The place of a non-believing Jew

At a simchah recently, I bumped into the father of an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for many years. Charlie was always known as a forthright person, and it was good to see that the passage of twenty years hasn’t changed anything. He asked me what I consider to be the place of a Jew who doesn’t believe in God. He also told me that he remains a proud member of the community and of the Jewish people (he is, and always was, a staunch member of an Orthodox synagogue), but doesn’t believe in God. Charlie confided that he had asked his own rabbi and claimed that he had ‘been unable to handle the question’.

I think that while it’s a matter of great regret that Charlie doesn’t believe in God, and it would be desirable to discuss his beliefs with him in detail, his question deserved an answer.

My response (admittedly unprepared and delivered while struggling to hear over blaring music) was simple. I suggested to Charlie that even if he doesn’t believe in God, Judaism can certainly provide him with meaningful ideas, practices, and occasions for inspiration that will enhance his existence immeasurably. By continuing his association with the Jewish world, he will benefit from a way to contextualise major life-events, from the support of others and from unparalleled opportunities to enhance the lives of others.

How would you have answered?

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56 Responses

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    First question back to him: how do you define God?

  2. Barzilai says:

    If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg once told me that everyone knows the truth. The philosophers and the skeptics and the people who have seen incomprehensible suffering may be unwilling to consciously accept the truth, but that is not out of conviction, it is denial. Despite what this man says, he’s a ma’amin, not a min. He’s just having trouble admitting it to himself.

  3. Yeshivishe Liberal says:

    I’m not sure I get this one. A Jew who openly refuses to believe in G-d is a textbook case of Kofer B’Ikkar (and I am not talking about someone with questions or doubts or someone who has gone through serious mental trauma or anguish). You can try to get him to change his mind or lead him back on the right path. But Judaism is not about doing what makes you feel good even if it will benefit himself or the community. And while his doing good deeds will surely be rewarded, I believe he forfeits his place in the next world.

  4. nachum klafter says:

    I think that I hear this question to you as an attempt to forge some kind of a connection. I imagine that because he is not a believer, he is concerned that his ties to Klal Yisrael are severed. It seems you heard it that way as well, because you did not provide an abstract or theoretical answer about the place of his neshama, or his standing in olam ha-ba, etc. I see no advantage to speak to him in a marginalizing way, and I therefore think that to encourage future participation in Jewish life, as you did, is the correct approach.

    I might have also asked him if he could share with me how and why my response to this question is important to him. Is it pure curiosity about how believing Jews look at atheists? Or is he concerned on some level that despite the politeness and friendliness of his fellow Jews, they do not really consider him a member of the community in good standing?

    I am also curious to know what he means by “not believing in G-d.” Does he mean that he does not belive in the personal G-d of Israel who is intervening actively in shaping our destiny as a nation? Does he not even believe in a Creator? Is he very sure about what he does or does not beleive in?

    So, I probably would have been more interested in engaging with regarding a discussion about what, exactly, he does not believe in. But I find that to be a very interesting topic, and that is probably why I would be curious about it.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    R S Carmy has a wonderful essay on this issue which was published by Atid a few years ago.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    As I understand it, the author replied so as to keep this Jew in contact with other Jews and their activities, in the hope that the true Jewish message could somehow get through to him someday.

    What about the possibility that, in the meantime, this Jew’s attitudes (assuming they are verbalized) could negatively affect other Jews he meets?

  7. Mr. Cohen says:

    How can we explain the continued existence of Jews over the past 33+ centuries? The overwhelming majority of nations from 33 centuries ago vanished over 1,000 years ago.

    When was the last time you read a newspaper article about these nations: Vandals, Goths, Heruli, the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Rhodesia, Yugoslavia, the 500+ Native American Indians nations, Mayans, Aztecs, etc, etc, etc?

    The continued existence of Jews would easier to explain if we had no enemies and lived far away from all other nations, but that is the total opposite of what happened throughout Jewish history.

    Within the Jewish people, heretical movements like: Hellenists, Saducees, Jewish Christians, Karaites, Shabbatai Tzvi followers, and Jacob Frank followers, etc, all have a very strong tendency to vanish, so the overwhelming majority of Jews alive today trace their ancestry to Jews who remained faithful to Oral Torah and rejected all those heretical movements, even when Jews who remained faithful to Oral Torah were a minority.

    The earliest beginning of my own personal journey to Judaism occurred around age 16 when I realized that the Theory of Evolution can not be true, because beneficial mutations are extremely unlikely, for many reasons. At age 18 [year 1981] I realized that Reform and Conservative Judaism have no future. I knew nothing about Orthodox Judaism until age 19 or 20, when I started to learn a little.

  8. Harry Maryles says:

    You have just described how many people who call themselves Orthoprax think. In fact there is a famous blogger who now questions God’s exitence too. He was at one time believer and, if I understand correctly, he comes he from a Charedi background. There are plenty more like him.

    Also, it’s one thing when a someone denies God’s existence to ask if he has a place in Orthodoxy. But there are 100s if not thousands like him? Their numbers are large enough to build a community of their own? Should we try and prevent that or do we just treat them as another hertical movement and isolate them?

    Do we just kick them out or do we try to keep them in – hoping that they will perhaps return to belief somehow.

