No God? No problem

Unable to express himself through traditional prayer, Tzemah Yoreh created his own ‘atheist-feminist’ siddur, which he believes can serve a wider audience.

By ELANA ESTRIN
April 9, 2010 23:39
Tzemah Yoreh.

tzemah yoreh 311. (photo credit: .)

 
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When 31-year-old Tzemah Yoreh opens his prayer book, he recites the following passage: “I will pour out my heart. But to whom?... Why? Why, oh why do you not exist, my God?”

You can’t find those words in any synagogue’s siddur – at least not yet. Yoreh prays from Liturgical Experiments: A Siddur for the Skeptical, the tentatively titled atheist siddur he composed himself.

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“I don’t think belief in God is a necessary component of being Jewish,” says Yoreh, assistant professor of Bible at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

He finds himself in a unique dilemma. Most atheists abandon religion entirely, but Yoreh didn’t want to give up the traditional Jewish practices he grew up with. And he still wanted to express himself through prayer. For this, he needed a special kind of siddur, one that was more egalitarian and less God-centered, but that still retained the poetic Hebrew.

Unable to find such a prayer book on the market, Yoreh took matters into his own hands. He began composing what he calls an “atheist-feminist” siddur four years ago, and recently sent it off to Israeli publishers for consideration. Upon publication, it will be the first siddur of its kind.

“My two main problems with [traditional] liturgy were that it’s deeply rooted in God conceptions, and there’s a gender dynamic that I find totally disagreeable,” Yoreh says. “Traditional prayer is filled to the brim with masculine gender and conception, and I wanted to write something women could read just as well as men.”

Yoreh wanted to approach his siddur differently than other alternative prayer books that have been published in recent years, such as the Reconstructionist movement’s siddur. Though he commends these alternative prayer books for their more egalitarian and less God-centered language, he finds that they ultimately sacrifice the poetic Hebrew. So rather than simply rewriting problematic language, he approached his siddur by recomposing each prayer based on its original theme.



“Poetic Hebrew is difficult to translate into aesthetic English and loses much of its rich background,” he says.

With that proviso in mind, the following are translated excerpts from Yoreh’s siddur: The traditional prayer “Adon Olam,” or “Master of the World,” becomes “Malchut Adam,” or “The Majesty of Man.” In essence, he replaces God as creator with parents as creators. While the traditional prayer reads, “He is my God, my living redeemer, rock of my affliction in the enemy day,” Yoreh’s version reads, “And they are my mother and they are my father, and my parents are my facilitators in time of distress.”

But Yoreh hasn’t completely discarded the original text. In some passages, he quotes the traditional liturgy – and then immediately questions it. One section, which Yoreh titles “Compilation of Wonderments and Passages,” takes apart a line from Psalm 99: “Exalt Adonai our God and bow down, at the footstool of God’s feet – a patriarchal hierarchy is not a value for me. He is holy – but why not ‘she’?”

But the traditional God does in fact play a central role in this atheist prayer book, though Yoreh prefers the more conversational word “Hashem” over the traditionally holy word for God, “Adonai.”

“I consider the use of Hashem as further distancing from the God concept,” Yoreh explains. “I accept the content of the blessing, though not the identity of the ‘blesser.’ It is also a biblical quote – and I like to tamper with biblical sources less.”

With a smile, Yoreh reaches for a Harry Potter metaphor, “Voldemort was referred to as ‘you know who’ and people sought to deny his existence that way.”

Language is important to Yoreh, and not just in reference to God. He aims to retain the traditional siddur’s rich Hebrew by inserting poetry throughout his prayer book. In addition to works by such poets as Yehuda Amichai, Haim Nahman Bialik, Natan Alterman and Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, Yoreh includes his own original poetry.

He credits Bialik, Israel’s national poet, as his primary poetic influence. “I was educated very much with a rich, Jewish textual education,” he says. “Every line, every word of Bialik’s poetry is filled with biblical and rabbinic allusions. That’s how I write my poetry as well. I try to infuse the words with a lot of meaning that has roots throughout the rabbinic and biblical periods.”

