By Joel Lev-Tov
Russell Schwartz decided that God isn’t for him.
“That’s never really interfered with my ability to identify as Jewish,” the senior computer science and mathematics major at this university said.
He’s not the only one. One in five Jews don’t believe in God, according to the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews in 2020. That’s a minority of the Jewish population — but a significant one.
“Agnostic-atheist Jews, rather than formally renouncing Jewishness and explicitly embracing some other faith, maintain a kind of ideological ‘dual citizenship,’” wrote psychologist Fred Massarik, who studied Jewish populations throughout the U.S. These Jews regard themselves as Jewish but question or fully deny the existence of God, he wrote.
But doesn’t believing in Judaism require believing in God? Some scholars — like Howard Wettstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside — say it isn’t. In fact, even the religious Chabad movement agrees that Judaism does not require a belief in God.
The movement’s central website, chabad.org, includes a Q&A page based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It states, “It is the relationship between the Jew and his Creator that defines his Jewishness — not his acknowledgment of this relationship or his actualization of it in his daily life.”
So what keeps these Jews from disassociating with Judaism entirely?
“Judaism isn’t just about the religious aspect,” said Alina Kahn, a freshman environmental science and policy major. “It’s really about the culture and the community.”
It’s about the culture
Some secular Jews, like Schwartz and Kahn, see food as a central part of their Jewish identity. Schwartz loves cooking matzo ball soup and baking challah. Kahn’s parents make kugel and challah.
“Food is a big thing in my family,” she said. “My parents will text ‘Shabbat Shalom’ and send me and my brother a picture of the challah, which just makes me sad because I want some fresh bread.”
Seven in ten Jews cook or eat traditional Jewish foods sometimes or often, the Pew study found.
For Ezra Silver-Isenstadt, a freshman theatre major, traditional Jewish values such as questioning authority, being inquisitive and Tikkun Olam are key.
“My Jewish cultural upbringing has instilled these values” — not God, he said.
He also expresses Judaism through music.
“When I’m just improvising on the piano or guitar I’ll hit some pretty Jewish chords, play some Jewish scales,” Silver-Isenstadt said. “Sometimes I’ll [be] trying to improvise a prayer melody.”
For others, their Jewishness is much more about the struggle of the Jews.
“The Holocaust really strikes deep and I’ll never want to stop learning about it,” said Morgan Leason, a freshman journalism major. “When I’m meeting for the holidays, I’m always thinking about that and the significance of remembering the past because even today, we are prejudiced against.”
More than three-quarters of Jews surveyed by Pew said the Holocaust is essential to Jewish identity.
For Schwartz, being Jewish often comes down to being pointedly not Christian.
“Not celebrating Christmas feels special on its own,” Schwartz said. He joins other Jews in going to the movies and eating Chinese food on Christmas Day, he said.
“I think last year I actually saw my rabbi,” Schwartz said.
A sense of community
Some of Leason’s family is religious, so she tries to be respectful to their level of observance and set an example for her younger cousins.
“All of my cousins are younger than me. So I set an example,” she said. She does that by not eating before it’s time, saying the prayers and sitting quietly, she said. “I try to take it seriously, but they are all joking around. They don’t care.”
Schwartz belongs to a synagogue and goes to shul occasionally.
“I do still feel a significant sense of community and belonging when I go to synagogue,” he said.
All students interviewed said they celebrate major holidays like Sukkot or Passover, but more for the tradition and community than the religious aspect.
“It means community for me more than like, there’s a God that does these things,” Kahn said. “It’s more of lifting people up. And being a nice person.”
They all agreed that they approach the religious Jewish community with respect.
“I think religion can be a very powerful tool for self-fulfillment and structure and meaning,” Silver-Isenstadt said. “And in some sense I’m jealous, because I don’t necessarily have something specific like that, I don’t have answers and religion provides answers. I imagine it would be nice to have answers, and believe answers.”