Can an Atheist be a Jew?
1. Judaism is a people that has a religion. This religion is called “Torah,” which is “the word of the Lord.” [Isaiah 2:3]
2. It is this “word of the Lord” that is the essence of Judaism, not what this or that Orthodox rabbi necessarily declares, what Liberal Judaism’s leaders proclaims, or what secular Jews happen to surmise.
3. According to Maimonides and R. Moshe Feinstein, disbelievers are bad people. Maimonides says that disbelievers in his thirteen faith principles is not part of the “Israel” that merits a share in the eternity to come; R. Feinstein argues that most non-observant Jews really believe but those who know what Judaism requires and falsify it are non-believers who should be denied religious recognition. Rabbi Abraham Karelitz argues that in an age of unbelief, religious skepticism is difficult to resist for some.
4. What do the Torah sources say?
a. M. San. 10:1 says that one who denies that the Torah comes from God or that there will a raising of the dead will not get a portion in the world to come. From this Mishnah we learn that
i. There is a God Who gave the Torah.
ii. God talks to people and lets people know what God requires.
iii. There is a Judge and there is a judgment. [Genesis Rabba 26:6]
iv. The violation of the Law occurs only with the verbal act of declaring unbelief.
v. The human court/society is not authorized to enforce faith requirements.
vi. This principle is consistent with the legal rule of thumb, there are no punishments in the human court for sins that do not involve acts. [bSan. 10a and elsewhere]
b. bSan. 44a rules that one is a Jew and remains a Jew even if sinning. Therefore, not believing in God does not make some one not a Jew.
c. Consistent with this ruling is Kallah Rabbati 5:1, where God is said to have said that God prefers performance to profession, “it is better that I [=God] be rejected and my Torah observed.”
d. Just because one declares that she or he is an atheist does not mean we are permitted to believe them. Jewish law does not accept self-incrimination. [Sanhedrin 95ab and 25a]
e. Jewish law assigns to God and not to humans the right to read human minds [mAvot 4:8] or to stand in judgment upon the other until we are in their place [mAvot 2:4].
a. A Jew ought not to be an atheist but a Jew remains a Jew even if that Jew is an atheist.
b. An “atheist” Jew who comes to my Orthodox shul to say Kaddish is saying something far more eloquent by saying Yitgaddal ve-Yitqaddash Shemeih Rabba, “May God’s name grow in greatness and holiness.” Notice the two instances of the two d’s. In Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, this grammatical phenomenon articulates intensivity.
c. By calling the congregation to say “amen,” which in English according to Mr. T of A Team means “believe it,” the “atheist” for sure believes enough to sanctify the Name of God Who at other moments in his or her life seems to be distant.
d. In light of the above, an otherwise secular person who professes unbelief but acts in a civil and moral fashion is to be treated as a believer, to be answered with amen and treated with courtesy.