High holidays for Jewish atheists

I commemorate this time of year partly due to my Jewish tradition, but also because I want to help change that tradition into a more godless one.

Since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar, why would an atheist Jew like me note these high holidays? And I’m by no means unique. There are atheist Jews in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox congregations. And the openly nontheistic Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates all the Jewish holidays.

Regardless of belief, there is a one-word reason why most Jews remember Jewish holidays—God. Without that concept, there would be no Jews. So I’m happy to credit God for the holidays, even if he/she/it doesn’t exist. I commemorate this time of year partly due to my Jewish tradition, but also because I want to help change that tradition into a more godless one.

There are two religious reasons for celebrating the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. One is bad, and the other is worse. Here’s the bad: Rosh Hashanah commemorates the scientifically indefensible anniversary of the creation of the world, 5,774 years ago. And here’s worse: It’s also the anniversary of Abraham agreeing to kill his son Isaac, as proof of his faith and obedience to God. This Torah portion in Genesis 22 is read every Rosh Hashanah.

That biblical passage also refers to Isaac as Abraham’s only son, which means his first-born son Ishmael doesn’t count. Why? Because Isaac’s mother, Sarah, was Jewish and Ishmael’s mother was merely Sarah’s gentile servent whom Sarah lent to Abraham when she thought she was barren. On the other hand, in Islamic tradition it is Ishmael and not Isaac who was to be sacrificed by Abraham. And Muhammad is believed to be a direct descendent of Ishmael.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three major monotheistic religions, all treat Abraham as a respected prophet because of his unquestioning faith. Furthermore, the God who created heaven and earth also appears to have been in the real estate business because he allegedly promised the same plot of land to each of these three religions, and they continue to fight over it to this day.

Traditional Jews often seek humane interpretations for the literal words they believe come from or are inspired by their God. Humanistic Jews focus on humans, without worrying about the biblical needs of an imaginary deity. So what are our reasons for observing the season? The days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are considered a time for reflection on our actions during the previous year. No God is sitting in judgment, but each of us can contemplate and judge our own actions as we try to improve in the coming year. The Abraham myth ends better than it begins. God provides a ram to take Isaac’s place for the sacrifice, a switch that is probably meant to benefit the entire community. That’s why on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur Jews blow a shofar (a ram’s horn). Today we can think of the shofar as summoning Jews to turn their commitments and values into action.

Discussion of death is certainly appropriate on Rosh Hashanah, when God supposedly decides who will die in the coming year. But it’s also a time to promote long, if not eternal, life. The same tradition that venerates Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of year 5774 also credits Methuselah with living 969 years. Such fables pale in comparison to that of Paul Erdos, a Jewish atheist and one of the finest mathematicians of the 20th century, who claimed to be 2.5 billion years old. His reasoning? When he was a child, the earth was known to be two billion years old. And now it’s known to be 4.5 billion years old.

Perhaps Erdos was telling us that we don’t have all the answers and, in light of new evidence, we must sometimes discard beliefs learned in childhood. When we don’t, we can sound pretty foolish. To make his point, Erdos used humor, which cuts across every denomination of Jews, religious or not.

So I’ll commemorate the holidays in the Jewish Humoristic tradition, by closing with two jokes for the season.

A rabbi delivers a moving sermon telling how we are nothing in this vast universe and that we must let God know we are appropriately humble. After the sermon, the assistant rabbi runs to the front and yells, “I am nothing!” followed by the president of the congregation who does the same. Then a newcomer runs up yelling, “I am nothing!” At this, an old congregant pokes the man sitting next to him and complains, “So look who thinks he’s nothing.”

On another occasion a Jew tries to enter the shul (synagogue) during the high holidays and is stopped by the shammas (caretaker) who asks for his ticket. The man hadn’t paid for one, but says he just wants to come in for a minute so he can give an important message to a friend. The shammas lets him pass, but warns, “Now, don’t let me catch you praying in this shul!”

Image courtesy of Emmanuel Dyan.

About

Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
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