to evangelize her into judaism but that’s not true, I want her to know the Lord.

    But the reason she stays away from God is not the radicalism of the haredis sir, the reason is Humanism.

    Humanism keeps more people away from God than all the radical haredis, pastors, bishops and immans of the world put together…

    God bless you!

    (reply)

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