My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

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My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

#1  Postby NateHevens » Mar 01, 2010 9:05 pm

This is a blog I wrote for Think Atheist (by the way... if you're a member, hit me up). I just thought this would generate an interesting discussion here.

I'm cutting out some parts because it's long on Think Atheist, with some stuff that isn't entirely relevant. So I'm editing it down.

I feel I should give a brief outline of a different view of faith through the eyes of a different religion.

I was watching one of Richard Dawkins's documentaries (don't remember which one) on an unofficial YouTube channel dedicated to him. In the documentary he interviewed an Ultra Orthodox Rabbi in (I think) Israel about Evolution. I was shocked and appalled at how this Rabbi treated Evolution.

I say that for this reason:

A ten minute walk from where I live sits a Chasidic temple. For those who don't know, Chasidic Judaism is about as radical as it gets in Judaism. These are the guys who go to shul every day, are very much against egalitarianism, the men study Torah and run Jewish shops, the women are stay-at-home moms with lots of kids, they keep the kosher laws to a T, and observe the sabbath to the point of not breaking toilet paper when going to the bathroom (they do still wipe, but the toilet paper is broken on Fridays before the sun sets... oddly enough they have managed to allow flushing because there's no mechanical/electrical processes involved). In other words, they could be considered the Jewish equivalent of Calvinists or worse (without the proselytizing and belief in Hell and all that).

My point in explaining that is this: I sometimes talk with the Rabbi of the Temple. He's a very nice old man, and is actually quite funny. Ever since I came out as Atheist, he and I have had a few debates. He says he enjoys them because they challenge his faith, and one tenet of Judaism is the idea of "wrestling with God". This leads to Judaism placing a very strong emphasis on education.

I showed him this clip (Dawkins interviewing the Rabbi) and he was dumbfounded. He looked at me and said "that man is not Jewish. I am ashamed that he would dare call himself a rabbi." I asked the Rabbi what he meant, and he told me "to deny Evolution is to deny God's great gift of science. The Bible was the door, science was our way in. Science has discovered Evolution. It has discovered the age of the earth and the great Universe to be old, not young. This man, by denying science, is denying God. I will be sending a letter to this community, because that man should not be a rabbi!" (He yelled that last bit, quite angrily. He seemed quite insulted by the rabbi Dawkins interviewed, and I have no doubt, if he sent the letter, it was vitriolic.)

Again, Chasidim is the most radical sect of Judaism you can get (or so I thought). Despite that, even they are not Bible literalists. It shocked me that Bible literalists could exist within a faith who's patriarchal name (Yisrael) means "to wrestle with God". Jews have been delving in and interpreting and re-interpreting the scriptures from the beginning of the religion. They even question God in the Old Testament (probably why he's such an asshole)! This is why Jews have Talmud. It's practically the whole point of Judaism.

Young-Earth Creationism is emphatically a Christian phenomenon (yes, even outside of Islam). To see it embraced by a Jew is shocking to say the least, and in that context I can understand even more the insult felt by the Chasidic Rabbi I mentioned above.

To see even more the "wrestling with God" idea of Judaism, we have Conservative Judaism. Now, this is what I grew up in. I would argue that, really, there is no such thing as "Conservative Judaism". It's really just a hodge-podge of people who found Reform lacking but Traditional too much. Unlike all other sects of Judaism, there is no uniform standard. In Conservative Judaism, you can find people who don't keep Kosher and people who do. You can find "High-Holiday Jews" and Jews who come every Saturday. You can even find the Jews who manage to make it out to every minyon, morning and evening, plus the Sabbath (Friday night, Saturday, Saturday night) and all the Holidays (even some holidays most Jews besides the Orthodox and Chasidic don't celebrate). Another idea you find in Conservative (and Reform and Reconstructionist) Judaism is Egalitarianism. Women can be clergy and more. There are no gender-defined roles. Men and women are equal in every way.

Then there's Reform Judaism, which is basically "Bnei Mitzvah Judaism", in that the shuls mostly only exist so children can get Bar or Baht Mitvahed if they want. Then there's Reconstructionist Judaism, which, basically, is what a non-atheistic secular Jew would be part of. They are egalitarian and open to gays and lesbians (one of the bad things about Conservative Judaism is that it only just started opening up to homosexuals... hopefully it will be fully open to them in my lifetime, but we'll see). There's also Jewish Renewal and Jewish Science.