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    Kudos for printing this. Most orthodox rabbis and blogs would never admit that this exists or if it does that it deserves a respectful answer. The Jewish community is the least believing of Amrican faith communties. many non orthodox rabbis openly deny belief in the traditional definition of G-d. They fudge it by redefining it.
    Rabbi Dovid Katz this past Shabbos commented that anyone who says that his G-d doesn’t do evil, that the earthquake in Haiti was not from G-d but from tectonic plates, that his G-d is a good G-d, is a polytheist. Everything comes from G-d. Just because we don’t understand how bad things happen to good people doesn’t mean that something is independent of G-d. Those Jews who so believe are not monotheists.
    I suspect that a lot of practicing orthodox Jews do so because they like the life style and are part of the community. Deep faith is not really there for a lot of nominally orthodox Jews, but they would never admit it because of the social stigma, not to say the need to marry off their children. I suspect this is as true in Boro Park as in Boca Ratton,no offense to either place.

  10. leah says:

    I would try to find out in a way that is good and comfortable to him about what it is that he does believe in and relate it back to Hashem. If I knew this person well enough and was close to him I would talk with him about what perhaps may have happened to him to lead him to have a lack of belief in Hashem. I admit this is a hard one – for me at least.
    perhaps I would ask him if he knows why he does not believe in G-d and then go from there- to try to reverse the logic that he holds onto…..

  11. Raymond says:

    I think that Harvey Belovski gave an excellent answer to Charlie. To this day, I continue to struggle with issues of belief. When I look out at the world, it is very, very difficult to see G-d anywhere, or that prayer really works, or that there is life after death and thus ultimate justice.

    And yet, to completely dismiss my Jewish heritage would be foolishly absurd, like trying to re-invent the wheel. I have found that wisdom, and just simple good advice for life’s everyday situations, is found overwhelmingly in Jewish teachings. That does not necessarily prove the authenticity of the Torah, but it does indicate that the Jews are a very wise people who have perhaps learned many valuable lessons from their often tragic past.

    And anyway, since when are beliefs the key element in Judaism? Of course beliefs are important; Yehuda HaLevi thought it worth his while to write the Kuzari, the Rambam would not have taken the time to write down his 13 Principles of Fath, and the Ramchal would not have bothered to write his Way of G-d. Nevertheless, the stress in Judaism has always been on actions; better to be around a person who is fundamentally good with shaky beliefs, than somebody who is so sure about his beliefs, that it turns into dogma, which in turn can easily lead to fanaticism. Fanatics are often not very nice people. A little skepticism never hurt anyone.

  12. Joe Hill says:

    The place of a non-believing Jew? Gehenim.

  13. Izgad says:

    Rabbi Shalom Carmy has an essay “Forgive us Father-in-Law” which deals with a similar conversation he once had with someone.

  14. CR says:

    I would give the answer that the Lubavitcher Rebbe once gave a self-professed non-believer; “The God in which you claim no belief I don’t believe in either.”

  15. Ruth Jacobs says:

    Belief in the Jewish concept of God is something completely intellectually and emotionally stimulating and satisfying for a Jew. In my experience, for Jews, the greatest obstacle to belief in modern western society is fear of relinquishing politically and socially correct opinions and finding oneself “out in the cold” instead of coddled in the general outlook of the herd. Your friend sounds like all the people who use “inability to believe in God” as an excuse which has the advantage of sounding both intellectually honest and serious, while letting them continue to be carried along in the current with all the other fish. Unbelief is a cop out. He has no intention of letting himself be persuaded, and it would be a waste of time to try to do so. His whole intention is for people to accept his excuses for not changing his way of life or opinions and at the same time admire and respect him for doing so……

  16. Leor Jacobi says:

    See Rav Yitzhak Breuer HaKuzari HaHadash

    Belief is encumbent on the congregation, and a Jew who lacks faith should be sure to remain a member of a believing congregation.

  17. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    I would have answered similarly, but added that the benefit of associating with Judaism without G-d vs. with G-d, is more or less parallel to the benefit science can obtain from a cadaver vs. having a relationship with a live human being.

  18. tzippi says:

    I’m not clear: this is someone who, as described in comment 8, goes through the motions and is still part of the community? Not to attach another shticky label, but there is a recognition of “adults at risk.” Is this article a wake-up call for more in-reach?

    And as for comment 9: good point and we have to get it out, as R. Harold Kushner has become the official Jewish opinion on Haiti. Yes, he went through personal hell, but I wonder if he had this philosophy of an impotent G-d (chalilah) beforehand.

  19. Ori says:

    I am writing this as a former Atheist. I became interested in Judaism, as a cultural phenomena, long before I had my nose rubbed in the philosophical problem of car seats (you can google for an explanation) and lost my disbelief.

    Joe Hill and Yeshivisheh Liberal may be right, but in an irrelevant way. Telling somebody that the G-d they do not believe in will condemn them is a meaningless exercise.

    Bob Miller makes a far better point. If the case for Judaism is sufficiently weak, you need to worry about being influenced more than the potential value of influencing. However, even factoring in the evil inclination, is that the case? This isn’t like the case of enjoying marital relations now vs. waiting until you actually married, where the strong natural force biases you in one direction.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Ori, I didn’t say or imply that the case for Judaism is weak. But this person might frequently meet Jews whose understanding of that case is weak.

