How important is belief in God? Can one be a “good Jew” without believing in God? These questions–articulated in this way–are relatively modern ones. However, while normative Judaism has always been God-centered, some thinkers–both ancient and modern–have conceptualized Judaism in ways that make beliefs about God less central.
From the Ancient World to Modernity
The common quip that “there were no atheists in antiquity” is more or less true. The existence of God (or gods) was taken for granted in the ancient and medieval world. Even the medieval philosophers–Jewish, Christian, and Muslim–who tried to prove God’s existence were concerned more with displaying the rationality of religion than demonstrating the existence of a deity.
Atheism and agnosticism only emerged as real options in the modern era, as consequences of secularization, the separation of church and state, and above all, the reliance on science for explanations of natural phenomena.
However, grouping all pre-modern forms of Judaism together doesn’t do justice to the issue at hand. One might argue that belief in God was less central to Jews of the rabbinic era (the few centuries following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE) than it was to Jews in the Middle Ages, not because God was less important, but because belief itself was. Though Jews tended to believe in certain shared concepts–e.g. one God who led them out of Egypt, the eventual messianic redemption–official beliefs or dogmas were not formulated until the Middle Ages.
Rabbinic Judaism demanded action–the fulfillment of the commandments–not the assertion of specific beliefs. Perhaps the most striking example of this position is a commentary on the verse in Jeremiah, which states: “[They] have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah.” To which the Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century midrash, glosses: “If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.”
Rabbinic Judaism, as well as biblical Judaism, has a concept of belief, but not–many would argue– in the sense of affirming propositions, e.g. asserting that God exists. Scholar Menachem Kellner, for one, points out that the biblical word emunah, “belief” or “faith” connotes trust, belief in, as opposed to the affirmation of propositions. Of course, one might argue that trusting in something implies that that something exists, but the distinction between belief in and belief that helps in understanding the priorities and emphases of the rabbinic worldview.
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