There’s a famous joke about two Jews, Goldberg and Schwartz, who are walking and stopped by someone who asks where they’re going. They casually tell the person that they’re on their way to synagogue.
The person responds, “Goldberg, I know why you go to synagogue. You believe in God, and you’re an observant Jew. But Schwartz, you don’t believe in God, why are you going?”
Schwartz responds, “Goldberg goes to synagogue to talk to God, and I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”
One of the things that I love about this joke is that it highlights an essential aspect of Jewish identity: it is not dependent on faith in God. Many Jews believe in God. The Torah, Jewish prayers and theology revolve around a relationship with the Divine. But a person belonging to the Jewish community, identifying as Jewish or attending synagogue does not depend on that individual’s understanding or belief in God.
As Larry King, the famous CNN anchor and journalist, said, “I’m a classic agnostic but I’m a *Jewish* agnostic.”
Thankfully, these problems of belief and identity aren’t new for the Jewish people. Over 1,500 years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud read a verse in Deuteronomy — “You should walk after God” (Deuteronomy 13:5) — and had a problem with it.
The Rabbis wanted to know how these words could be possible, for another verse in Deuteronomy reads, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God,” (Deuteronomy 4:24).
How can a human being walk after God if God is a consuming fire?
The rabbis of the Talmud conclude that what the verse actually means is to walk in the ways of God, mimicking the attributes of the Holy One: visiting the sick, clothing the naked, consoling mourners and burying the dead.
These four examples of the ethical and moral behavior that we should embody in this world are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. To walk after God means to care for our fellow human beings. Even if one felt doubt about a Divine Presence in the universe, there was still no doubt about how to treat each other.
There is a Hasidic story that was written down by the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, which builds off this Talmudic discussion and takes it a step further.
The Master teaches his students that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.
One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”
The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, they are not doing so because of some religious teaching. They do not believe that God commanded them to perform this act. In fact, they do not believe in God at all, so their acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness they can bestow upon others simply because they feel it to be right.”
“This means,” the Master continued, “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should *never* say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”
Now, the point of the story is not that you should be an atheist. The point of the story is that it’s okay if you’re an atheist or an agnostic or someone of deep faith, as long as you show up for people in your community and don’t ignore the needs of others in this world. That’s part of the reason why Larry King might claim to be an agnostic, but is still proud to be a Jewish agnostic.
Each faith is unique, but I appreciate that the Jewish tradition creates space for all Jews, regardless of belief. At the end of the day, what one believes matters less than how we treat each other. That principle is why when asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel — a great 1st century BCE sage — said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Now go and study.”
Rabbi Daniel Schaefer is the interim director of Jewish Life at Campus Ministry.