Having been raised by Israeli parents, I always felt like I was part of something magical. Although St. Louis has solid Jewish and Israeli communities, most of my schoolmates were Christian. They were completely fascinated by my family, in large part because we were Israeli.
But mostly because we were atheists.
I’ve tried to explain to non-Jews how one can be Jewish without being religious. I don’t think I ever succeeded. Telling them that Judaism is not just a religion, but also a way of life and philosophy that belongs to the Jewish people, leaves many people dissatisfied.
I could never accept an anthropomorphic G-d. I used to enjoy shocking people by telling them that “G-d didn’t create man in His image – man created G-d in his image!” Since I knew that most people tended to think of G-d in anthropomorphic terms, I found it easiest to identify myself as an atheist, just like my parents.
But that didn’t mean we didn’t practice Judaism. We had Shabbat dinners together as a family. Every year we had a Passover seder; the New Year always started with apples in honey; we never went to school on Jewish holidays (despite never attending synagogue); we had hamantaschen for Purim; and I had a Bar Mitzvah.
And we went to Israel once a year.
No other place than Israel do I feel more at home and more connected to the people around me. Even if I’m screaming at some jerk who cut me off or arguing with a merchant who’s trying to rip me off, I feel like I belong. I have some friends and family who are Hareidi, and some who are secular, but we are all linked to the same spiritual tethers, binding us to a common origin and a common destiny that can only be called “Judaism.”
So what about my professed atheism? As I’ve grown and my peers have likewise matured, our definitions of both G-d and ourselves have become more nuanced. Telling people that I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic G-d makes much more sense than saying I’m atheist. So I’m proud to note that one of the core tenets of Judaism is that G-d has no physicality (Maimonides’ 3rd principle).
Given the nonphysicality of G-d, maybe it’s ironic that I feel most aware of G-d when I’m doing biophysics. The beautiful simplicity of nature’s laws and all the manifestations thereof reveals an order that demands the deepest and humblest respect.
I believe that this sense of order in our universe speaks to the very heart of Judaism. I believe that the attempt to understand and align ourselves with this order, to bring ourselves closer to it, is the very goal of Judaism and Halakha.
Maybe that’s why there are so many Jewish scientists with Nobel prizes? Either way, when I successfully publish a book that reunites Torah and science, I think that will be my highest possible contribution to Judaism.
Before Judaism, religions depicted a world of conflicting forces with no purpose. The Torah revealed a powerful and unique vision of unity and purpose.
“Judaism is the ultimate celebration of that vision.”