There are certain things we take for granted when they are a part of our everyday lives. We might have been raised in an environment that is present only in our own homes, but it becomes what we view as normative, that is, until we experience life with others outside of our natural habitat.
Likewise, I have recently realized that an environment that I have regarded as “normal” actually is not. I have gained perspective of just how peculiar the Jewish people truly are. Since it has been a perceived reality for all my life I have taken it for granted, but it is a perspective that, now in focus, I would like to share.
“All You Atheists”
Some regard Jewish identity as merely a religious affiliation. However, being Jewish is also an ethnicity, a culture, a people group, a bloodline. This is what makes “Who is a Jew?” a difficult question for many to answer, and which is why Jewish identity has been defined in many different ways. Jews can belong to any sect of Judaism, but they could also be Buddhist, Agnostic, Secular, or any number of other things. (They could even believe in Jesus, as we know, which brings up an entirely new layer of controversy.)
If we look at results from the Pew Research Center we find that a very large percentage of Jews in the United States claim to have no religion, but strongly lay claim to Jewish identity based on physical heritage and lineage. A large number belonging to this group, as well as even those who profess to belong to religious Jewish denominations, claim to be completely atheist. To clarify, even some Jews who claim to be religious also claim to be atheists. How does this work?
I recently attended a Conservative congregation for Yom Kippur and the rabbi gave a very moving message, calling for a higher faith and devotion to God. “And to all you atheists here,” he added comically, “I can prove to you there is a God! You can’t have atheists if there is no God!” The congregation laughed. Ironically, just as the atheist does not have his philosophical identity apart from God, so too, the Jewish people cannot lay claim to an identity apart from God. Those who are Jewish can call themselves such based solely on accepting the lineage and definition as detailed in God’s Holy Book.
You might wonder why atheists would even bother going to synagogue or observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in Judaism, the day on which we ask God to forgive our sins, have mercy on us, and write us in the Book of Life. And it’s a fast day no less! This is no environment for someone who does not believe in God, right?
Case in Point
This is what makes the Jewish people so peculiar. It is cultural to pray to God. It is cultural to go to synagogue and to celebrate Jewish holidays. There are even rabbis who do not believe in God, yet they teach about his mercy, greatness, and the wonders he has performed every single week. It is the Jewish ethnic custom to engage religiously.
This is simultaneously frustrating and encouraging. It is frustrating in the sense that, as Jewish and Gentile believers ourselves, we desire that they would believe in and love the true God, seeking to live in their covenantal calling and observe his commands out of love and joy, serving him with their whole hearts. God is, after all, right there before them in their synagogues, ready to be grasped, and yet they still do not believe in his existence.
It is encouraging in the sense that even when a Jew does not believe in God—does not believe there even is a God—God is still a part of his or her life and communal experience. Jews who do not believe in God still obediently plan their time around his holy occasions and show up to synagogue to pray to a God they believe does not exist.
This is absolutely astounding when you think about it. I remember going to a seder on the first night of Passover at the home of my secular Israeli friends a few years ago—and they are very proud atheists. I will never forget the father seriously recounting the story of the exodus to his two small children, telling them that God himself brought them out of the land of Egypt to the promised land with an outstretched arm. You can take the Jew away from God but it is ever so difficult to take God away from the Jew.
As I said, this type of secular mindset and cultural religion was more or less normal for me and my extended family of secular and atheist Jews. This is nothing shocking. I grew up watching my family members celebrate holidays of which they had no idea of their meaning, even while being strongly against or strongly ambivalent to God. Yet it gives me hope in some strange way that just because many among the people of Israel keep God at arm’s length much of the time, there are still times when they are seeking him, consciously or subconsciously.
In some manner the Torah always returns to its original recipients, and I greatly look forward to seeing the one of whom the Torah testifies—the Messiah—returned to the same expectant and non-expectant children of Israel. We are a most peculiar people indeed.
Editor's Note: Published via schedule from Israel, after Shabbat, Israel time (UTC+3 hours).