In the winter of 1984, a few months after returning to New York from 10 months in the Judean Hills as a visiting student at a hesder yeshiva where Israeli students combined service in the IDF with religious studies, I helped host a Shabbat.
The Shabbat group was made up of the “best and brightest” Israeli high school students who were touring the United States. When the time came for afternoon prayer, they were all invited to join, in the chapel of a beautiful Jewish home for the aged. Many of the students seemed out of place, not knowing how to follow the service in the prayer book.
One young man did not enter the chapel at all.
I went outside to ask him what was wrong. He smiled at me and then proclaimed (in English) “I am an atheist.” His words took me aback. I was sure that if he were visiting a cathedral he would not have hesitated to enter.
Another atheist loses face while liberating Dachau
THAT IS the tale of one atheist. Twenty-five years later I met another Jew who was an atheist. By this time I was serving as a rabbi for a Conservative congregation in South Florida. Addressing a community of over-55-year-olds, I was about to discuss the divisions among the Jews in Israel. A man, probably in his early 80s, approached me at the lectern before I began to speak. He had something he wanted to tell me.
“Rabbi, I was a soldier in the American Army in World War II. Our troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. As we approached the barbed wire fence, the stench of thousands of rotting corpses entered my nostrils. I vomited. It was then that I lost my faith in God. I am an atheist. I thought you should know.”
What was I to say? Could I judge this Jew as an apikoros, a heretic? What if I were in his boots at the moment he approached Dachau?
My father fought as the sergeant of a heavy-machine squad in the American Infantry in Germany and Bohemia in 1945. He spoke to survivors and, along with another Jewish soldier, discovered a synagogue in a German town that had been converted into a garbage dump. This trauma could have led to him losing his faith in God. But all the two Jewish soldiers wanted to do was train their machine guns on the town’s German civilians and mow them down in revenge. However, they had to move on and leave the town, to continue fighting the Nazis, so their Jewish revenge fantasy never came to fruition. My father went on to assist a Jewish chaplain in Japan in MacArthur’s occupation forces.
“Thank you for confiding in me,” I told the veteran who liberated Dachau. “Perhaps I would have lost my faith in God if I had been in your place.” He thanked me. He took his seat. I lectured. But this Jew’s words and his experience have haunted me ever since.
I think about the Israeli student who would not enter a synagogue. And I think about my father and the other Jewish soldier who found bones and burned prayer books in the rubble of a shul likely destroyed a few years earlier during Kristallnacht (the vandalized building had been locked and my father, carrying his rifle and telling the Germans he was a Jew, got the key).
It would be easy to place much of the blame for the smiling Israeli’s atheism on secular Zionism, which for more than a century has denigrated the Diaspora and Judaism.
Mainstream Zionism, in its bid to rid itself of European Jewry’s alleged passivity in the face of pogroms and discrimination, has belittled the Jewish past in the Diaspora, often stripping it of its dignity and richness. For pioneering Zionists, eager to build a Jewish homeland, this may have been, arguably, necessary in the short run. In the long run, however, it has proven to be both self-defeating and the cause of a subtle form of self-hatred.
I suspect that the young smiling Israeli atheist I encountered in New York objected to praying less because he was an atheist than because he was not proud of being a Jew.
To his mind, he was an Israeli – an identity which he conceived of as having no vital connection with Judaism.
Yes, this young man served in the IDF and I, as a Diaspora Jew, did not. That puts me at a disadvantage. And yet, I am a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of an Ivy League school who has encountered different faiths and histories as a student.
I struggled with atheism. It was not a matter of pride. This young Jew would have entered a Buddhist temple, but would not enter a synagogue. He was probably an atheist from birth. He did not liberate Dachau.
If a Jew is an atheist, so be it. If it were not for the many Jews who were secular Zionists there would be no Israel – and no Judaism. Socialists and nationalists – by founding the state – saved our religions and made Israel the center of Torah study.
David Ben-Gurion is to blame for elements of the “status quo” agreement with Agudat Israel that have come back to haunt Israel. It is because he knew little of the power of Judaism. It did not wither. Labor Zionism did not win.
My confrontation with the smiling atheist resonates for me in Daniel Gordis’s book, Saving Israel (2009), in an account of his son’s participation in a study program that brought together religious and secular Zionist students. The class was studying Talmud and started at the beginning, with the question of when the “Shema” can be said in the evening. The students, in pairs, studied the text. The author’s son was paired with a hiloni (secular Jew) who asked him: “What’s the Shema?” The younger Gordis thought he was mistaken – how could this Jew not know what the central credo of Jewish faith was and the dying words of martyrs for centuries?
I disagree with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: It is not the man of faith who is lonely. It is the Jew struggling with doubt. The next time I hear a complaint about the intolerance of Haredim, I will remember the smiling face of a young Jew from Israel who refused to enter a synagogue.
The writer is a rabbi, essayist, and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida.