I’m sympathetic, but unconvinced

Tablet Magazine has an extended article about David Silverman, who heads up American Atheists. The topic of the article: why Silverman insists that atheism and Judaism are incompatible.

I’m sympathetic to his position. But I don’t agree. 

Tablet reports this:

Previously outspoken about the compatibility of cultural Judaism and atheism, Silverman found that, in trying to write his chapter on Jewish atheism, he struggled. “I kept writing and writing and deleting and deleting,” he told me. Silverman ultimately concluded that Judaism is, at its heart, a religion—one that is incompatible with atheism.

He notes that much of what is defined as Jewish culture, such as music or food, is simply Judaism-the-religion “taking credit” for a geographically specific regional culture—Ashkenazic culture primarily being simply Eastern European, for instance. The only thing world Jewry has in common is the Torah, he says, and as a religious doctrine, the Torah cannot be reconciled with atheistic values.

I think this misapprehends an awful lot about what Judaism as culture is about. And it does something that I think is very instructive and useful in examining Judaism as a historical phenomenon.

It mischaracterizes Judaism as a monolith, when in the last two decades many scholars have come to talk about “Judaisms” instead of merely Judaism.

What do these Judaisms have in common? They are not all adherent to the Torah–but they are all reactions to it that, in their own ways, embrace Torah as a source: for some, an authoritative religious source, as others a source of values and inspiration and ways of thinking. And they all, to some extent or another, revel in the distinct forms of Jewish culture that have arisen from those varied reactions.

The problem, in part, is that it’s too easy as an intellectual move to say, “If you don’t think the literal words of the document are entirely true, then you’ve simply got to say that the whole thing must go.” We don’t often make this move with other documents or cultural artifacts; Aristotle’s concepts of how living things function are not scientifically correct, but we don’t stop studying the Nichomachean Ethics because of it.

One of the major problems I think we face is that as cultural critics, non-theists too easily assimilate the view of canon held by theists and then treat canon in much the same way–right-or-wrong–as the most orthodox of theists do, but coming to opposite conclusions. When interpreting scriptural documents, we tend to make truth and factual value overlap–as though the absence of one means the absence of the other.

I don’t begrudge Silverman his take on this; it’s just that I think that when we turn too far yamin usmol–right or left–we miss the value between the extremes. The trick, as always, is knowing how far is too far.

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