  21. Ori says:

    Bob Miller, I apologize, I didn’t mean to imply anything about the overall case for Judaism – but about the subjective understanding of it by members of the community. Thanks for correcting me.

  22. DG says:

    Practically, this questions turns on whether you want to put kochos into him or not. If you do, you say whatever you think will start building a relationship and then you go from there. If for whatever reason you will not be putting kochos into him (he’s just visiting, you simply don’t have time, you know you’ll never reach him anyway, etc.) I would try to leave him with a thought to consider that just might percolate in there. It doesn’t really matter what it is but I don’t think the answer offered qualifies. If his belief is relevant to a relative of his (e.g., he’s the father of a baal teshuva), then something friendly like R’ Belovski’s answer would be the way to go.
    Theoretically speaking, Jews should know that Judaism is about G-d and nothing else. Mah H’ E’ Shoel MiEmach Ki Im L’Yirah… that’s what it is ALL about.

  23. Yoel B says:

    First of all, acknowledge his disappointment with the rabbi. Suggest that in part his disappointment might have been because his expectations were so high; that if he had consulted a physician who gave it a shot but failed to diagnose or treat him correctly, he’d probably find another doctor, but wouldn’t give up on going to doctors altogether. And as Dr. Klafter said, find out what it is he doesn’t believe in.
    Also, tell him he’s not going to get off that easily (with “I don’t believe”, I mean.)
    Rav Soloveitchik addressed the question of how does the scapegoat on Yom Kippur do anything to atone for a person who has not done teshuva when the lack of an individual’s teshuva renders his individual korban ineffective. IIRC the Rav’s answer was that the efficacy depends on the connection a person has with Knesset Israel and not the details of other aspects of his relationship with God.

  24. Sholom says:

    What would have been your response had Charlie said he believes in Jesus Christ as the Saviour, but still remains a proud member of the community and of the Jewish people. Would your response have been the same?

    There are certain red lines in Judaism, and belief in G-d and Torah Min Hashamayim are 2 of them. That is what Judaism stands for.

    1) Was the first of the Ten Commandments “keep the Torah because it will provide you with meaningful ideas, practices, and occasions for inspiration that will enhance your existence immeasurably”? Or was it “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt”?

    2) Did G-d choose our forefather Abraham because he found the Torah meaningful or because he “recognized his Creator”?

    3) Did Jews die for centuries Al Kiddush Hashem for an inspirational life that Christianity could not provide?

    4) Do we say twice a day “Hear O Israel, Torah is meaningful”?

    Are we so benign about our Judaism, that we are afraid to stand up for what it really represents?

    Judaism is NOT about Torah. It IS about G-d. You know, the One who created the universe! Torah is only the means to connect to G-d. (If you want to know where you stand in this regard, think for a minute – how many times a day do you mention G-d outside of davening?)

    No one here has suggested that maybe you should have given Charlie “tough love”. Maybe you should have told him that there are minimums in Judaism, and that he has fallen below those minimums.

    Of couse this must be said in an astute manner, and most people could not do so (and, believe me, I don’t envy your position). But there are things that must be made absolutely clear, without being wishy-washy about them. No one would accept someone for American citizenship if he espouses the violent overthrow of the US government. There are minimums.

    Charlie is clearly a kiruv case, but he must be made to know where he stands vis-a-vis Judaism.

    He remains a Jew, but he is not a member of Judaism.

  25. L. Oberstein says:

    The range of answers from “Goto Gehinom” to the brilliant answer of the Lubavitcher Rebbe shows a lot about the responders. If you want to just get rid of all who don’t agree with you, then you have a lot of company, but I am not in your club.

  26. Baruch Levine says:

    C-R: Thank you so much for citing that most profound and brilliant response of the Lubavitch Rebbe zt”l! It offers so much food for thought and a spring-board for further exchanges!
    I agree very much with Dr. Klafter’s post, as a follow-up to the Rebbe’s response. In most cases the declaration if non-belief is a self-excusing cop-out or convenient ‘denial’, without critical analysis or realizing what is involved in the issue. Condemnations (gehinom etc.), or writing them off from Judaism, however, is no less a cop-out and a sign of personal weakness or simply inability to deal with heavy questions. Engaging in non-confrontational discussion and analysis would initially make him at least appreciate the believer’s position asnd open however slight a door.
    By the same token, I would encourage him to continue with good deeds (afilu poshim shebecha me’eleim mitzvot karimon), and even suggest additional involvement with such. These may be “mere” bein adam lachavero, but still mitzvot – and we have a principle that mitzvah goreret mitzvah. No doubt, gradually he can be moved even into acts of bein adam laMakom.
    My response is based not on theory, but from actual experience oftentimes (though not yet always) blessed with success!

  27. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Without commenting about the main question, I will question one of the commenters:

    “And while his doing good deeds will surely be rewarded,”

    R. Hutner in Pachad Yitzchok explicitly denies this. He argues that emunah is what animates (“the sustenance” in his words) of every mitzvah. Without emunah, a mitzvah has no value to the neshamah of its practitioner.

    (Writing at a ski resort 8000 feet up in the High Sierras, I can’t provide the exact place in Pachad Yitzchok. Should anyone want it, I can find it when I get back to LA.)