YOREH WAS born in Toronto, the son of two Talmud scholars. Until he was 18, he split his time between Israel and Canada and received an eclectic education by hopping between different elementary schools: a public French immersion school in Canada, an Orthodox school in Israel and a secular Zionist school in Canada. For high school, he alternated between a yeshiva in Jerusalem and an Orthodox high school in Toronto. At 24, Yoreh earned his doctorate in Bible studies from the Hebrew University. He was the youngest person ever to earn a PhD at the Hebrew University, having completed the degree requirements in less than two years. Yoreh became an Israeli citizen in 2002, then served in the army until 2004.

After spending the first 25 years of his life immersed in Bible study, Yoreh says that he became an atheist by the end of his army service. “The army service really made me question a lot of my core beliefs, because I had a horrible army experience, like many people do. I got exploited by my commander and the whole system.”

He was placed in the history unit with the guarantee that he would be a researcher, but he ended up only translating his commander’s articles into English. Disappointed that the army didn’t allow him to serve his country, Yoreh questioned his lifelong Zionism.

“My commander had me do things that didn’t have anything to do with the army or serving the country in any way. It destroyed my ardent Zionism at that point. It made me very critical of the army and the Zionist endeavor. It hasn’t made me into an anti-Zionist; it has made me into a very critical left-wing Zionist,” he says.

In addition to reconsidering his Zionism, Yoreh says that his army service gave him ample time to question Judaism as well.

“I was questioning a lot at that time period – questioning the national myths and my belief system. I had been doing that ever since I started at university, but I only really started thinking deeply about those issues when I was in the army. I had a lot of time when I just sat around and did nothing except translate for a few hours a day. You have plenty of time for contemplation.”

THOUGH HE identifies as an atheist, Yoreh hopes that atheists and theists alike will be able to benefit from his siddur. It retains the prayer service’s traditional order so that worshipers can attend any kind of service and use his siddur as a supplement or alternative to the traditional prayer book.

“My siddur is not meant to supplant any siddur that exists,” Yoreh says. “I want people to use it as a catalyst to think about what they’re saying. If there’s something that they don’t agree with, I want them to use it to go beyond, reinterpret the words, make their own compositions. I want people to find different modes of expression that will enrich their lives beyond what it says in the siddur. I want people to write their own prayers.”

Yoreh’s project has already inspired one creative prayer-writing initiative. Brian Blum, a professional blogger and product management consultant who moved to Israel 15 years ago, is compiling a set of humanistic companion readings for the siddur in honor of his father, who died three months ago and whom Blum describes as a “devout atheist.” But he’s not writing it alone. Putting his faith in the “wisdom of the crowds,” Blum created a Wikipedia-modeled Web site, www.siddurwiki.com, inviting others to contribute their own thoughts and writings to his personal siddur companion.

“Tzemah’s approach helps me in formulating what I would put into this personal compendium,” Blum says. “I take what he’s doing and say: Why is he changing this particular prayer? Is he saying the prayer isn’t actually about God, but rather about the uniqueness of human beings? Then I can take that and say: That’s one way of looking at it, let me plug it into my compendium.”

Inevitably, Yoreh’s siddur has been embraced by some and criticized by others.  Yoreh’s wife, Aviva Richman, is currently studying to be a rabbi. She does believe in God, but she nevertheless supports his project. In Yoreh’s case, she says, his “struggle or questioning turned into a catalyst for a really positive, creative project. You don’t see that a lot. I think a lot of people get stuck or become apathetic, or silence those questions and just do what they do anyway. I like the way he ran with it.”

ON THE other hand, the siddur has also been criticized as being too far removed from Judaism.