Then there's what I think I'm gonna go with for myself: Secular/Atheistic Judaism (also sometimes put together with Humanistic Judaism). Greta Christina describes this quite nicely in her blog "What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)?"

For plenty of Jews, Judaism is much more of a cultural/historical/familial identity than a religious one. In fact, for many Jews, Judaism is entirely a cultural and historical and familial identity, and not a religious one at all. The phrase "atheist Jew" has a non-absurd, readily - comprehensible meaning... in a way that "atheist Baptist" doesn't. Many Jews cherrypick the Jewish rituals and stories that they like, and reject the ones they don't -- not as a slippery way of trying to shoehorn an obsolete and untenable faith into a modern worldview, but entirely openly and without shame or pretense, in an "I don't think God gives a damn about this, I don't even think God exists, this is all just mangled history at best and totally made-up at worst, so I have no qualms about picking the parts I like and ditching the rest" approach. Questioning the tenets and texts of Judaism is part of the rabbinical tradition, and many secular Jews view their selective observance, not as a rejection of the Jewish tradition, but as part of it. They treat sacred Jewish texts the way we all treat philosophers and political writers who aren't purportedly passing on the divine word of God: they read them critically, they embrace the ideas that make sense, they actively oppose the ideas that are barbaric, they ignore the ideas that seem silly.

For me, I don't keep kosher (it's stupid... they're health laws written down for a group of people who cooked their food on rock slabs by the sun... we've progressed), I obviously don't believe in any higher power at all (Yahweh included), I no longer read Torah because I think it's fucking disgusting, I don't go to synagogue because I find it tedious, and, while I do have a Tallis, I don't see it as anything other than a nice-looking garment.

What I love, however, are some of the Holidays. Not a big fan of Yom Kippur (have to Fast all day and it's the one day of the year we are supposed to feel guilty... so I don't "celebrate" this one), but I like Rosh Hashanna. Hanukkah's fun because, well, as Adam Sandler says "one day of presents? Hell no! We get eight CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAZY nights!" Sukkot is cool because there's always parties underneath what is basically a wooden tent. Luckily I never had to sleep in one, but the food is always good. Simchas Torah is the celebration of getting to the end of the Torah. This is fun because of the tradition... on this day, Jews are supposed to gather in shul and read the entire Torah...

But wait... it's actually good...

After each reading (and there are a lot of them... hundreds depending on how you split up the readings), you take a shot...

Yes, of alcohol. Any kind of alcohol. So imagine being in synagogue with a bunch of drunk people. And after the whole reading, while everyone is good and hammered, we are supposed to carry the Torah around (the town, but usually it's just done around the shul) in a big parade.

Good times. :mrgreen:

But my favorite is Passover. For two reasons... family and food.

If you have never in your life had Kosher for Passover brisket, then I DEMAND that you save up about $100 (yes, Kosher for Passover meat is expensive... but for $100, if you're savvy, you'll either have brisket for a month or you'll need to throw a party... because $100 will get you a few pounds) until Passover starts, get yourself to a Kosher shop/deli/bakery (I believe you'll see it in those markets about a week or two before Passover starts then throughout Passover, assuming the markets aren't closed for Passover), and get some of this stuff. If you can honestly eat this and tell me it is NOT the best food you have ever had, then I can only conclude that your taste buds are fucked up or you just don't know how to cook (assuming, of course, that you aren't a vegetarian or vegan).

Believe it or not, I also enjoy Matzoh. My Mom makes a killer Kosher for Passover Cheesecake (seriously... if she sold her not kosher-for-Passover cheesecakes, she could put Cheesecake Factory out of business... and her Kosher-for-passover ones are even better). I also enjoy the hard-boiled egg in salt water, and the chicken matzoh-ball soup. Charoset, when made right, is really good, too (when I make it it's without the nuts and twice the amount of Manischewitz... so, basically, it's apples, peaches, oranges, melons, honeydew, and a ton of Manischewitz thrown in a blender and blended... I love it). Before Dad got his Cantorial Job in Florida, he would make the brisket, and my brother and I would make a lot of the pre-dinner snacks (I make tortilla chips with tortillas, oil, and a deep-fryer... my brother would make guacamole)... cooking for Passover is a full-family experience. And fun. And it tastes so good, too.

