Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ask the Rabbi: Can I Be Agnostic and Still Go to Synagogue?

Another "Ask the Rabbi" question from About.Com. Read it also at

Q. Rabbi, I am a Jewish teenager and I had my bat mitzvah three years ago. I think I am reaching the age in which I evaluate what I have learned in my life thus far along the lines of morality and spirituality. A personal opinion I have reached thus far is that the world may be better off without organized religion, because maybe it would cause the human race to think deeper and actually reach a belief other than that which has been planted in them their whole life. Despite believing this, I have no regrets in being raised Jewish, because there are many things I did learn that had little to do with religion, but much to do with self-discovery. Aside from this I believe I have reached the conclusion that I am agnostic, perhaps an agnostic theist. I still practice judaism, because I would love to believe, with every fiber of my being that there is a higher power, but I have many questions left to be answered. Though I don't think they can be answered by anything but my own journey through life. It scares me to think of the possibility that there may not be a higher power, but I think if there is G-d and we are judged after our time on Earth, living with compassion towards my fellow man is just as important as how much one may express that they believe in G-d. Is it unusual for me to be reaching these conclusions at such a young age and if I am agnostic, is it odd that I still try to find G-d (go to synagogue)?

A. You bring up some excellent points in your question - and it is very important for you to know that you are headed in just the right direction on your spiritual journey. Your dilemma points out some of the basic differences between Judaism and its monotheistic cousins, Christianity and Islam. Although it is always dangerous to generalize, Judaism is primarily a religion of action, whereas Christianity concentrates on dogma (principles of faith) and Islam on submission to God's will. So in Judaism, while we have many actions that are required, we can believe just about anything we want, whether about God, heaven, or you name it.

That doesn't mean that belief in God is irrelevant, just that all manner of questioning and doubt are encouraged and expected. In fact, the very name "Israel" means to "wrestle with God," as Jacob did when he received that name. I know that I wrestle with concepts of God just about every day of my life. Judaism begins with questions. Think about it, just about the first Jewish passage that a child recites in public is the Four Questions on Passover. And that key role played by the child is at the core of the whole Seder experience.

Did you know that the study of Torah is best done in pairs or groups? That's so that one can always be asking questions, poking holes into the theory of the other. The more questions we ask, the closer to Truth we can get. They say that Jews are always answering a question with another question. Is this true? So what's bad about that? (Oh, I just did it).

As long as we keep asking questions, we'll never take anything for granted and the religion will never stagnate. I agree that organized religion tends to get bogged down in routine and we sometimes lose our way. But people like you will keep Judaism from falling into that trap.
In the main prayer called the Amidah, we address God as "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." Many congregations add the matriarchs as well (mine does). So the question is asked, why doesn't it simply say "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" The answer is that each generation of our ancestors experienced God in a different way. The same is true with us. I believe that every generation needs to "re-invent" God. It doesn't mean that God doesn't exist, simply that each individual needs to find its way to "sing unto God a new song" - and you do too.

In the meantime, by all means continue to go to synagogue. Let the prayers inspire you not as the quick roadmap to God, but as the journal of hundreds of generations of people asking tough questions, people just like you. Self discovery has everything to do with religion, and you are well along on this journey. Keep on practicing mitzvot, because they'll help you as guideposts on this journey. Each one performed will bring you one step closer to a life filled with incredible richness and meaning, and the answers to at least some of your questions will become self evident.

Thanks for a terrific question!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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