    For the record, my own experience is similar to what others have written. Many who call themselves atheists are not. I assume that R Hutner meant those who are convinced that there is no Deity. However, it is condescending in the extreme to deny the claims of those who say they investigated, studies, and came to the conclusion that they reject G-d entirely. We should not deny them the integrity of their own choice – even if we have to mourn for the loss of a neshamah tehorah.

  28. mb says:

    “R. Hutner in Pachad Yitzchok explicitly denies this. He argues that emunah is what animates (“the sustenance” in his words) of every mitzvah. Without emunah, a mitzvah has no value to the neshamah of its practitioner.”

    R.Adlerstein, doesn’t that depend on whether faith itself is a mitzvah or a prerequisite?

  29. Barzilai says:

    Regarding the integrity of those whose atheism stems from deep and serious thought, let me tell you how Rabbi Weinberg illustrated his point. Professor Cassuto of Hebrew University published book called Torat Hate’udot, in which he argues against the documentary hypothesis. He illustrates the endlessly complex hidden recurring themes that prove that the entire Chumash was written by one individual. He says, the awesome and unparalleled brilliance evidenced by the infinitely complex narrative might impel one to believe that Torah is min hashamayim “if not for the fact that that is impossible.” How Rabbi Weinberg found a copy of Cassuto’s book is a whole different story.

  30. Fidel says:

    A man who doesn’t believe in G-d is an athiest. A man who tells two rabbis he doesn’t believe in G-d is just looking for attention.

  31. tzippi says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,re your reference to Rav Hutner (26): what about the dictum of adom nifal c’fi pe’ulosav, that a person is formed through his actions, and the value of going through the motions?
    And might such a person fall under the rubric of doing mitzvos shelo lishma, for ulterior motives, so that ultimately he come to doing them lishma, for pure motives?

  32. Baruch Levine says:

    WADR, I have serious problems with the citation from Pachad Yitzchak. In view of the famous ruling of Rambam, end of ch.2 in Hilchot Gerushin, there is an intrinsic connection to G-d and Torah in every Jew, including the one totally overpowered by his yetzer hara, to the point that ‘kofin oto ad sheyomar rotzeh ani’ lends validity to his action. With few exceptions, kavanah is not ‘me’akev’ the fulfilment of a mitzvah. Performance of Mitzvot has an objective value all on its own even though it may have been done in a superficial way (the ‘body’ or chitzoniyut of the mitzvah without its soul or pnimiyut). Thus, for example, the mitzvah of yibum/chalitzah would apply (and have to be performed by) even to a heretic. No doubt but that the performance of any mitzvah does have an effect on the neshamah, even if but in a transcedental way (‘makif’ as opposed to ‘pnimi’), and the rule/principle of mitzvah goreret mitzvah (whether today or ‘tomorrow’ [yesh machar le’achar zman]) applies universally, and ‘lo yidach mimenu nidach’. As I wrote earlier, afilu poshim shebecha (poshim eilu hamordim!) melei’im *mitzvot* karimon!
    Add to this the fact that the halachic authorities ruled that nowadays the ultimate classification of apikores does not apply. It is, as in the famous anecdote – “you are not an apikores but simply an am ha’aretz.”
    That some people have “studied and investigated” etc. and concluded that they “must” reject the principle of emunah in Hashem, may render them sincere and perhaps honest people, but still not apikores (cf. the Ravad re anthropomorphism, or the discussion in Magen Avot and Sefer HaIkarim re Rav Hillel’s “heretical” statement that ein lahem Mashiach leYisrael). There are a number of psychological reasons why these people arrived at their erroneous conclusion – as elaborated on by Rav Saadiah Gaon and Rambam.
    In short, WADR I cannot accept that citation of PY.

    [YA –
    WADR, I have serious problems with the citation from Pachad Yitzchak. In view of the famous ruling of Rambam, end of ch.2 in Hilchot Gerushin, there is an intrinsic connection to G-d and Torah in every Jew, including the one totally overpowered by his yetzer hara, to the point that ‘kofin oto ad sheyomar rotzeh ani’ lends validity to his action. With few exceptions, kavanah is not ‘me’akev’ the fulfilment of a mitzvah.
    One of those exceptions is misasek, which is exactly what R Hutner (Rosh Hashanah 8:4) calls the performance of a mitzvah by a kofer.

    Thus, for example, the mitzvah of yibum/chalitzah would apply (and have to be performed by) even to a heretic
    This is actually a machlokes that goes back to the Gaonim. Le-halachah, you are correct, but I don’t see the relevance. One who converts to another faith may also perform chalitzah, since halachically he remains Jewish, but I doubt whether you would see a Jewish pope receiving reward for the performance of the mitzvah.

    Add to this the fact that the halachic authorities ruled that nowadays the ultimate classification of apikores does not apply. It is, as in the famous anecdote – “you are not an apikores but simply an am ha’aretz.”

    This is a common misconception. I am not aware of those who pasken that there is no apikores nowadays. The Chazon Ish explicitly paskens that there is. (Yoreh Deah 2:16 s.v. venireh de-ein); IIRC, the Chofetz Chaim also speaks of the special category of apikores as one about whom you are permitted to speak lashon hora.]

  33. Ori says:

    Fidel: A man who doesn’t believe in G-d is an athiest. A man who tells two rabbis he doesn’t believe in G-d is just looking for attention.

    Ori: Maybe. Or maybe he wants to be convinced that he is wrong, and that G-d is real.

