For many years, I was an integral member of a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pittsburgh—Dor Hadash, now known to all the world because of a gunman’s attack in 2018.
My three children celebrated Bar and Bat Mitzvahs there. I was very happy at Dor Hadash. I still send a contribution every year. But a few years into the new Millennium, I felt I had to leave—not just Dor Hadash, but Judaism itself.
I am now a self-proclaimed secularist.
In this movement to non-affiliation with organized religion, I was joining millions of my fellow Americans. Those without religious affiliation—the Nones—now comprise more than a quarter of all American adults, and the number is growing.
My friends at Dor Hadash wondered why I left and invited me back to the bima (synagogue podium) one Shabbat to explain.
I told the congregation that I left Judaism because I no longer believe in God.
For many in the congregation, this proved to be no explanation at all. After my talk, several old friends told me that they no longer believed in God either, but they happily remained participating members in the synagogue.
I told them that I wish I could do that, told them how much I miss Dor Hadash.
I truly understand why my friends stay. I don’t know why some secularists maintain that life outside organized religion is just as fulfilling as a religiously affiliated life. I never found that to be the case. Even without God, the life of organized religion provides both community and a very satisfying ritual practice that generates a sense of order in life and in the cosmos. And when you die, organized religion provides rites to follow that are comforting to loved ones who mourn you.
It is for just these reasons that thousands of Jews who are no longer believers practice various forms of secularized Judaism. Readers of OnlySky were recently introduced to this kind of Judaism by Paul Golin in a piece entitled “Eight reasons why this atheist Jew still celebrates Hanukkah.”
But that is not possible for me.
The problem is that I was raised as a true believer. By that I mean not something political, ideological, or narrow. Rather, I am referring to the deep spirituality that religion offers.
I was raised to love God.
For the early part of my childhood, I was educated at the New Haven Hebrew Day School, one of the seven Yeshivot created after the Second World War by the Chabad movement within Chasidism. I was one of the black hats, as they are known.
According to my family lore, there were originally to be only six Yeshivot in North America. My grandfather urged Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, then the head of the movement, to add a seventh Yeshiva in New Haven. My grandfather would pay for the school and I and my brothers and all my cousins would attend, which we did.
At the New Haven Hebrew Day School, I learned that Judaism is the story of the relationship of God, the holy one, blessed be he, with the Jewish people. Everything else about Judaism is secondary to that story.
I was taught that God chose the Jewish people to be a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation for a specific purpose. It was not to bring individual Jews to a holy life. The Jewish people were meant to bring all of humanity closer to God and thus to the salvation of the human race.
To accomplish that goal, God lovingly commanded a separate existence for Jews. Jews were to follow special rules and practices—like keeping kosher and not driving on Shabbat (Saturday)—that would create a people that embodied sanctified living.
Eventually, at the time of the Messiah, all the peoples of the world would want to lead a life like that.
That is why these divine directions were called Mitzvot, which means commandments.
The purpose was not that all the world convert to Judaism. Rather, the hope was that all the peoples of the world would want the same kind of relationship to God that the Jewish people had demonstrated. In the words of Isaiah, “Many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’”
This structure of source and purpose justifies Jews in saying that the concept of chosenness does not reflect any form of super-nationalism or racism. Not only does the choosing rest solely with God, the choice is not based on the inherent superiority of the Jewish people. If that were the case, Jews could not serve as a model for everyone. It is the ordinariness of Jews, changed only by following God’s commands, that testifies to the effect of a sanctified way of life.
Using human reason inspired by God, the rabbis over more than a thousand years filled out the details of this sanctified life based on the template given in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, in what came to be known as the oral law.
As an adult, like most Jews, I never lived out all the commandments. But I never lost the sense that Jewish life represented a form of ultimate truth with deep significance.
When God is removed from Jewish life, the significance of ritual life is lost. What had been the work of instilling holiness becomes merely another form of folk dancing. Lighting the candles of Hanukkah no longer is a step on the road to solving the mystery of existence.
I am still seeking in my secular life some form of sanctified living. I remain convinced that there is an order and meaning behind—or maybe better said, within—the universe. In a recent book, I called this sense of order and meaning “The Universe Is on Our Side,” a reference to the thinking of the great Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan.
And I believe that all the great religious traditions identified important aspects of that order and meaning. There is important truth in all of them that secularists need to investigate and learn from.
Secularism today is still in its formative stage and has a lot to learn. Many of us are trying to find new ways to embody the order and meaning of the universe. Those new ways will eventually lead to new rituals and practices and new stories to tell our children about the wonder of the universe and the purpose of existence.
These rituals and practices will engender new forms of community.
Right now we live in the in-between, what philosopher Martin Heidegger called the Zwischen. The old forms of religion no longer speak to the culture as a whole. But the new forms that will follow are not yet here.
In fact, the dominant strand of secularism to this day embraces a kind of hard materialism that tends to denigrate not only religion but all forms of cosmic purpose and meaning.
I hope that kind of secularism will prove to be a passing moment in which the secular and the religious were felt to be competitors rather than, as I hope they will be in the future, partners in the human search for flourishing life.
After all, that form of nihilistic secularism is not even compatible with the new physics of quantum theory.
And it may be that forms of secularized religion, like the humanistic Judaism of Paul Golin, will one day serve as a bridge to a secular/religious partnership.
But that path is not for me. I left Judaism to be part of the new, secular search for meaning. For I yearned to live out the truth of the universe, just as I had done as a child in Hebrew School.
Once you have experienced the beauty and power of genuine religious life embedded in its divine myth, you cannot just go through the motions.
That is why I am no longer a Jew.