Now to get where I've been intending this blog to go all along:

I only spent enough time in the Catholic faith to get my first communion (though my experience there was very religiously liberal... I was even taught in CCD... elementary-school level... that evolution was true and the age of the Earth was around 4.6 billion years old). Then we moved from Connecticut to Georgia, and we became a Jewish family (I fully joined them after a couple years, when I was young, of privately "wandering" through different sects of Christianity and Paganism). We were Conservative Jews. Egalitarian, open-minded, no problem with science... and education was the thing stressed most.

(Sadly, it took me until I was 19 to recognize the importance of education, but that was just me dealing with personal issues.) I basically grew up with a Rabbi who felt education was more important then anything else... even if it meant so many Jews became Secular and/or Atheists that Judaism disappeared.

"One who wrestles with God". This is the very reason (aside from the Holocaust) Judaism is so small today (probably why some Christians like to use it as "proof" that education is a bad idea). There was no Hell, and we did not inherit any sin from Adam because (and this is an exact quote from one of the Rabbi's sermons [not the Chasidic rabbi... the Conservative Rabbi at the shul my family belongs to) "there was never an Adam to inherit any sin from". Evolution was true, the Torah is pretty much allegorical and metaphorical... and belief in God was a choice.

That was the most important thing. If, in your education, you came to not believe in God, then God would understand. You would not be punished for using your head and valuing education and reality (I'm not joking about this... this is what I was taught).

If you want to ask "then how come Jews believe in God", I can't answer that question. I don't know. I've asked both Rabbi's I've known and many other Jews. The answer is always the same: "faith". When I tell them that, for me, that's not good enough, they shrug and say "it is for some, not for others. It's who your are. Be proud of who you are."

So, for me, faith was never "in the way".

I don't remember where I mentioned it (may have been in my letter to the Convert's Corner of, but for the vast majority of my life, I didn't even know fundamentalism existed. I had no idea that there were people who didn't accept Evolution. I had no idea that there was any (social) controversy (I'm quite aware that there is no scientific controversy). The whole thing was completely non-existent to me for years. I had heard the names "Ted Haggard" and "Oral Roberts" and such, but I didn't care about those names. They meant nothing to me. For all I knew they were just some slightly-well-known radio-hosts who people sometimes talked about. Hell... They could have been family acquaintances! I remember a Ted visiting my family when we lived in Connecticut every so often, so for years, for all I knew, Ted Haggard could have been that guy!

I didn't know Ted Haggard and Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson were Christian Fundamentalists.

I stumbled on to the whole thing not that long ago, through a not-so-unlikely source.

I've mentioned before that my all-time favorite band is Led Zeppelin. About two or three years ago, on one of the LZ forums I frequent, someone posted a link to a blog linking Led Zeppelin to Satan. The site of this blog was That was my first taste of religious radicalism (and a taste of just what they meant by "poor website design"... the site is a fucking mess!... impossible to navigate through... probably for the better). Here is that very article if you're interested. You might recognize the arguments. All the cliche shit about Stairway to Heaven played backwards and Jimmy Page and Aleister Crowley and all of that.

I perused the site, and I was shocked! I couldn't believe it! "What the hell is all this shit?!? I never heard of this! Rejecting Evolution? Bible literalism? Is this shit for real?" For a little while I honestly thought I had stumbled onto some kind of bad prank. It took me about a week of googling "evolution" and "creationism" and such to realize that I had absolutely no fucking idea just how deep this rabbit hole went. Obviously, I took the plunge, or I wouldn't be here now.

So maybe this helps to clarify my position somewhat. I never experienced fundamentalism until recently. I had no idea it existed for years! So it's hard for me to be entirely against faith alone when for basically 19 to 20 years of my life, faith was just a... you know... label. "Yeah... I eat sushi, play guitar, wear Led Zeppelin t-shirts, and believe in God. So what?" It's only recently that it became something else entirely... that I was introduced to fundamentalism and religious stupidity.

Before I came out as an atheist, I only ever encountered them on the net. Now that I've come out, though, I "notice" them on the streets all the time. About two months ago, I was carrying a copy of Dawkins's book "The God Delusion" home from the library (library's in walking distance... and this is before I bought it), and if it hadn't been for the cop who was literally right there, I think the religious fundie (male, with Ford pick-up truck, fat, wearing suspenders, missing teeth, deep southern accent... basically, a Redneck) would have killed me (because I doubt even his god knew what weapons of mass destruction he was hiding in the bed of his Ford... you know how rednecks are with their guns... if they didn't worship Jesus they'd probably worship the guns).