  34. David says:

    Interesting situation. Quite a few of the answers posted here (e.g., “Despite what this man says, he’s a ma’amin, not a min. He’s just having trouble admitting it to himself;” “The place of a non-believing Jew? Gehenim;” “A man who tells two rabbis he doesn’t believe in G-d is just looking for attention.”) are wonderful examples of what helps to destroy other people’s belief in Judaism and push them away from Torah. It certainly helped in my case.

  35. One Christian's perspective says:

    “Judaism is NOT about Torah. It IS about G-d. You know, the One who created the universe! Torah is only the means to connect to G-d. (If you want to know where you stand in this regard, think for a minute – how many times a day do you mention G-d outside of davening?)”

    Charlie is clearly a kiruv case, but he must be made to know where he stands vis-a-vis Judaism.

    He remains a Jew, but he is not a member of Judaism.

    Comment by Sholom

    Wow Sholom, some of the things you have said I, as a Christian, agree with, with all my heart. Of course, there are things about which we do not agree. As a gentile, like those before Isaac and Jacob, I agree that it is really all about God, the God who reveals Himself to our heart and changes our life’s course. The Ten Commandments speak to my heart and reveal who God is and who I am before Him. They are His standard for living and worship and reveal His character of justice from which I fall very short. You see my greatest sin is arrogance and self-righteousness and fear and doubt. The rest of Scripture from the stories of the ancients and their struggles with faith to the wonderful Psalms, Proverbs and the Prophets, I see the wonder and depth and width of God’s love and grace and mercy. His patience knows no human bounds. His wisdom is a resource for those who seek His face through prayer and His Word – the very Word preserved by Jewish men. When He says “Trust me and lean not on your own understanding”, and by His Spirit He allows me to do this through His power, it is , as a dear friend once said, “unwordly”. Forgive me for saying this but it is not about a religion.

    Years ago, God brought me to a place in my life where I recognized clearly that He wanted me to enter a program, offered at my church, called “Celebrate Recovery” – a God centered program for addicts.
    Does that shock you ? A former Pastor, one Sunday, said why do we not hear about idolatry in this age, people ask. He said, it is there, it is just called another name – addiction. As humans we are addicts to many things but for me it was “coveting someone’s approval”. The Program called it co-dependence but before the Program,God revealed it to my heart that it was my problem. I had never heard of the term before. The scars of emotional child abuse left me empty and in need of approval from others. I learned that we are all “broken” and in need of God’s love and grace. I willingly entered the Program fully trusting in God’s leading me and expected His grace and healing but I had no idea how He would do it; He did more than I could ever imagine and I praise His Name for that. However, the first night, when I walked through the church doors, my thoughts were “Who will see me and what will they think of me and will they wonder what is wrong with her, what addiction does she have”? You would think in a church – a club for sinners – we would be understanding and forgiving. Imagine that ! I experienced fear – fear of being rejected, again – ; it lasted but a moment and I remembered God who brought me there and said “Let it be their problem, I am walking into this with my eyes wide open and trusting in You because You have never abandoned me or deserted me, You are my God”.

    I don’t know what “kiruv” means or what its like to be an Orthodox Jew. My heart goes out to Charlie because before God gave me the gift of faith and openned my eyes to His Glory, I stood in Charlie’s shoes. It was very easy to say to a group of confessing ‘believers’, I believe. I know because I did that and I thought I was being honest. Meeting the Living God – the Holy One of Israel- changes everything and your life will never be the same. May it be so for Charlie….not so that you can feel untainted in his presence and he comfortable in yours, but that he may experience the “Light of the World” and that it will shine on you and you will see God’s grace. Nothing is impossible with God.

  36. Yair Danielsohn says:

    Re. Comments 26 and 27 – The Ramban in the preface to his commentary on Iyov states exactly what Rabbi Adlerstein quotes in the name of Rav Hutner, namely, that the mitzvos of a non-believer are not mitzvos at all and he recieves no reward.

    At the same time, I believe that Ramban refers only to actual sechar.For we know that “ayn Hakadosh Baruch Hu mekapeach sechar kol beriah”, which basically means that no act of godness goes unrewarded. It is clear that the non-believer has no place in the eternal World, but he probably will recieve something in return in this world,not because he has done a mitzvah per se, but because he has benefited others and will get back what he invested.

    I write this without any connection to the actual issue raised in the posting; I beieve that commenters 2, 4 and others have the proper approach in that one.

  37. Sholom says:

    “what about the dictum of adom nifal c’fi pe’ulosav”

    That dictum doesn’t apply to matters of the heart. Saying Birchas Hamozon while cleaning the crumbs off the table isn’t going to increase our feeling of gratitude to Hashem, no matter how many times we do it. Thinking about the words, even though we don’t feel them right now, will.

  38. Yeshivishe Liberal says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    I am not quite sure what Rav Hutner had in mind, but I think what I wrote was in line with the accepted (again, without trying to over-generalize with the specific disagreements among the Rishonim, et al.) view of reward and punishment and the afterlife.

    It could be that he meant that Emunah is a multiplier with regards to Mitzvah observance. Of course, if it’s absolute zero (which I think is extremely rare as you noted), then you’d be right with regard to Rav Hutner’s interpretation.

