Esther, the hero of the story we read on the Jewish holiday of Purim, saved the Jewish people by revealing her Jewish identity to her husband, King Ahasuerus, despite the risks it posed to her own safety. Her “unmasking” led to the Purim tradition of dressing up in costume. In recent times, it has also been reinterpreted as the “Jewish Coming Out Day” for LGBTQ Jews, recognizing the parallel danger and potential reward of disclosing one’s true self.
I can only imagine the fear, pain, and other emotions that LGBTQ folks must grapple with when first coming out. Even today, despite most Americans supporting gay marriage, there is still so much discrimination against the LGBTQ population, particularly from religious fundamentalists, leading to real danger. Trans people in particular are being murdered simply for being who they are. Coming out is an act of bravery that I deeply admire.
When I suggest that secular Jews also come out as atheist/agnostic/humanist to their friends, family, and especially their rabbis and synagogue communities, it is in no way meant to coopt the LGBTQ experience or raise up being openly secular to the same danger level that LGBTQ people face.
The “front line” in America today—in terms of who is most endangered by the reactionary wave of white Christian Nationalism—is LGBTQ folks, BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), and women. Of course, there is intersectionality between those groups and many secular Jews. But being Jewish or secular alone does not put us on the front line. It does, however, put us close enough to see the front line!
Secular Americans are discriminated against in a society that has overwhelming religious privilege, and secular Jews are subtly excluded by much of an organized Jewish community that also maintains religious privilege.
As with any privilege, those who have it don’t necessarily see it and may be quick to deny it even exists. But we non-religious Americans experience the presumptions of religiosity every day.
God is invoked on all our currency. Prayers begin almost every legislative session, from local councils up through statehouses to the federal government, despite the First Amendment promise against establishing state religion. Out of 535 lawmakers in Congress, there is only one representative who identifies as humanist and one senator who is religiously unaffiliated, and none call themselves atheist, despite 26% of U.S. adults being religiously unaffiliated (identifying as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”). Atheists regularly score among the most disliked, unaccommodated groups, despite not returning the hostility. For these and other reasons, many atheists remain “in the closet” about their worldview.
As an openly secular person working in the organized Jewish community for the past 25 years, I’ve felt excluded and marginalized countless times by the expectations of performative religiosity. Even “big tent” pluralistic organizations like Federations and JCCs that supposedly represent all Jews will use theistic blessings without a second thought, at holiday events or after meals during conferences, without acknowledgment that not all Jews pray or want to be coerced into prayer.
Of course, every Reconstructionist, Reform, and even most Conservative rabbis will tell you that they welcome atheist Jews into their communities, and would not purposely want to alienate them. I don’t think they’re lying. But how are secular Jews actually accommodated? One edgy community in Brooklyn promotes itself as “God-optional” and translates the name Adonai with words like “the universe” or “the eternal,” even as they continue reciting the theistic traditional blessings in Hebrew. That is certainly one model of inclusion others might emulate, if they aren’t interested in the full-on non-theistic rewrite found in Humanistic Judaism liturgy.
But that is a rare exception. In most synagogue communities, do congregants even know what their rabbis believe about God or the supernatural? I think it is one of the most “closeted” conversations in all of Judaism.
During the first pandemic summer, journalist Abigail Pogrebin opened the belief conversation in an interview series with more than a dozen rabbis about their views of God (she chose not to interview nontheistic rabbis). The renowned Conservative rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, David Wolpe, acknowledged that rabbis don’t readily talk about God, explaining, “the Jewish tent is broader without it…. Because without God, you can include the people who love Israel but don’t believe in God; you can include the people who love Jews but don’t believe in God; and the people who haven’t walked into a synagogue for years and never thought about God but still feel Jewish.”
In other words, everyone should keep quiet about what we actually believe and just go through the motions of God worship. Secular Jews should “pass” as believers. It is literally a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy!
Of course, Rabbi Wolpe’s biases are then immediately exposed by his answer to the very next question: Can a Judaism without God sustain itself? “No. Because we are a religious family. That’s our raison d’etre. We have this mission, and this relationship with God throughout history. And that’s why we’re here.”
Seems to me that this attitude will seep into everything his community does—even as they claim to welcome secular Jews nonjudgmentally. Despite that though, there are atheist Jews in Wolpe’s community, maybe even on his board. I’m sure of it. Biting their lips as they endure all the performative religiosity, they remain members not for the worship but for the Wolpe! They love him, his wisdom, his charism, his warmth. They just can’t tell him what they actually believe. And I find that incredibly sad.
What I say to them is: COME OUT. Speak up! Tell your rabbi who you really are. We need to show the Jewish community that we’re here, and we’re not the angry atheists who want to disprove all your unprovable hopes. We’re simply good people who don’t need a supernatural stamp of approval for our ethical code, and who can’t bring ourselves to believe we’ll see our dear departed Nana again when we die, as badly as we wish we could.
We want our voices heard. The LGBTQ community has demonstrated the courage needed to come out, as well as the overall positive shift in society’s thinking once our sheer numbers are revealed and everyone becomes aware that they are only one degree separated from someone they love who’s in that minority.
