Why My Rabbi Asked, “Who Here is an Atheist?”

One morning in autumn many years ago, I was sitting in synagogue with my family. My granddad used to drag us there when he came over for the high holidays. Most of the service was spent on ritual prayers and readings in Hebrew, so I wasn’t paying much attention.

That is, until my rabbi asked a very odd question. “Who here is an atheist? Please raise your hands.”

I blinked in confusion as I watched the hands go up around me. From my vantage point (standing on top of the chair so I could see when the rabbi blew the shofar, which was always my favorite part of every service), I could see that maybe three-quarters of the synagogue had put their hands up.

Seeing the hands of my family raised around me as an indication that it was socially acceptable to do so, I put mine up as well. None of us had ever really believed the God stuff, after all, but I’d always thought we were a minority in this respect. Evidently not.

The rabbi nodded. Though his speech has eroded in my memory, it went something like this. “Faith is a tool to be used towards the goal of doing good deeds. If you wish to use that tool, you may; though I see many of you are not in need of it. But all of us must remember that it is just a tool. If you have all the faith and love for God in the world, but you are cruel to your fellow man, you are not a good Jew. You cannot fall into the Christian trap of worshipping the tool in absence of its purpose; you would not praise a hammer except for its ability to pound in nails.”

I came away from this with the realization cemented in my mind that Judaism is not fundamentally a religion. It is fundamentally an ethnicity and a culture.

If Judaism were primarily a religion, it would have some pretty major problems. For one, Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize: that thing that Christians do where they try to convert you to Christianity, we can’t do that. Nowhere in our holy books does it say that you’ll go to Hell if you’re not a Jew. And the reason for that is another reason that Judaism wouldn’t work well as a major religion: converting to Judaism is really hard. The two main ways of converting are marrying a Jew and being adopted by a Jewish family.

If you look at Judaism as a culture and ethnicity that simply arose from a religion, though, these things make sense. The quality of “Jewish-ness” is within my family, within my bloodline, and unless I choose to marry or adopt you (either of which would add you to my family), I can’t convert you.

Further, all Jews have what’s called right of return. Since I have it, I would be able to immigrate to Israel and gain Israeli citizenship if I wanted to, because it is my homeland, albeit indirectly. This right couldn’t exist if Judaism were much of anything besides an ethnicity.

Because Judaism isn’t primarily a religion, being a good Jew is the same thing as being a good person in general: be kind, don’t break just laws, have good morals, etc. Again, this makes pretty intuitive sense: we can’t be judged against our faith, so the only thing we can be judged against is our morality.

By contrast, when you have an actual religion (I’m going to use Christianity as an example, but I’m not picking on Christians; many religions work this way), there tends to be a problem with morality. A good Christian is someone who puts their love of God first. But sometimes, people tack “to the exclusion of all else” onto the end of that sentence, and the religious leaders don’t seem to mind. Actually, frequently the people who think that way are the religious leaders.

As a result, you have a lot of Christians (some of whom I’ve met) who say they follow Christ, but who seem to have completely missed the whole “love thy neighbor” thing. They were praised for their faith instead of for being a good person.

But, as my rabbi said, you shouldn’t praise the tool in absence of its purpose. Don’t praise faith in absence of its ability to help you be kind.

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