  39. ast613 says:

    “what about the dictum of adom nifal c’fi pe’ulosav”

    R’ Schwab in his sefer on Chumash (Vzos Habrachah) writes that non jews essentially blew it when they refused the Torah (see there for a full explanation). Yes, the 7 Noahdite laws were always going to be there. But they lost their ability to connect with Hashem through those mitzvos. Hashem wanted them to have their very own Kabbalas Hatorah. Just like we did. They rejected it (Hashem went to Eisav, Yishmael etc etc). Those mitzvas no longer “change” them like when we perform Mitzvos. We did accept the Torah, had our own Kabbalas Hatorah. Ergo, when we perform mitzvos it could change us.

  40. Shades of Gray says:

    R Elchanon Wasserman writes at the end of his letter to R. Schwab that an *actual* kofer does not fulfill mitzvos, because of lack of valid intent; he is only “mis’aseik”, comparable to someone who eats matzah not even knowing that the food he is eating is matzos shel mitzvah, or that the day is Pesach, since according to his view, there are no mitzvos.

    Regarding the question of R. Belovski, there might be differences based on the degree of certainty of expressed views, the sincerity of the individual, and on publicity and discretion involved. For example, R. Dovid Sapirman writes(quoted in Mishpacha, “Shortchanging Our Children”):

    “The average bochur in his late teens, for instance, says he believes, “but truthfully he neither believes nor disbelieves. He is simply moving along the conveyor belt that leads him from cradle to kollel.” I would respond to any expressed disbelief of such people as Rabbis Becher and Gordon write in the Jewish Observer(“Adults at Risk”):

    “… a person suffering from a spiritual existential crisis is in tremendous pain. They need to feel validated and encouraged to ask whatever questions are causing them confusion. Our prime directive is to listen to and accept without prejudice or criticism (or even reaction) any question at all on any topic.”

    The other extreme may be, for example, an “Orthoprax” scholar who publishes his views, and is therefore more certain of them, as well as being damaging to the community he wishes to be considered a part of.

    Being or not being an apikores, however, is separate from the question of a communal response to Orthopraxy; Heshy Zelcer writes in Hakirah magazine(“Modern Scholarship and Yirat Shamayim”) about the need for, in his opinion, a communal response to aspects of heresy. He quotes Rav Kook in Orot ha-Kodesh that “the greatest deficiency in the quality of yirat shamayim …is that fear of thought replaces fear of sin, and because a human being begins to be afraid of thinking, he goes and drowns in the morass of ignorance, which robs him of the light of soul, weakens his vigor, and casts a pall over his spirit.”

  41. Raymond says:

    There is an old expression that tells us that there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. Religious people have run with this, convinced it means that when push comes to shove, that people really do believe in G-d, even when claiming otherwise.

    However, it is just as easy for the atheist to take this same expression concerning foxholes, and be just as convinced that the expression demonstrates how religion is the opium of the masses.

    Some religious people, including some who have made comments in this forum, are convinced that atheism is the result of ignorance, or the attempt to run away from what G-d demands of us. However, atheists are just as convinced that religious people are using religion as a crutch, using the illusions promised to us by the various religions, to hide the painful realities of evil people often getting away with their crimes, and death ultimately falling over each and every one of us.

    I am not here trying to take sides in the Abraham Avinu vs Richard Dawkins debate. What I AM trying to say, is that our pursuit of the truth of this issue, is not enhanced at all by belittling one’s opponents. On the contrary, it makes me wonder why one has to resort to such ad hominem attacks.

  42. Rudy Wagner says:

    The readers may be interested to know some relevant background info, which could be the source of Rav Hutner (and the Ramban too):

    The Shulchan Aruch clearly paskins that “mitzvos zrichos kavana”.

    The Mishna Brura explains the meaning: for a mitzvah (any mitzvah) to be called so, the action performed has to be accompanied by the knowledge / recognition that it is a tzizvui Hashem, i.e., “it is Hashem Who commanded the action”. Without this knowledge the person in question is not yoitze i.e., he/she has not performed a mitzvah at all! In other words doing just a good deed is not (yet) performing a mitzvah. And somebody who does not believe in G-d is clearly not able to perform mitzvos…

    I think that for a Rabbi to hint to such a person that being part of the club and doing good deeds is good enough, is not honest. I would at least say that total lack of belief is clearly very problematic.

    However I would add that I find quite hard to believe that someone committed to some kind of Orthodox lifestile doesn’t believe at all… Since he saw fitting to ask such a bold question at that venue, could it be so bad do counter-ask him to explain there and then what he meant when he said that he doesn’t believe in G-d? I think his answer will be much easier to deal with…

  43. tzippi says:

    To 36: AFAIK this article is referring to a Jew.
    To 39: So what’s the l’maaseh (what happens on a practical level)? This guy should be encouraged to leave the fold and break up his family? Is there any value in continuing to go through the motions for the sake of his kids if he can honestly say he’s not souring the atmosphere at home?

  44. Raymond says:

    Tzippi, are you sure it was my comments you were responding to? Because I am not clear how you made your conclusions based on what I wrote in comment #39 above. My only point there, is that people who doubt the existence of G-d, should be taken seriously rather than their doubts dismissed simply by questioning their motives. Put another way, just because Richard Dawkins (or Bertrand Russell, or some other well-known heretic) is obnoxious and arrogant about his anti-Torah atheism, does not necessarily invalidate the arguments he makes to support his positions.