“I’m happy that someone is searching for spirituality, for a religious experience. That’s good,” says Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the hesder yeshiva of Petah Tikva. “But it’s too far from Judaism because it’s trying to isolate the prayer from believing in God and basic halachic principles. I think it’s too far to be identified as a Jewish alternative siddur.”

But Yoreh contends that many people’s definition of prayer is too narrow. “If you define it as communication between humans and a deity, I think that’s a very narrow conception of prayer. I think prayer is a communal expression of hopes, fears, an appreciation of aesthetic beauty, good attributes. Prayer is also private hopes and fears, things that are beyond our ability to fix alone but that we wish were different.

“All that is inherent in prayer, but that has nothing to do with God. Hopes are shared by theists and atheists alike, and prayer is how they are expressed. My fellow atheists may just as fervently hope for something and wish to express it verbally and poetically – the type of verbal expression will be different than that of a theist, but the hope is the same.”

Yoreh has encountered everything from skepticism to hateful opposition to his belief system. He says that people mainly question how someone who doesn’t believe in God can be Jewish. But Yoreh has an answer.

“People who say I can’t be a Jewish atheist are people who live in a very narrow box. They can’t accept anything out of their ken. They immediately attach practice and belief, and there’s no way for them to separate those, no way for those elements to live in different places.”

In fact, Yoreh believes he is not as far removed from modern Orthodoxy as it seems. “I think at least in modern Orthodoxy, most people don’t do something just because God commanded it. I think it’s deeper than that, there’s more to it. It’s the same for me. I don’t think I’m very much the exception to that.”

Prof. Bonna Devora Haberman, a feminist theologian and activist, has known Yoreh for several years. She agrees that Jewish atheism is a viable concept, and that it is even beneficial for Judaism as a whole.

“[The term Jewish atheist] is a provocative statement,” Haberman says. “There are all kinds of Jews, and I welcome the diversity of identities and expressions. It keeps us more interesting, and I think it’s a challenge not to take things for granted. It helps us become more conscious of our assumptions and more critical of ourselves, which is a good thing. That’s part of Tzemah.”

Indeed, Yoreh is actively involved in the Jewish community. He says that although he doesn’t believe in God, he feels strongly connected to Judaism. As a result, he practices the long history of Jewish traditions and customs. For example, Yoreh observes Jewish dietary laws.

“Keeping kashrut distinguishes you as a cultural, religious group. I place myself firmly within that group. It’s the way I grew up, and that’s the way I feel most comfortable. I would feel very uncomfortable eating nonkosher meat simply because that would place me outside those boundaries,” Yoreh says.

In addition to wanting to identify himself with Judaism as a cultural group, Yoreh says that he has remained observant out of habit.

“At the most basic level, it’s because I grew up that way. I wasn’t told that the reason I keep Shabbat or the reason I keep kashrut is because God told me. I did it because my parents did it, that’s how I grew up, and it was fine with me. To excise yourself just because you have a different theological concept from when you grew up, I think it’s very detrimental to your psyche. Humans are creatures of habit, and we continue to do things we grew up on.”

Yoreh’s No. 1 choice for publication is Yediot Aharonot, which publishes a popular and modern Judaica series. He anticipates selling it to “bookstores and interested people,” and he says he’s confident that there will be a market in Israel for his alternative siddur.

“In the last few years, people have been thinking about these things a lot. I feel myself as part of a new wave of Israelis seeking to redefine their relationship with Judaism on their own terms, not through the prism of Orthodoxy or God necessarily,” Yoreh says.

As a biblical scholar, he says that he also feels strongly tied to the biblical and rabbinic texts. Therefore, remaining observant is a matter of maintaining intellectual tradition.

“You can see the deep intellectual tradition that’s connected to a lot of these customs, and the deep discussions and texts surrounding them,” he says. “Especially as a textual scholar, I feel deeply connected to them. It has nothing to do with God. It has to do with the ways humans have construed the practice through the generations and through the intellectualization of it. I see the reflection of what I do in the generations of deeply thinking people, and I don’t see any reason to stop doing it.” 

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