In an email exchange, an old friend and fellow English-prof colleague wrote this:
"I know you're 'the Jewish atheist,' but don't you feel a strong sense of identification with the Jewish ethos, aside from religion? You've sought out Jewish wives, and friends to some degree could be, the way I might seek out writers as friends. I think of my former Catholicism not angrily but gratefully. When I grew up, I decided on my own that I didn't believe. But my Catholic education was excellent; it taught me to think critically, even to the point of abandoning religious belief. My dad, pious Catholic lawyer, warned me on going to college to beware of the atheist professors; but none of them said anything, explicit, about religion. It's just when you study modern art and literature there aren't a whole lot of pious and devout believers. Glory is elsewhere, in man and his piddling poetries."
Here's what I wrote in response:
"At this point in my life, Judaism is a genetic accident with cultural trappings (preference for certain ethnic foods, mainly, plus a few Yiddishisms in my speech in the right context, which is not NH).
"Vestiges of tribalism caused me to associate with Humanistic Judaism, not least beacuse of the charismatic founding rabbi, Sherwin Wine, but after a couple years with my current wife, abandoned the whole thing.
"A few years ago, I actually read the Torah cover to cover - probably one of a handful of non-religious/rabbinical Jews who has -- and found nothing noteworthy. A little research revealed that nothing in it happened.
"Here, in my opinion, are the the three key passages that tell you what the Torah is all about:
"(1) Genesis 3:3-5 -- God says that Adam and Eve will die if they eat the forbidden fruit, but right afterward the serpent says if they eat it, they'll know right from wrong and be like gods. That's a no-no!
"(2) Genesis 11:5-6 -- God is worried that if Noah's descendants can build the Tower (of Babel), they'll be able to do anything they set out to do. Another no-no.
"(3) Exodus 10:1-6 -- God specifically takes credit for hardening Pharaoah's heart and playing the whole plague/exodus thing out for his own glory. Passover is most certainly NOT about freedom. These people didn't know anything about freedom, and the word is never mentioned.
"That's what the document Jews revere is all about: humans do not know right from wrong; human aspirations are to be discouraged; God's always in charge.
"The craziness of the whole enterprise hit me, and I saw no reason to be further involved. I certainly didn't learn anything of quality in my Jewish education - only holidays and festivals, rules and regs, prayers and more prayers, God rescuing the Jews over and over again, which is why we celebrate (fill in holiday, except the Holocaust).
"Nothing about critical thinking. Goodness consisted in obeying God's commands as written in the Torah and spun by centuries of rabbis into the Talmud and succeeding bloviations. Unbelief was never an option. Perhaps some good moral principles appear in the rabbinical commentaries as people got more enlightened, but nothing you wouldn't find in any well-developed ethical culture (or on the Little Zen Calendar)."
"There is no Jewish ethos, other than what I've described. Jews' sense of specialness is no less irritating than claims made by countless other religious groups. Some varieties of Orthodoxy are so closed and rule-governed that they are truly cults.
"As to wives, #1 wasn't Jewish, #2 was, but humanistically and New Age-inclined (her father was one of Sherwin''s original followers), and #3 was adopted and raised Jewish, played along, hated the whole thing, abandoned it as soon as feasible."
To my fellow A/Ners: how would other atheist Jews (and non-Jews) respond to my friend?