    But to address what I understand you to be saying, if a head of a religious Jewish household has doubts about G-d’s existence, that does not necessarily mean that he should influence his family to have those same doubts. If I were ever lucky enough to be a husband and father myself, there is no question, for example, that I would send my children to Orthodox Jewish schools for their education, regardless of what personal doubts that I had about it. As I said earlier, just because a person has doubts about G-d’s existence, is no reason to then throw away thousands of years of Jewish wisdom. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it would be an extremely foolish thing to do. Furthermore, since one should know what it is that one is doubting before doubting it, even a Jewish heretic is obligated to study our traditions, if for no other reason than that one should truly know what it is that one is rejecting.

  45. tzippi says:

    I think there was an extra comment inserted. I better refer to names. Because 36 seems to be the new 37 (ast613); 39 is now 40 (Rudy Wagner).

  46. Ori says:

    To everybody, comments are displayed on this site in the order they were received, but only after the are approved. Therefore, the comment number is a bad marker for responses.

    It is best to either quote the part to which you are responding, or cite the commentator’s name and the comment’s time (Raymond — January 28, 2010 @ 11:35 pm, for example).

  47. Gershon says:

    I would have asked him if he still wants to pursue that quest. If so, I would then say that at a wedding with loud music blaring nothing can be worked through. Can we set up a scheduled time when we can talk. This might take weeks or months to finish the conversation. But first, we’re at a wedding. Let’s dance!

  48. Charlie says:

    I am “Charlie”. I would like to say how grateful I am to Rabbi Belovski. He has set down an accurate report of our conversation. I was comforted by his warm and sensitive response. I am also grateful to those who have made constructive comments.
    I would like to answer some questions as to what I understand to be my beliefs. Firstly though, a little about myself. I was born into a very Jewish but lax family. My parents did not keep a kosher home. They did not talk about their beliefs. They died when I was young and I am not sure if they have faced the issue of the existence of G-d. However they loved being Jewish and as a family we enjoyed the annual rituals of Pesach and Rosh Hashanah. My father taught me that to be a good Jew I must obey three rules:- (i) To lead an ethical life,(ii) Not to marry out and (iii) to fast on Yom Kippur. I have faithfully tried to do the first and have succeeded with the second and third.
    There is not space to comment on all the comments but one or two need a reply.
    1) There seem to be many doubts whether I have beliefs. Why make it so complicated? I come from a scientific background and have learnt not to believe anything without verifiable and reproducible evidence. I desperately would like to believe in G-d mostly because like most believers I would like a spiritual father to watch over me as well as my family and also when I die to welcome me into an after life.
    2) To me it seems impossible to believe in anything just because I want to. I would not say that there is nothing out there; after all there must be some explanation for our and indeed the whole universe’s existence. I just don’t know what it is and have no reason to believe that any religion has any credible answer to me. It goes without saying that I have enormous respect and a certain amount of envy for those people including the writers of many of the comments who are able to believe even though I cannot agree with them. There is no doubt about this in my mind; it is wishful thinking by others to say that I am really a believer who is struggling to understand. I dislike militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins.
    3) In spite of my atheism I love being Jewish and feel very lucky to have been born a Jew. I remain a member of an orthodox synagogue and keep a few rituals like Friday evening prayers, no bread on Pesach and fasting on Yom Kippur. This is partly because I love the traditions which have lasted so long and also I value the Jewish family atmosphere it brings.

  49. YM says:

    I would ask him if he wishes that he believed in G-d? If his answer is yes, keep encouraging him to read books and ask questions. The fact that he keeps wanting to discuss the topic is a positive sign.

  50. mb says:

    Thanks for the explanation. I presume you are in England. I would suggest, if you haven’t already, read everything you can by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. You may not come to believe, but you will certainly come to understand Judaism better. I would start with Radical Then Radical Now, his own personal struggle.

  51. L.Oberstein says:

    “I love being Jewish and feel very lucky to have been born a Jew. I remain a member of an orthodox synagogue and keep a few rituals like Friday evening prayers, no bread on Pesach and fasting on Yom Kippur. This is partly because I love the traditions which have lasted so long and also I value the Jewish family atmosphere it brings.” I agree with your description of why you and many other Jews remain Jewish. The problem with it is that it is very hard to pass this on to future generations. Over centuries,only those who actually believed in something higher and observed the lawss out of belief withstood the test of time.
    When I was about 12, a singer performed in our shul and my mother asked me why I didn’t cry when he sang “My Yiddishe Mama”. I told her that we never lived in a tenament on the Lower East Side,etc. In other words I could not identify with the nostalgia of an earlier generation.
    There has to be more there than nostgaligia and good feelings. Sometimes one has to dispense with disbelief and accept the belief even with doubts if Jewish Survival is a priority. Otherwise, it is nostalgia.

  52. Debby says:


    Thank you for writing. I was getting a bit annoyed with people psychoanalyzing someone they knew nothing about. You can’t force yourself to believe. I know; I tried. What you can do is practice Judaism. And meanwhile, I highly recommend reading Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen’s books “Permission to Believe” and “Permission to Receive” and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s “Living Up to the Truth” (available on line at the website). Neither claims to prove the existence of God or the truth of the Torah. Both show that it’s rational to believe, and that atheism is, in fact, irrational. Just as we don’t have to have 100% certainty about other areas in life in order to take action, we don’t have to have 100% certainty about the existence of God to keep Shabbos, for instance.

