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Who is a Jew? While I’m often asked how I can be both a Jew and an atheist, this question hardly ever comes from Jews. According to all branches of Judaism, a person is Jewish if born to a Jewish mother. Since my mother was Jewish, so am I. End of story. But it isn’t.
Jews argue about everything, including who is a Jew. Disagreements usually develop along sectarian lines. Reform Jews are willing to accept into the tribe someone with a Jewish father and a gentile mother, but Orthodox Jews are not. Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis won’t even accept a child as Jewish when born to a devout Jewish mother from a donated gentile egg. All branches of Judaism allow for converts, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize conversion of gentiles to Judaism unless that conversion is approved by a three-judge religious court comprised of three Orthodox men (usually rabbis), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and a commitment to perform all the Torah’s commandments according to Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.
Gentiles are often surprised to hear that there is no religious belief requirement to be a Jew. Well-known Jews with no belief in God include intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, as well as comedians like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, and Sarah Silverman (no relation, unfortunately). In fact, these Jews openly criticize or make fun of religion.
I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus.
A Pew survey shows that 62 percent of American Jews say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Secular Jews, atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews comprise the largest constituency of Jews. I am hard-pressed to name a pious Jew, dead or alive, who is a household name worldwide — except for Jesus. Which brings us to . . .
What’s a Christian? I think it’s more difficult to define a Christian than a Jew. Christians believe that Jesus was/is a very special person with important teachings. But Christians differ on countless significant issues: whether Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, whether he was born of a virgin, whether he was resurrected bodily, whether he died for your sins, whether everything in the New Testament is literally true, whether and when he will be returning, and whether such beliefs will be the difference between going to heaven or hell.
What all Christians, whether liberal or conservative, seem to have in common is a belief that many who claim to be Christian are not real Christians. Personally, I prefer letting people self-identify, though this appears not to be the “Christian thing” to do.
I’m not a Christian by any definition, but if I were, I’d be a liberal one. I periodically receive emails from a liberal Christian group addressed to “Faithful American,” requesting I sign a petition. Recent examples include a petition against Georgia state judge Michael Boggs, who is under consideration for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, for his shameless efforts to exploit the Christian faith by condemning homosexuality and advancing an extremist right-wing agenda and a petition denouncing Sarah Palin for equating Holy Baptism with torture, since she wants to baptize terrorists by waterboarding them. I almost always agree with this group’s positions, but never sign them because I’m a faithless American.
Most of these petitions criticize so-called Christians for not being true Christians. Yes, they are. I would never call “unchristian” people who are motivated by their interpretations of Christian biblical principles. I just don’t think all such biblical principles or Christians are admirable.
What all religions have in common is that they contain atheists.
Now for the cross (pun intended) between Jews and Christians — Messianic Jews (Jews for Jesus). Most Jews want nothing to do with them, even if they have Jewish mothers, believing that their primary goal is to convert Jews to Christianity. That might be true, but ultra-Orthodox Jews have more religious beliefs in common with Messianic Jews than with atheist Jews like me. Both sects believe that a Messiah is coming, though they differ on whether it will be his first or second trip to earth.
There have been dozens of Jewish Messiah claimants over the centuries. Some in the Lubavitcher Chassidic sect are still expecting the imminent return of Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. I’m as confident of Schneerson’s return as I am of Jesus’ return. Jesus purportedly said about 2,000 years ago that he would return before his own generation passed, and that clock is still ticking.
So Jews are generally fine with Jews who don’t believe in God, but are concerned and embarrassed by Jews who believe that God has a son.
What all religions have in common is that they contain atheists, though percentages vary considerably. Religion is often more about family, culture, and community than about religious belief. Of the three so-called monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), I “thank God” that I was born into the one where it’s easy to be an open atheist.
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