Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Jews are Atheists

I had an interesting conversation with one of our interns yesterday, who is a Jew, but considers himself an athiest.
I asked him if he believed that the Scriptures were divinely handed down to mankind by God and he said no, that was a silly notion.
I then asked why he would think so, and his answer was more or less that there are things in the Bible that nobody takes seriously. Although he was not this articulate, his argument was thus:
There are instructions in the Scriptures that are impossible to obey (such as the Temple sacrifices).
Since it is impossible to follow them they are irrelevant and useless. All scripture then is useless and should be thrown out because God never intended us to keep them in the first place. And if God doesn't intend us to keep His laws then He is no God, He is irrelevant.
This is why all the Jews have left is their tradition, or they are atheists.
I find this sad but inexorable, and commendable. If Christ has not fulfilled the whole of the law then it's hopeless for the Jew, and he is therefore bound to conclude that this is all a bunch of nonsense.
Only in Christ is this veil of "Meaningless!" removed, only in Him do we understand.

3 comments:

Scott (Helena, MT) said...

This seems like an explanation of why one certain Jew that you know is an atheist, which doesn’t seem to me to work as an explanation of “Why Jews are Atheists.”

Historically, the rabbis who wrote the Mishna (ca. 200 A.D.) outline all sorts of practices related to the Temple, even though the building didn’t exist anymore. They seem to have believed that studying Torah was a means of worship in and of itself, which meant that you could serve God by studying even when the specific command couldn't practically be implemented.

Furthermore, before the Temple was even destroyed, Jews were worshiping God in ways that didn’t really require the Temple. Diaspora Jews met at synagogues to pray and read Torah as worship, and they didn’t all feel the need to go to the Temple on pilgrimage. The folks who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls thought the Temple had become corrupt, and they practiced ritual purity in their own ways to make atonement for Israel. The Pharisees set up their daily meals in order to carry out Temple worship, without actually being at the Temple. When the Temple fell, these kinds of practices simply carried over –– though of course many Jews also had a crisis of faith.

On the other side of things, lots of conservative protestants regard Paul’s directive not to forbid speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39) as obsolete, but that doesn't in any sense point them toward atheism. Similarly, many Christians probably *have* become atheists because they think Jesus was wrong about the end coming within a generation –– but other Christians simply interpret those passages differently, so that it doesn’t threaten their faith.

Christians and Jews both have intellectual and historical problems that are *very* difficult to reckon with. And within both groups, some have made sense of things and remained faithful, while others have despaired and turned atheist––it’s just that the Christians who do that don’t continue to call themselves Christian quite as often as Jews continue to call themselves Jews.

Phil said...

After consideration I would disagree, there is a fundamental difference between the Jew who has no temple, and the Christian who sees Paul's command to not forbid speaking in tongues. One verse does not equate to a series of chapters. One command to a church in no way stacks up against the core of an entire culture.

On one hand, granting the notion that gifts have ceased, the Christian passage would still have application to the larger picture of not suppressing gifts.
On the other hand a Jew without a temple is someone without atonement altogether. There is no way, no possible way, for the Jew to be reconciled to God. The notion is an absurdity, the whole fabric and structure of their society is annihilated. The Jew exists to obey the commands, once God has rendered their obedience out of the question there is a necessary crisis of faith.

The Jew was given the law, to keep and to do. To lose that covenant is to lose what it means to be a Jew.
The equivalent would be going on as if nothing ever happened if Christ never rose from the dead. It's more honest just to claim that you are an atheist.

Atheism is the logical termination for Judiasm. And if not atheism then a sort of blind stubbornness that refuses to acknowledged reality.

Besides, I have read much of the Mishna and I find about as badly written as the Koran.

Scott (Helena, MT) said...

I agree that one verse doesn’t equate to a series of chapters, but neither does a series of chapter equate to an entire religion. We’re dealing with matters of degree here, and you seem to be talking more in absolutes.

I guess my first issue is that I think the “logical” outcome of Judaism has to be based on what Jews *believe*, and not simply *what is so*. In other words, I thought your original post was claiming not that Jews become atheists because their sins aren’t *actually* atoned for, but because they no longer have reason to *believe* their sins are atoned for. Maybe I misunderstood you.

You say there is “no possible way for the Jew to be reconciled to God.” To me, this doesn’t seem relevant to the question of atheism unless Jews agree with the statement. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but my impression is that you would expect Jews to be able to back up their practice using Torah in the same way that you back up your practice using the Bible. Are you assuming that they must not *believe* atonement is possible because your reading of the Torah doesn’t allow for it?

The thing is, that’s not how (any? all?) Jews read the Torah in antiquity, and I imagine it’s not how they all read it now.

In 1QS (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls), written well before the fall of the Temple, this particular sect of Jews describes a group of “men of perfect holiness” who will live in a state of ritual purity. Then it says, “When these exist in Israel in accordance with these rules in order to establish the spirit of holiness in truth eternal, in order to atone for the guilt of iniquity and for the unfaithfulness of sin, and for approval for the earth, without the flesh of burnt offerings and without the fats of sacrifice –– the offering of the lips in compliance with the decree will be like the pleasant aroma of justice and perfectness of behavior will be acceptable like a freewill offering” (1QS 9:3-5).

I imagine you would call this their “blind stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge reality.” I think every religious person accepts some realities as certain, and then we do our best to account for the apparent discrepancies that are raised. Christians believe that God is three persons even though God is one. We also believe that Jesus is coming again even though Mark seems to say that it will be within a generation.

How do we do that? By reinterpreting the earlier tradition. We claim it means something different to say that “God is one” than what the Jews assumed. We say “this generation” means something different than what it seems to mean in Mark’s context. Some would call this a “stubborn refusal to accept reality,” but I would call it a faith in one reality (the Gospel) that requires us to reinterpret other realities.

Frankly, messianism was precisely that kind of move. 2 Samuel promises a king on the throne forever, not that there will be a king for awhile, then a time without a king, and then a restoration of the messiah. Yet Jews developed messianic expectations, many of them outside the Bible, that reinterpreted the promise to David. They weren’t simply being stubborn, but they also weren’t taking their earlier tradition literally.

So if some Jews believe God has led them to reinterpret atonement? It looks to me like they’re holding to a faith in their understanding of God’s promise to Abraham, to Israel, and to David, that is willing to reinterpret the meaning of the Temple because of a faith in something they believe is even more important. Whether or not we believe they’re *right*, I don’t think we can conclude that they’re intellectually dishonest. And I see why the discrepancy could tempt some Jews to Atheism, but I don’t see how that means it’s the logical outcome.