High holidays for Jewish atheists | The Washington Post

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Since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar, why would an atheist Jew like me note these high holidays? And I’m by no means unique. There are atheist Jews in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox congregations. And the openly nontheistic Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates all the Jewish holidays.


Since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar, why would an atheist Jew like me note these high holidays? And I’m by no means unique. There are atheist Jews in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox congregations. And the openly nontheistic Society for Humanistic Judaism celebrates all the Jewish holidays.

Regardless of belief, there is a one-word reason why most Jews remember Jewish holidays—God. Without that concept, there would be no Jews. So I’m happy to credit God for the holidays, even if he/she/it doesn’t exist. I commemorate this time of year partly due to my Jewish tradition, but also because I want to help change that tradition into a more godless one.

There are two religious reasons for celebrating the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. One is bad, and the other is worse. Here’s the bad: Rosh Hashanah commemorates the scientifically indefensible anniversary of the creation of the world, 5,774 years ago. And here’s worse: It’s also the anniversary of Abraham agreeing to kill his son Isaac, as proof of his faith and obedience to God. This Torah portion in Genesis 22 is read every Rosh Hashanah.

That biblical passage also refers to Isaac as Abraham’s only son, which means his first-born son Ishmael doesn’t count. Why? Because Isaac’s mother, Sarah, was Jewish and Ishmael’s mother was merely Sarah’s gentile servent whom Sarah lent to Abraham when she thought she was barren. On the other hand, in Islamic tradition it is Ishmael and not Isaac who was to be sacrificed by Abraham. And Muhammad is believed to be a direct descendent of Ishmael.

Written By: Herb Silverman
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

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  1. “Muhammad is believed to be a direct descendent of Ishmael”

    Is this one of those cases like: “everyone in Europe is believed to be a descendant of Charlemagne”?

    If you go back far enough the number of ancestors exceeds the total number of humans who have ever lived and therefore everyone born in an area is almost certain to be distantly related to any person from history from that same area who had children.

    Also I’ve always thought “direct descendant” meaning “through the male line” to be a ridiculously sexist distinction. As if daughters aren’t equally capable of conferring “direct descent” just because their names change when they marry (which is another piece of sexist “property marking” left over from antiquity).

    As for Mohammed, he is certainly a nasty enough character for me to believe he was a descendant of Abraham

  2. The natural, social, calendar that emerges from the dictates of the seasons is what traditional holidays are about.

    Notice that the far greater proportion of land, and therefore far more heavily populated, Northern Hemisphere’s seasons are aligned to traditional holidays.

    The differences south of the Equator highlight that religions simply hijacked events that were happening anyway.

    • In reply to #4 by InYourFaceNewYorker:

      I don’t get the second joke.

      The shammas is concerned that this man may be trying to pray without paying the entrance fee to the shul. He sees his role as akin to a movie theater attendant whose job it is to make sure nobody sees the film for free. He’s a jobsworth who doesn’t understand the meaning of prayer and is concerned only with ticket sales.

    • In reply to #5 by dgriebenow:

      I have a hard time understanding the term “Jewish atheist”. I never hear of Christian atheists, Hindu atheists, etc.

      I dunno, I still do stuff at Christmas and Easter. (Would that make me a pagan Christian atheist?)

      Jewish people are also considered an ethnic group, so you can be ethnically Jewish, but not religiously Jewish.

    • In reply to #5 by dgriebenow:

      I have a hard time understanding the term “Jewish atheist”. I never hear of Christian atheists, Hindu atheists, etc.

      I’m trying to figure out “Humanistic Judaism”. What is a non-religious Jew? Why call yourself Jewish if you’re not practicing the faith? Why does Firefox want to capitalize “Jewish”? We twist the world into such a tight knot of convoluted meanings it’s amazing.

      • In reply to #11 by A3Kr0n:

        I’ve found that trying to explain Jews to most people is largely pointless. Perhaps it would be better if we simply celebrated them? After all they have been subjected to the most virulent form of the God virus for so long, it seems almost inevitable that they develop at least some sort of immunity?

      • In reply to #11 by A3Kr0n:

        I’m trying to figure out “Humanistic Judaism”. What is a non-religious Jew? Why call yourself Jewish if you’re not practicing the faith? Why does Firefox want to capitalize “Jewish”? We twist the world into such a tight knot of convoluted meanings it’s amazing.

        If you look at the history of religion from the standpoint of anthropology a major role that religion plays is to define social norms and to define in groups vs. out groups. In his book The Evolution of God Wright documents for example how commerce played a major role in the spread of early Christianity. Even some of the earliest Christians intertwined their religion and their business, Christians implicitly had more trust and willingness to do business with other Christians.

        Religion isn’t just about nonsensical supernatural beliefs. Its a way to give people a feeling of community and of history going back centuries. I admire Judaism for the fact that so many Jews are still able to hang on to those traditions even after they disregard the supernatural baggage.

        I’ve had several close friends who were Jewish and they all still took part in rituals in one way or another and none of them believed in God. I think its actually a good lesson to atheists that you don’t have to hate everything associated with a religion just because you jettison the nonsensical baggage. The stories, family traditions, and food for example can still be of value and you don’t have to trash them just because you no longer believe the supernatural mumbo jumbo.

  3. InyourfaceNY- It’s just like all religions, you’ve got to pay to pray. As George Carlin pointed out, God is not very good with money and is always broke.

    BTW, it grieves me to have lived so much of my adult life (nearly 30 years) in South Carolina unaware of Prof. Silverman only to discover him once I got stuck in Michigan.

  4. Are there not hundreds of side customs, like Christmas? Is there not a gathering of families? Is there not a feast?

    My family has always been atheist, but Christmas is still a big deal. God and Jesus are never mentioned. The most important aspect is everyone tries to gather. It is the one day of the year you get to see everyone face to face and get caught up. Sisters do competitive cooking.

  5. Red Dog:

    I admire Judaism for the fact that so many Jews are still able to hang on to those traditions even after they disregard the supernatural baggage.

    I’ve had several close friends who were Jewish and they all still took part in rituals in one way or another and none of them believed in God. I think its actually a good lesson to atheists that you don’t have to hate everything associated with a religion just because you jettison the nonsensical baggage. The stories, family traditions, and food for example can still be of value and you don’t have to trash them just because you no longer believe the supernatural mumbo jumbo.

    I’ll go along with that just about far as a funeral. The rest of the rituals are fair game for mockery in my book. Why the hell should I have to respect someone’s sincerely held belief of not eating bacon because of religious mores ? Why the hell should I respect someone’s sincerely held belief that he can’t turn on a light switch after 7 pm on a Friday because of the dead hand of religious tradition ? ISTM that Judaism has just about the same attitude to women as Islam and some forms of Christianity. A worthy tradition? Not in my book. All people should be social equals.

  6. I’m not sure that non-religious Jews even follow the more restrictive customs. They’re probably like us, and follow the good bits that they enjoy and jettison the ridiculous parts that impinge on their lives. When considering the hostility they’ve been subjected to, I’m not surprised that they’re prepared to declare their alligence now that they can do so without risking life and limb. It’s probably a case of acknowledging that they have a Jewish name, maybe Jewish features ( if such things even exist), and are proud that they’ve come from a lineage that has not died out even though they’ve been really put to the test as a group.

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