Are there Jewish atheists?


A World Without Jewish Atheists …

no Israel, less science, worse law, massive loss of literature and art ????

I had not realized that this was even a question until my brother sent me a very derogatory email asking how could I, an atheist, have said Torah blessings at my kids’ bnai mitzvot.

Leaving aside his gratuitous insult, what Hugh may not realize is that a vast proportion of us .. that is Jews .. in the modern world, possibly a majority of those who have been successful , have been devout atheists or agnostics.  The list shown below spans the gamut from science to art, from music to poetry.  The politics range from Ayn Rand on the right to Leon Trotsky on the left.

Of curse a lot of the folks on this list are scientists.  So many, in fact, that the Tea Party types sometimes claim evolution is a Jewish plot.  Hitler was dismissive of relativity because, after all, who could care about a Jewish atheist;s ideas? The list is not at all limited to scientists, folks like me whose attachment to reality makes belief in a magical deity very  difficult.  Names central to Judaism and Israel, include Ben Gurion, Herzl, Meir, and Rabin.  Is Israel less Jewish because it was led by such atheists? Even Ze’ev Jabotinski, the forefather of the terrorists who  opposed Israel’s founders for being too moderate, was himself a Jewish atheist.  Great Jewish philosophers … Buber and Mendelsohn have also been atheists.

Spinoza, for his part, was excommunicated from the Jewish community because the great thinker was an atheist.

Part of the problem is that some Jews and most non Jews fail to understand that Judaism itself is not dependent on a credo, we have no requirement for  a statement that beings “I believe ..” .  There is no equivalent in Judaism of the Nicene Creed or the Muslim’s Shahada. One of the nastiest things these religions have done over the centuries is to force Jews to state recites these statements of belief.  Many Jews have been burned at the stake of otherwise tortured for reneging on these forced statements.  Amongst those were likley many of our relatives who tried to pass as Christian after that ship took our family form Valencia harbor.

If I may do so, I suggest that Hugh read a wonderful short book by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a great rabbi our father talked about.  Do you remember what Dad had to say?  As far as I know, Reb   Soloveitchik was not an atheist.  However, he wrote about Judaism not in terms of any absolute belief but as as a rigorous discipline, a way of thinking about the consistency of a system whether it was science (he was a physicist as well as a rabbi) or Torah. I imagine that this sense of rigorous consistency is also what has driven so many Jews to be great lawyers.

That Jewish quality can be applied to almost anything, presumably even to the world of business my brother lives in, business. Jewish financiers, presumably believers,  associated with the gold and diamond industries were the major prop behind South Africa’s apartheid regime.  Other Jews, later played a major role in the ANC itself.  These names included  Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, Dennis Goldberg, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman .  Slovo, a communist was also an outspoken atheist.  Later the author Nadine Gordimer, won a Nobel Prize for her books about the apartheid era.  Gordimer too is an atheist.

So, to help my brother out, I went to the web and assembled a list of folks I would assume my brother would agree are (or were) very, very Jewish:

