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Ask the Rabbi: Is there any view about how we should treat Jews who have lost their faith?

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain responds to the question: I find myself in a strange position as I am almost entirely agnostic, but I still appreciate what Judaism has done for me, and don’t want to lose all my ties to it. An added layer of complication was added when I started my PhD and someone made a Jewish joke aimed at me – under the flag of banter – when I myself am not sure what I am. Is there any view about how we should treat Jews who have lost their faith?

I imagine that many Jews will identify with both the points you raise. It often happens that even if you do not consider yourself Jewish, others do… and so whatever your self-perception, they almost force you into a box labelled ‘Jewish’ whether you wish it or not. I suspect there must be a saying somewhere to the effect of (and if not, then I hereby invent it): More than Jews keep themselves Jewish, non-Jews keep Jews Jewish. Moreover, whereas you have theological doubts about Jewish identity, they define being Jewish differently and do not care whether you are a believing or disbelieving Jew – either way, you are a Jew. This may not be a negative judgement on their part, but just the way you see you.

As for your own view: belief is only part of being Jewish, and, I would hold, not even an essential part. Many Jews are not sure about God, but still strongly identify as Jewish – and value it – because of Jewish culture, or roots, or history, or ethics. There is also the feel of being part of a tribe where everyone counts. They may not believe in the Holy One or a Commander, but do feel that Jewish life has been sanctified by time and experience, and that they feel impelled to keep it up. One of my favourite sayings is: to be a good Jew, you don’t have to believe in God, you just have to do what God says i.e Judaism is not defined just by beliefs (though for some Jews, that is crucial) but also through moral actions and a lifestyle of integrity.

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