  53. Sally says:

    Dear Charlie,

    The best of the answers given to you on this thread in my opinion, for the little the opinion of an apikoros and a kofer is worth, is that of the Late Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l. Perhaps the conception of G-d which you reject is one which should be rejected, and perhaps what you describe as your atheism expresses an implicit sense that the reason why there is anything at all rather than nothing, the infinitely transcendent “whatness” of the Creator of all from nothing, transcends our finite powers of comprehension, and that is as should be.

    By sheer coincidence, surfing the web earlier today I happened upon an article by a Dr Gellman about haRav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s Orot ha-Emunah.

    Describing the teaching of ha-Rav Kook, Gellman writes:
    ‘… emunah can live even where there is no conscious awareness of one’s self divinity and even when one denies the Divine: “Sometimes you will find a kofer with an inner, shining strong emunah, flowing from the source of transcendent holiness, stronger than a thousand believers, who are “small of emunah.” How is this possible? Because “the inner spiritual basis of the holiness of emunah transcends all language.” A kofer can manifest the Divine power of his being even while denying faith with his mouth, and a believer can be lying, shaking with fright, all the while proclaiming his faith through chattering teeth.

    ‘Kefrah can itself even emanate from holiness. This can happen for example, when linguistic affirmations are rejected precisely because they are sensed to be inadequate, as but a weak shadow of the power of being. Thus, “there is denial (kefrah) that is like consent, and consent that is like denial.” Inadequate articulations of Judaism may force their own rejection, out of the depths of holiness. If we are to return the kofer to the practice of Torah, our elucidations of Torah contents must be adequate to the power of his being.’

    This spoke very powerfully to me at a time when I am looking for a way home in a sense, “home” being the world of Judaism. In an important sense you are home already. The orthopraxis is important. Perhaps part of the answer to your dilemma is to see that to grasp the “whatness” of G-d is necessarily reserved to G-d alone, so that we are bound to be agnostics in a very real sense — not in the sense that we necessarily entertain the possibility that the existence of anything at all rather than there being simply nothing at all (can the universe be a free lunch? How does an order of nature in which scientific explanation os possible come to be?)– but that a grasp of *what* the reason why there is anything at all rather than nothing is like in itself is infinitely beyond our ability to know. Should this turn out to be what you describe as your atheism, you are (in ha-Rav Kook’s terms) rejecting linguistic affirmations precisely because you sense them to be inadequate, and — perhaps unbeknown to you — are moved by a powerful sense of the all-transcending.

    With love,


  54. L. Oberstein says:

    “an apikoros and a kofer “. Sally, if you read this kind of stuff e.g. Rav Kook , you can’t be what you call yourself. Let’s not let the fanatics define us, why can’t we just be “normal”.

  55. Sally says:

    “Normal” is a problematic word. Interpreted as the average (in the sense of the arithmetic mean), it is feasible that the “normal” family consists of a mother, a father and 2.4 children; but it can be guaranteed that no single family has 2.4 children. Each family has elements of uniqueness, and each individual has elements of uniqueness.

    I’m reminded of Rashi on the first verse of Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 for those on the list who do not know the technical terms). Rashi asks why G-d, having counted the children of Israel before (towards the end of the Sepher Bereshit, the book of Genesis), when they were alive, G-d counted them once again. Rashi answers that this is because they are like the stars: numerous though they are, G-d knows each of them by their name. The name expressing the essence, in a sense, what this suggests is that our tradition teaches that G-d (in and through the Divine self-knowledge, by the way, which is no other than G-d and not something separate), G-d must be said to know each of us as a unique individual far more intimately han any of us knows himself or herself. Each of us is recognised as unique and not as an amorphous part of some conglomerate yielding “the normal”.

    My name is Sally Gross, and a web-search for biographical material will quite easily show that whatever I am, I don’t fit the homogenised “normal”. It will also explain my admittedly somewhat ironic (but only somewhat) self-description.

    A pedantic point: empirically speaking, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that someone knows his or her way around Rabbinical literature that he or she is not an apikoros or a kofer by any reasonable standards. In saying this, I do not intend to denigrate myself. My posting of 9 February was not meant to focus on myself but on Charles.

    With regard to myself, the most important point was that I have begun a slow journey home (hopefully gentle and steady rather than an attempt to emulate the “Big Bang”), and that the argument made by HaRav Kook zt”l suggests that even someone like me is not beyond bounds. By implication, this is all the more true of Charlie, whose way of life is already somewhere in home teritory. It is an implicit kal vachomer argument.

    This thread is about the issue raised by Rav Belovski’s report about Charlie and, by extension, by Charlie’s personal posting on this thread. I am not ashamed of my background and history and have given you enough information to assuage your curiosity about it away from this thread. That said, please can we devote this thread to Charlie and to the issue he raised, rather than letting this discussion go off-topic?

    Shavua Tov,


  56. Sally says:

    Having looked at the last paragraph of my earlier comment again, I note that the tone has a sharpness I did not intend. We of all people know something about the power of the written word and about the need to take care to ensure that what we write or say does not imply or suggest things we do not intend. Specifically, my comment about assuaging curiosity offline was way out of order. I must apologise to L. Oberstein for what I now feel to have been an ungracious response to his gracious, gentle and kind comment.

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