So all of this is new to me. Granted, I'm already writing songs about it, but it's new to me. It's not something I've really had any experience with. Faith was never a factor until now, and for my family, at least, it still isn't. They believe, but even for my dad who's a Hazzan and my mom's dad who's a Deacon, it's not the center of their lives.

So there you go... that's my take on it. Make of it what you will.

Just my $0.02 USD. This was originally written as a response to some of the whole "Faith is a Virus" thing. I get that point of view, but I can't share it for obvious reasons. I prefer "Fundamentalism is a Virus". I'm just sort of giving my background and a different take on the whole thing...
Fuck off. I'm not interested.

Unless you're a hot chick or you have copious amounts of weed you want to share for free...

Then we can be friends...

Name: Nathan Hevenstone
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Re: My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

#2  Postby Shaker » Mar 01, 2010 10:31 pm

A long and fascinating post - many thanks, it was clear, well written and a joy to read. :thumbup: Although in the UK, I'm very familiar indeed with may of the points raised as there's a Jewish wing to the family (secular and non-practising: culturally not religiously Jewish) and I've studied Judaism in, I think it's fair to say, some detail for the past decade or more.

Of course the big feature about Judaism is that culture/ethnicity and religion are seen as separable if not separate, which doesn't yet obtain for other religions. An atheist Jew isn't a contradiction in terms in the way that Christian atheist still is (despite the best efforts of the really radical ultra-liberal wing): because of the historical emphasis in Judaism on practice rather than belief, what you actually believe receives less attention that what you do (or, very often, are seen to do). Hence the widespread hypocrisy about driving to shul on Saturday morning but not being seen to do so and so forth. A Jew can be a Jew, and can still self-identify as such in cultural and ethnic terms, even though his stance vis a vis religion might make Christopher Hitchens look like a soppy wet bleeding heart. Sigmund Freud was about as militant an atheist as they come, but hugely proud of his Jewish heritage, and nobody would not call Freud Jewish whatever his attitude towards theism. This has never really caught on in the other Abrahamic faiths, at least anywhere near the same extent.

I hope you stick around: I'd love to chew the fat over this some more (and about guitars too!) :)
To be boosted by an illusion is not to live better than to live in harmony with the truth ... these refusals to part with a decayed illusion are really an infection to the mind. - George Santayana
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Re: My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

#3  Postby blackarmada » Mar 02, 2010 6:39 am

Good Read :thumbup:
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Re: My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

#4  Postby Julia » Mar 03, 2010 10:40 pm

Good post, Nate. I have some understanding of your experiences with religion as I was raised Catholic--liberal Catholic and of course we were never taught to take the bible literally. Then, just before I married my Jewish husband, I converted to Judaism. Studied with a rabbi beforehand, of course. That was 28 years ago. My husband was raised a conservative Jew, never kept kosher, synagogue only on high holy days, etc.

I totally understand the concept of being an atheistic Jew. My son considers himself one and so is my husband. My daughter hasn't decided yet about belief in a god.
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Re: My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

#5  Postby pancake » Mar 04, 2010 6:16 am

Nate says: "I asked the Rabbi what he meant, and he told me "to deny Evolution is to deny God's great gift of science."

I'd been trying to come up with a concise, eloquent way to say that for a while now, but you beat me to it!

I had an old friend who is studying to become a Rabbi. She opened my eyes to Judaism's emphasis on "wrestling with God," questioning and developing faith.

Thank you for this insightful and informative thread!
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Re: My Take on Faith (From A Jewish Perspective)

#6  Postby riddlemethis » Mar 04, 2010 7:53 am

Nate that was a terrific read. We have very close friends who are conservative Jews, their passion for knowledge and education is probably the most evident quality I can identify with from what you have written here. Oh & the food! We have been luck enough to join them & their extended families for Holidays over the years & the food is incredible. They are truly fun & joyous people. We also used to live in the Jewish area of Melbourne for a while & our fondest recollections of that time are Sunday morning boiled bagels & lox! Mmmmmmmm.
I told the priest, don't count on any second coming. God got his ass kicked the first time he came down here slumming. - Concrete Blonde

Reason is the servant of the passions - David Hume

You got to be Jesus crazy to pull a move like that. - Victor T
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