03/18/2012 09:24 pm ET Updated May 18, 2012

Can Judaism Survive With Atheism in Its Midst?

Most communities have so-called truths which give rise to standards of behavior. Over time, some ideas get replaced by others, but a core set of beliefs often remains. Within Judaism -- where debate is encouraged -- how far can one go in advancing one's own values or convictions until one is out of the intellectual or spiritual fold?

On a recent evening, I came across a 1987 ruling by the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), the body that issues teshuvot (responsa) from which rabbis can draw for guidance. Written by Rabbi David H. Lincoln, the committee voted unanimously that an "avowed atheist" should be barred from serving as a prayer leader. As someone who had been a finalist in Moment Magazine's "Elephant in the Room" essay contest on "Godless Judaism," I stopped short. I wondered if I would be turfed from the roster of lay leaders who serve as occasional prayer leaders at my synagogue, and for which I've spent months training over the past few years.

But what I puzzled over more generally, was whether Judaic standards are merely prescriptive, or whether they are meant to describe communities as they are. How many of my fellow worshippers might actually feel similarly to me but hadn't bothered putting their cosmology to pen and paper?

I soon learned that a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies had written a follow-up to Lincoln's teshuva for Rabbi Elliot Dorff's class on Conservative Judaism. A podcast reveals a provocative conversation between Matt Shapiro (who agreed with Lincoln's conclusions but issued a much broader explanatory discussion), his fellow students and Reb Mimi Feigelson. A Hasid in her spiritual approach, Reb Mimi, as she is known, disagreed with Shapiro's conclusions. An atheist who nevertheless wishes to be a prayer leader shows "honesty" and "courage," she argued.

I recently spoke to Shapiro directly. If belief in God "is at the heart of Judaism," as he put it to me, how can we negotiate between personal and communal values and convictions (including belief -- or not -- in God) on one hand, and collective norms and standards on the other? I asked him.

"At the seminary, our personal values are recognized as having tremendous importance, as is the tradition. The dance between the two is what makes up the heart of Conservative Judaism," Shapiro said.

He added, "I wouldn't be becoming a rabbi if I didn't think the text was important, but I also cannot deny my personal convictions in terms of equality, freedom and general openness in society. Those are foundational values."

Shapiro wrote his thesis on Hans-Georg Gadamer, a pioneer of the hermeneutic method, where the reader is meant to engage in a direct conversation with the text. It seems to me this approach will no doubt serve Shapiro well as he shifts into his professional rabbinic career, especially in light of contemporary values discussions, whether or not the question of faith per se is at the forefront of those debates.

One such issue that has lately come into sharp focus concerns GLBT inclusion. A 2006 CJLS ruling created a significant opening for public congregational gay and lesbian life. Almost six years later, the authors of the original paper are drafting a same-sex marriage ceremony which is expected to be voted on in late May.

I spoke with Rabbi Aaron Alexander, an associate dean at Ziegler who is also a member of the CJLS. Alexander has performed same-sex marriages using a ceremony he wrote with Rabbi Elianna Yolkut and is looking forward to seeing the final draft of the version when it comes before the committee.

"Halakha is so much more than a set of laws. It is the dynamic interaction between God, history, sacred text, authority, narrative and living people." Alexander explained. "I think that at its very core, what Jewish law wants to do is to uplift humanity and dignity, not to subvert it."

Alexander had been recently part of a landmark deliberation: allowing deaf Jews to sign the chanting of the Torah. "I was moved watching [the ruling] happen."

Many rabbi-scholars like Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who advocates Process Theology, or Rabbi Arthur Green, who advances what he calls "radical Judaism," are succeeding in broadening the contemporary debate around conceptions of God. But particularly in an age where debate around Godlessness is coming squarely into the mainstream of Western thought, I don't think the question of belief is going to be settled anytime soon. And it may not need to be.

As interesting as issues surrounding faith are intellectually, and as important as they may be to private experiences of spirituality, values surrounding human dignity -- and particularly the role of those who have long been excluded from Judaic life -- might be those we need to focus on in setting community standards, while bracketing private issues of faith commitments.

If we want to make sure our communities are healthy, robust and inclusive -- and are able to withstand the test of time as the world comes to shed many of the prejudices of the past while continuing to open itself to a range of beliefs and new vocabularies around them -- this may prove essential.

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