Yom Kippur 2019: The best thing about Judaism, according to a Jewish atheist

When I was 13 and preparing for my bar mitzvah, I told my rabbi, in a fit of miscalculated honesty, that I was planning to skip service during Yom Kippur and go to school. He turned to me with an expression of outrage, and literally shook his finger. “You will go to services,” he said in no uncertain terms. “Or there will be no bar mitzvah!”

Thus blackmailed, I did go to services on the high holy days that year. But to my rabbi’s chagrin — may his memory be a blessing — not on many high holy days since. As a kid I was willing to do the expected thing and get that bar mitzvah, with the attendant gifts. But my youthful ambivalence has in middle age hardened into something like antipathy. I don’t believe in God, and don’t have any desire to drag my son to services. When your most meaningful memory of Yom Kippur is getting browbeaten to (pretend) to care, it seems like the honest thing is not to repent, but to stay home.

When your most meaningful memory of Yom Kippur is getting browbeaten to (pretend) to care, it seems like the honest thing is not to repent, but to stay home.

Nonetheless, sans faith and sans synagogue, I’m still Jewish. In fact, secular atheism has long been one very standard way of being Jewish. For me, one of Judaism’s great strengths is the fact that it’s an identity not rigidly defined by what you believe, or where you happen to be on Yom Kippur.

Jews are often characterized as people both without grounding or heritage — “rootless cosmopolitans,” in Stalin’s anti-Semitic phrasing. (Atheists are sneered at for lacking an organic community as well, and secular Jews are often stereotyped as particularly unrooted.) But the truth is that Jewish atheism is one of the most vibrant intellectual traditions of contemporary times.

The two most important architects of modern European skepticism, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, were both Jewish. The Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt school, like Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno, were secular nonbelievers. So was Hannah Arendt. So was Jacques Derrida. The Christian faith has been used as a constant bulwark for political and cultural power, so it’s not a surprise that some of the sharpest critics of that power have been Jewish atheists. Who better to call into question the authority and righteousness of a Christian God than those who are doubly nonbelievers?

My own family’s Judaism has been characterized by a very casual relationship with faith as well. My father’s parents were very involved in Jewish cultural institutions and the community. But they were also socialists, and didn’t impart any great religiosity to their son. My mom’s mother flirted with converting to Christian Science before settling into an entrenched agnosticism. A child of the Great Depression, she clipped coupons with a religious fervor, but that was about it for devotional exercises.

While their children were home, my parents kept up with the aspects of Judaism that would get us out of the house: they sent us to Hebrew school on Sunday, and Jewish sleep-away camp over the summer. Once we went off to college though, the pretense withered away. They aren’t upset that I don’t go to synagogue anymore, since they don’t go themselves.

For me, Judaism has always been a lot more about not believing than believing. I knew Santa wasn’t real when my elementary school peers were still looking up the chimney.

For me, Judaism has always been a lot more about not believing than believing. I knew Santa wasn’t real when my elementary school peers were still looking up the chimney. I rolled my eyes when my high school history teacher waxed lyrical about the holiness of the Pope (or “the Poop” as my mother called him in the house, where the neighbors couldn’t hear.) I wrote about Christian theologian William Paley for my Master’s thesis and hosted a Christian music radio show on the University of Chicago radio station for a while.

I wasn’t Christian and I had no faith, thus appreciating the intellectual or aesthetic merits of someone else’s spiritual tradition came with comparably low stakes. My wife, whose parents were as irreligious as mine, but whose extended family includes many fiery Appalachian protestants, gets a lot less pleasure than I do from listening to Kitty Wells sing about how dust on the Bible will doom your poor soul.

Of course, there are some people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who would try to define me out of the Jewish community. Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro regularly speaks as if his Orthodox faith and support for Israel give him the excommunicative powers of some sort of Jewish pontiff. He’s even taken it upon himself to declare that Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew like me, is a “Jew in Name Only.”

Judaism gets policed in other ways as well. Many Jews of color have written about how white Jews often question their connection to Judaism, as if only white people can be authentically Jewish.

Still, it feels like most Jews do understand that there are a lot of different ways to be Jewish. We’re all aware that Hitler didn’t quiz his victims about their faith before he murdered them. And while Judaism is an ethnicity in part, it’s also true that some of the most famous Jews in popular culture — Sammy Davis, Jr., Ivanka Trump — have been converts. Judaism is something you can choose, but it’s also something that can choose you. It’s faith, or culture, or heritage, or persecution, or commitment, all of which can be grouped together in various combinations.

When folks on social media start talking about fasting for the high holy days, I do sometimes feel a little cut off from Judaism. But at the same time, it’s perhaps the time when I feel most connected to my own Jewish tradition — of non-devotion. Certainly, these are the days of the year when I’m most consciously practicing my non-practice. It’s true I’m not going to be in a synagogue this Yom Kippur, but being Jewish isn’t defined by where you sit. Like the diaspora, Jewish people on the high holy days are all over the place. But we’re still together.

Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and cultural critic based in Chicago. He edits the website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of several books, including most recently “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.”


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