We need our voices heard, now more than ever. Wolpe’s suggestion that not talking about belief makes the Jewish tent broader is easily disproven. His own denomination has practically imploded just within the timespan of his rabbinate, by doubling down on religiosity, including a hardline stance against intermarriage (with a majority of the intermarried overlapping with secular Jews). Non-Orthodox synagogue numbers are down across the board. The only theistic denomination to grapple openly with belief and make space for alternative nontheistic liturgy is Reconstructing Judaism, demonstrating that the conversation can be held civilly and should be held.
Pew Research has been tracking for a couple of decades now the remarkable rise of the “nones,” as they call religiously unaffiliated Americans, as well as “Jews of No Religion” through their 2013 and 2020 studies of American Jewry. These are Jews who answered “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” for their religion but then had some kind of Jewish identity connection either though heritage or culture. In fact, when asked what being Jewish was “mostly” about, more than half (52%) of all Jews said it was either ancestry, culture, or both, but not religion!
The Pew 2020 survey asked the key question about belief: “Do you believe in the God of the Bible?” Only 26% of Jews said yes! That is a remarkable crisis of faith—which led to zero public handwringing in the organized Jewish community. For those who said no, there was a follow-up question: Do you believe in any other higher power or spiritual force? Nearly a quarter (22%) of all Jews said no to that as well (compared to only 10% of all Americans).
While 50% of Jews did say that they believe in some higher power or spiritual force, Pew unfortunately did not ask any follow-up questions to them, like does your higher power or spiritual force hear prayers? Does it act to influence outcomes in human affairs? I’d guess at least half would say no to that, pushing them over to the secular humanistic viewpoint of how the universe works. (Even Rabbi Wolpe in the abovementioned interview said, “I don’t think that God supernaturally reaches down to take out tumors or quell viruses.”)
Putting it all together, I’d argue that more than half of American Jews are secular. If you are deeply involved in the organized Jewish community though, you’d never know it.
Organized Judaism would become a more representative, larger, stronger community if we give voice to all expressions of Jewish identity. To get that kind of inclusion, though, many more atheist/agnostic/secular/humanistic Jews need to speak up. Pew shows that there are literally hundreds of thousands of atheist Jews who are involved in Jewish organizational life in synagogues, JCCs, and Federations.
Liberal religion alone cannot beat back religious fundamentalism. We need to build coalitions between secularists and liberal religionists. And secular Jews are perfectly positioned to bridge the gap, as we still practice ritual and holiday celebrations without the religious beliefs.
The Purim story tells of a whole people being saved when one person spoke up. The LGBTQ rights movement is an even better model—because it really happened. Millions spoke up, revealed themselves, demanded equality and representation, and continue to do so today even in the face of ongoing oppression.
Not everybody is in a position to “come out.” If you must continue to subvert your true self to appease others, for safety reasons or mental health, do what you need to do. Know that you are not alone, and we are here for you. But if you can, “speak from the ‘I’” and share your beliefs and experiences with a growing circle of trusted family, friends, and community members. You will likely uncover many other likeminded people along the way (maybe even your rabbi!), and ultimately we can transform our community and world into one with increased respect for all.
Thank you for your assertive article, Paul, This Purim, Secular Jews Should “Come Out.” I can still bring up those feelings of pained silence while being with my extended family, pretending I prayed and I liked traditional services that never spoke to me. Being a member of a secular humanistic Jewish group has felt so freeing. I never could have explored Judaism’ history and culture, which I now enjoy so much, without knowing I didn’t need to feel as an outsider in turning away from a god.
Paul, I appreciated the information you shared. I want to mention my concern about the difference between the phrase” believe in” and the word “experience” when used as a verb. To me, “believe in” means I believe in the existence of something. The something might be a house, a god, a custom. These are things and their existence can be intellectually debatable. To experience something is more than to recognize its existence. It includes having feelings such as fear, love, happiness. When someone is experiencing feelings, those feelings are not intellectually debatable at the time they are being felt. Feelings are an inextricable part of living. Even when participating in a rational activity such as mathematics, a person might simultaneously experience feelings such as interest, surprise, satisfaction, boredom. Rabbi Sherwin Wine addressed the Colloquium 2001 on secular spirituality. He showed great understanding and respect for those who report experiencing spirituality. He said, “even if you are uncomfortable with the word spirituality, call it A, B or whatever, but recognize that those who report the experience have found it empowering.”
I really appreciated your article about coming out. I have had to come out in 2 directions. I do not believe in the god of the Bible, but I do think there is something to the near-death experiences. For 11 years, I was a member of both a Reform temple & a humanistic Jewish group. It was difficult admitting to Reform Jews that I also belonged to a humanistic group. Many Jews are just a little bit religious, but I think people expect me to be more religious because I am a convert. Now I only belong to the humanistic group. Recently I sent a letter to the editor explaining the differences between my beliefs & the group’s beliefs. They published it, so I feel that I have come out with the humanistic group.