Woody Allen  #  @
Saul Alinsky
Hanna Arendt
Isaac Asimov
Julius Axelrod *
Isaac Babel  @
David Ben-Gurion #
Irving Berlin  @
Hans Bethe *
Jack Black
Niels Bohr *
David and Daniel Botstein
Jacob Bronowsky
Noam Chomsky *
Aaron Copeland  @
Moshe Dayan #
David Deutcsh *
Richard Dreyfus  @
Paul Ehrich *
Albert Einstein *
Sergei Eisenstein @
Paul Erdoes *
Richard Feynman *
Harvey Feuerstein  @
Sigmund Freud *
Betty Frieden  @
Rosalind Franklin *
David Friedman *
Allen Ginsberg @
Emma Goldman #
Stephen Jay Gould
Nadine Gordimer **
Abbie Hoffman
Francois Jacob *
Ze’ev Jabotinski#
Billy Joel
Jerome Karle *
Sam Harris
Herbert Hauptman *
Theodore Hertzl #
Christopher Hitchins
Roals Hoffman *
Franz Kafka @
Jerome Kern @
Stanley Kubrick @
Ray Kurzweil *
Eric Lander
Lev Landau*
Fritz Lang
Stan Lee @
Stanislaw Lem @
Primo Levi **
Rita Levi-Monticini *
Tom Leherer
Salvador Luria *
Gustav Mahler @
Golda Meir #
Albert Michaelson *
Marvin Minsky *
Elie Metchikoff *
Ralph Miliband **
Harvey Milk
J. Robert Oppenheimer *
Amos Oz
Max Perutz *
Karl Popper
Judeah and Daniel Pearl *  #
Saul Perlmutter
Harold Pinter @
Steven Pinker
Marcel Proust @
Yitzak Rabin #
Ayn Rand **
Daniel Radcliffe
Carl and Rob Reiner @,@
David Ricardo **
Philip Roth @
Mark Rothko @
Carl Sagan
Laurent Schwartz
Jonas Salk *
Maurice Sendak @
Sarah Silverman
Herbert Simon **
George Soros
Baruch Spinoza # **
Leo Szilard *
Leon Trotsky # **
Kurt Weil @
Elie Wiesel **  #  @
Gene Wilder #
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Mark Zuckerberg

* winners of Nobel Prize in science or similar awards in science.

** Nobel of equivalent  prizes for peace or ecomomics

# central figures in Judaism itself

@ great artist or writer

What a loss to the Jewish heritage if ouch children were not to know the names and works of the Jews on this list.


0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Jim Craven/Omahkohkiaaiipooyii #

    Wonderful article and personally I do agree with the thesis. I would argue that one could be acting as a real Jew without being a believer in a “supreme being” but never without standing firm on the “First Mandate” for all Jews: To stand on the side of and serve Righteousness and Justice. To your list of “non-believer” Jews, some of whom on your list but not all, served forces of Righteousness and Justice during their lives, I would add Israel Shahaak, former Professor of Chemistry at the Hebrew University.

    As for your brother’s comment, does he not extend his family support in ways that are meaningful to the one being supported? When non-Jews says “Shalom” to a Jew they are not trying to mock or undermine that person’s Jewishness but rather pay notice and tribute to it–most non-Jews that is. I am an atheist also but I wear head cover in a Temple or Synagogue if attending a function even if secular.

  2. theaveeditor #

    Thanks for the great response.

    Let me begin by commenting on the “head covering.” Did you know that the kippa is never mentioned in the Torah? As such there can be no Halaccha! My reading is that the tradition began in Babylon where Nebuchadnezzar made is free men, not slaves. Slaves were no allowed ot wear hats so we have worn the kippa for about 2500 years ti declare our identity as free people.

    I have my own version f that story. I d civil rights photography. Once some black men threatened me but they stopped when they saw my magen david and kippa. I asked why and their answer was that with these symbols they knew I was different like them!

    My brother is a problem. I doubt that his insulting behavior has anything to do with his being Jewish. Nor I do think atheism has much to do with any of it. The incidence of neurotic behavior is much the same irrespo3ective of religion.

    His problem is one of severe sibling jealousy, probably at a level of neurosis. Oddly he has created a story that my Dad hated me. This relates to m lot of fantasies about me that approach the level of delusions. Some of the interactions he claims to remember would have had to occur when we were living as far apart as possible .. me on the West Coast and Hugh in Boston!

    These delusions do not reach the level of schizophrenia, but they have enough of a paranoid flavor to be frightening. He even tried to ban me from my father’s 80th birthday! At other times his behavior has gotten to a point where security had to be called. He really does need help but, sadly, Hugh is one of those people who still fears psychiatry. I no longer feel safe in meeting with him without some professional mediator present.

    Whatever his problems, I do not think my brother is alone. Any ethnic religious identity can be used as a weapon. I also doubt that my brother ever turns to Judaism to solve his problems. While an Orthodox Jew can turn to the 613 mitzvot for mostly clear instructions on what to do, Hugh is not Orthodox. I can not imagine he asks his Rabbi for a decision based on Jewish law. While I hope he gets some release from the ritual of prayer, I am fairly sure he does not get direct advice from the deity or read Jewish philosophy.