Some years ago, my middle daughter occasionally did cat sitting for a rabbi. One day, he called for her and we ended up in a conversation that led him to ask where we were affiliated. I told him that we went to the JCC and belonged to the “Jewish pool club.” When he asked again, I told him that we didn’t attend a synagogue because I come from a long line of atheists and my husband is an atheist by choice. After a contemplative silence he said, “But your daughter is such a good person.”
I thought of this recently when I was reading the newly released Pew report on Jewish Americans. Two of the factoids really caught my attention. In response to the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” 69 percent of the respondents said: leading an ethical/moral life. In answer to the question, “What is compatible with being Jewish?” 68 percent of the respondents said a person can be Jewish even if he/she does not believe in God.
According to my mother, my great grandfather came to America to spread the word about socialism. He was a great believer in spreading wealth and, even though he earned very good money as a builder, he gave most of it away. He named each of his six children with names that reflected his ideology: One uncle was named Thomas Carlyle, another Charles Darwin and my grandfather was named Victor Hugo. He raised his children to be rational, moral and atheistic.
My father came from a more Jewish background with a father who escaped being forced into the Russian army as Jewish frontline fodder. Whatever belief my father had was certainly lost when he helped liberate the concentration camps at age 20. My mother was an atheist who longed to be agnostic. She taught me, once I became a confirmed atheist, that one should lead their life assuming that God doesn’t exist but act as if She/He does. It is a value that I hope I have passed on to my children.
My oldest daughter is an educator and dreams of opening a school that will serve homeless children. When she spent two years teaching in a rural and very poor part of North Carolina, her fellow teachers assured her that, though she claimed to be an atheist, she must actually be a Christian because who else would be willing to do what she was doing.
My middle daughter plans on pursuing a degree in psychology to work with troubled teens and my youngest seems well on her way to a career in teaching. They are smart and ambitious women and could choose any profession, but none is interested in anything other than “helping” (or, at least, “not-hurting”) professions. I don’t believe that Belief is fundamental to my Jewish identity. Yet I feel myself to be Jewish. I agree with Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, who recently wrote that being a Jewish atheist means not believing in a different God than a Christian atheist doesn’t believe in. I also agree with my mother, who said, “You can deny being a Jew all you want, but when they come for the Jews, they will have your name on the list.”
I try, as unsuccessfully as the next person, to lead an ethical life, which means to me to be concerned for those less fortunate, try to minimally hurt the environment, vote Democrat. I hope my husband and I have raised moral children who don’t look to God as an excuse to do right but have incorporated “rightness” into their lives.
I understand the rabbi’s confusion about how atheists can raise good people, but I believe that Judaism demands that we pay attention to the world and one another other right here and right now. We don’t do the right thing because we fear punishment or hope for a reward in the afterlife – we do it just because we know it to be right – because if there was a God, She/He would demand this of us. With no God, we aren’t excused from our shared humanity but must choose every day to live our values.
Lee Kossin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an artist residing in Providence.