Judaism, Please. Hold the Deity

By Jesse Tisch

May 2007


Review of God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community by Judith Seid (Citadel Press, 2001).

In a mainstream Jewish synagogue, God is like the pews–pretty much indispensable. Yet given the number of secular and agnostic Jews in America, it’s worth pondering the question: Can you take the theism out of Judaism?

That’s the idea behind God-Optional Judaism, by Judith Seid. Seid is a lively writer and, it’s clear from her first 10 pages, a total mensch. She’s politely irreverent. Her book isn’t for everyone. Some will find it an act of profound chutzpah. On the other hand, you’d have to be a curmudgeon not to like a book that mixes recipes for hamantashen with tips for decorating your backyard sukkah.

God-Optional Judaism is a warm, engaging introduction to the most liberal stream of Judaism: Secular Humanistic Judaism. Like most Secular Humanists, Seid takes disbelief seriously. Secular Humanists recoil from “lavish devotion” to God. “Some of us are just constitutionally unable to say what we don’t believe,” Seid explains. Instead, they focus on family, social justice, and Jewish peoplehood. They’re on the side of the angels, without believing in them.

If that sounds new, it isn’t. Seid is part of a long tradition of non-traditional Judaism. In the 20th century, Jews have been Jewish through politics, Yiddish culture, and the idea that humans, not a deity, have a say in the way the universe is run. As it happens, Seid is not so much anti-tradition as against the very idea of tradition. “Who are the real Jews?” she asks at one point–her answer being that we all are, since there are multiple ways of being Jewish, all equally valid. Once that’s out of the way, we’re free to create our own Judaism, based on our own beliefs, principles, and pantry ingredients. (Seriously: for the recipes alone, this book is worth the jacket price.)

To that end, Seid’s book is crammed with advice for crafting your own self-tailored Judaism. Seid is pro-experimentation: She defends your right to cherry-pick from various traditions, including Eastern religions. (If you want to dabble in mysticism, Seid won’t judge–though she thinks “Jewish Buddhist” is somewhat oxymoronic.) As for Jewish rituals, Seid lists plenty of possibilities beyond mainstream Judaism, from a secular shabbos (Sabbath) to marriage ceremonies to saying Kaddish (prayer said by mourners). If you’re curious about God-optional funerals, Seid has you covered.

If all that makes the book sound chirpy, it occasionally is. But Seid is serious. And her book’s message–that no one should have a monopoly on Judaism–is a serious one. Seid makes an elegant case for pluralism, based on the idea that Judaism has always tolerated (if not always embraced) multiple traditions. A quick walk through history proves her point: From the 8th century Karaites (“strongly anti-clerical”) to various mystical movements in the Middle Ages, to the 19th century Haskalah, or “Jewish Enlightenment,” Seid compiles a nice list of challenges to rabbinical authority.

Seid’s own challenge is mostly polite, though occasionally pointed: Seid thinks the notion of “real Judaism” has been foisted on American Jews by the Orthodox, who claim that mantle for themselves. Agree or disagree, the idea of “authenticity” is worth engaging. In America, it informs every discussion about Israel (“real” Jews support Israel), synagogue membership (“real” Jews go to shul), and intermarriage (“real” Jews refrain). The cult of authenticity has profoundly shaped American Judaism, Seid points out. On one hand, it explains why so many agnostic Jews join religious synagogues: they want the “real” Judaism of their ancestors (even if their ancestors were atheists). On the other hand, it leads many American Jews to reject Judaism altogether, since they find “real” Judaism, with its manifold laws and proscriptions, incompatible with modern life.

The way out of this tangle, Seid realizes, is to broaden the definition of what’s authentically Jewish. Seid truly gets it. What she doesn’t do is lecture, kvetch, or admonish. God-Optional Judaism will find a sympathetic audience with Jews who judge Judaism too rigid and theistic, too patriarchal or paternalistic. It will appeal to the progressive side of religious Jews, and to the spiritual side of progressive Jews. And for those who find the whole idea of God-optional Judaism wrong and offensive, there are some great Jewish recipes to fall back on.



About Jesse Tisch

Jesse Tisch is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Contemplate: the International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.