A Guide for the Non-Believing Congregant – Neil Bradman

Anyone can found a religion. You just need to proclaim a metaphysical belief, declare an opinion of what constitutes correct behaviour and acquire followers. A book declared sacred helps but is not essential. How much respect the religion is accorded by members of the general public is determined by a complex evaluation of the number of followers the religion has, the period over which it has existed and the economic power of its membership.

Over 2,000 years ago the Pharisees, the intellectual ancestors of the rabbis of today, started defining the tenets of what became Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism (ORJ). As a consequence it is the rabbis who decide what are the correct beliefs and practices to hold and follow.

Inevitably if belief and practice are decided by rabbis it becomes necessary to know who is an authentic rabbi. Rabbis who adhere to ORJ have resolved that issue by deciding that only those who meet the criteria they have set for determining whether or not a person is an authentic rabbi is, indeed, an authentic rabbi. In short: it is the authentic rabbis, accepted as such by other authentic rabbis, who are the decision makers on proper belief and practice. It is true that they may hold a range of opinions but any individual opinion must not be so extreme that the mass of accepted authentic rabbis regard the holder of the opinion as no longer an authentic rabbi.

For three out of four groups of Jews rabbinical authority in ORJ is no problem. First, of course, are believers: those that fully believe that which the rabbis declare. Second those that opt out, that choose to practice another brand of Judaism or none at all. Third are those happy congregants who have no difficulty in declaring beliefs they do not hold and may not even notice that they are doing so.

It is to the fourth group I address this guide, those who, for whatever reasons, wish to remain members of ORJ communities but do not believe that which rabbis have decided they should and feel uncomfortable as a consequence. Can they shed themselves of feelings of hypocrisy as they take part in communal worship, accept an Aliyah, say Kadesh, lain or lay tefillin? Practice we humans can control, belief is beyond our power. We may wish to believe, we may even pretend we believe but the person who does not believe knows that they do not.

Symbolic actions, so common in acts of worship, combine both belief and practice. The action is certain and obvious to all but what is meant by the action may be different in the mind of the person performing the act and that of an observer. Beating one’s breast with a clenched fist can represent many different thoughts. Unless the person making the silent act declares what they mean by the action they take no one else can know for sure. Similarly when reading any text: the reader owns the meaning not the writer.

Fortunately the structure of Jewish worship, offers the opted-in non-believer a route to honesty and integrity. The congregant can ensure that for invitations redolent of theological affirmation, for example being called up to the reading of The Law, the offer is made with knowledge of the invitee’s non-belief; that the terms under which an invitation is extended and accepted have been clearly established.

In ORJ, although it is the rabbis who decide the dogma it is the lay community which owns the synagogue, administers the community and employs the rabbi. So if you find that you don’t believe but want to opt in without pretence, you can. All you have to do is to write to the shul chairman or warden recording your non-belief. What they then do is for them to decide. After all, possession of belief is not yours to command and who would argue for overt or concealed dishonesty? Seeing a room full of shoes in Auschwitz Birkenau – men’s; women’s; children’s’ and babies’ is an image that will haunt me for a long time… On the walk out of Auschwitz we were each told to pick up a stone from the ground and to keep that stone on us always. I have that stone in my bag – and its amazing how sometimes after a stressful day, I find the stone…and suddenly things don’t feel quite as bad anymore.