The Doubting Jew: Atheism, Jewish Thought and Interfaith Relations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures

Abstract

The proposed study of Jewish doubt will focus on the encounter between atheism and the religion of Judaism. Along with the related philosophies including scepticism, philosophical materialism and scientific naturalism, atheism is amongst the most influential intellectual trends in Western thought and society. As such, it is too important a phenomenon to ignore in any study of religion that seeks to locate the latter within the modern world. For scholars of Judaism and the Jewish people, the issue is even more pressing in that for Jews, famously, the categories of religion and ethnicity blur so that it makes sense to speak of non-Jewish Jews many of whom have historically been indifferent or even hostile to religion. The intercultural intercourse between non-religious philosophies and religion is of particular interest in the study of the dominant form of Judaism in the US, that of Reform Judaism, which since the early nineteenth-century has presented itself as a response to modernity. Likewise, interfaith encounters between Jew and Christian have in modern times taken place against the backdrop of a largely atheistic, materialist culture; one might even say that they have been accompanied by an ever-present third partner in dialogue, namely, the religious doubter. These observations prompt us to ask:

1. Why has no substantial survey of the Jewish engagement with atheism yet been undertaken? Such a survey would fill an important gap in the historical study of atheism and the attendant religion-atheism controversy. It would also enhance an understanding of modern Jewish identity among those who both embraced and those who opposed atheistic arguments.

2. Why have no major studies of Reform or Liberal Judaism used doubt as a category of analysis? Such a study would likely revise the historical understanding of the development of progressive forms of Judaism. While the emergence of Reform is usually presented as a response to modernity vis-à-vis Orthodox Jewish tradtion and Christianity, one might just as readily focus upon discourses of doubt, specifically around atheism, scepticism and materialistic philosophies.

3. Why has the phenomenon of atheism has been overlooked by historians of Jewish-Christian relations? Such a study would open up a new avenue of research for scholarship of interfaith relations, ignored until now despite the high profile atheism has been given in public Christian theological discourse and the fact that, since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong tendency for Jews to work out their responses to modernity in relation to Christian thought.

The proposal here represents a programme to bring together Western Jewish theological responses to atheism and scepticism in the modern period, a number of which are not easily available or in the public domain. Such a body of work would be important not just because the Jewish chapter of the modern history of atheism is missing, but because the primary source materials involved represent an underutilized resource for historians of progressive Judaism and for understanding the complicated interrelationship of modern Jewish and Christian thought. One would have expected such a collection of primary sources to be a familiar and regularly used resource for historians of all three areas, but this is not the case.

Planned Impact

a) Policy-makers: As the established church, the Church of England has a unique moral and legal status, and the Archbishop of Canterbury's Office of Inter faith Relations, has an influence on its educational policy. Topics that its influential advisory committee, the Lambeth Jewish Forum, has considered previously include Israel (see Children of Zion: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on the Holy Land, 2008), and Mission (see Jews and Christians: Perspectives on Mission, 2011). Considering the contemporary relevance of the cultural conflict between atheism and religion in modern British society, the topic of Atheism and Religion would make for an excellent project of this sort for the Lambeth Jewish Forum.
b) Public Sector: The government has directed all A-Level Boards to consult with the academy in the revision of A-Level syllabi. The AQA's Higher Education Expert Panel members for the subject of Religious Studies are currently redesigning the A-Level in Religious Studies at the AQA. One of the new themes to be addressed in greater detail in the new A-Level is the role of religion in contemporary society, with engagement with atheism is one key area identified. An awareness of different kinds of religious responses to atheism, including the Jewish, would be extremely useful in this context.
c) Third Sector: Since its origins in the early nineteenth-century, the Reform Jewish movement has prided itself on its engagement with the wider, non-Jewish society. It has explicitly encouraged institutional engagement with other religions, but its interest in atheism per se is much more muted. A new awareness of the movement's own history of individual rabbis' intellectual engagement with atheism would undoubtedly be welcomed and might even inform future policies.
d) Third Sector: Despite the fact that interfaith encounters between Jew and Christian, such as in the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), tend to take place against the backdrop of a largely atheistic, materialist society, discussion of atheism itself is rare there is little or no awareness of the distinctions between Christian and Jewish expressions of atheism, so to speak, nor of the historical differences in terms of Jewish responses. Such a topic will be of interest to those engaged in interfaith dialogue.
e) Media: The media, including even niche local radio channels such as Manchester radio's 'The Jewish Hour', tend to focus on militant atheism and Christian responses; it would be an interesting and useful counter-balance to present some distinctly Jewish responses in what is, after all, a multicultural context.
f) Local Communities: Local Jewish communities everywhere, not excepting Manchester synagogues such as Menorah Synagogue, Gatley, are fearful of increasing anti-Jewish sentiment and are concerned about Jewish continuity. An historically informed account of the resources that Judaism has accrued over time to deal with the forces of assimilation and anti-Jewish hostility, such as Jewish responses to atheism, are of intrinsic interest.
g) Local Communities: Limmud is a national cross-denominational Jewish educational movement with high profile programmes that attract thousands of participants. The theme of the Liverpool Limmud 2016 is 'Challenges to Judaism' and atheism is precisely one such challenge.

For methods of dissemination and evidence of a proven track-record with these non-HEIs, see 'Pathways to Impact', and also section (e) 'Leadership Activities' in the 'Case for Support'.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Academic research seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Paper to the Jewish Studies centre at King's College London. 'The Doubting Jew: Some Observations on Jewish Engagement with Atheism' to the Jewish Studies research seminar. 22 March 2017, King's College London.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/trs/research/seminars/jewish/index.aspx
 
Description PhD training workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Masterclass for the Religions & Theology Postgraduate Training Day, 9 June 2017. Audience: Students and staff at the University of Manchester and from local bible colleges validated by the University. The 35 PhD students were predominently working in biblical studies or Christian theology. The 1:45 hour session was entitled 'Atheism, Scepticism, and the Judeo-Christian Tradition'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.manchesterjewishstudies.org/news-blog/2017/4/24/postgraduate-study-day-lecture-manchester...
 
Description Podcast interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Interviewed by Geoffrey Mitelman on the subject of Reform Jewish engagement with darwinism and atheism for the US-based religion-and-science forum 'Sinai and Synapses'. 21 Feb 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://sinaiandsynapses.org/multimedia-archive/darwin-influenced-early-reform-judaism/
 
Description Presentation at Jewish Life Long Learning day conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Limmud Liverpool: 'Isn't Atheism an Appropriate Response to the Shoah?' Limmud is an annual Jewish Life Long Learning day conference, located in major cities. This event took place 6 November 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.manchesterjewishstudies.org/news-blog/2016/10/4/limmud-liverpool.html