Agnostics in Synagogue

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


We Need More Agnostics in the Beth Haknesset


   Beth Haknesset is Hebrew for House of Assembly. Synagogue is its Greek equivalent. An agnostic is someone who, like the vast majority of Jews, has no interest in our religious life because he does not know whether he can believe in G’d. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge and agnosis means “no knowledge.”

   Now those who don’t know are very much welcome “in shul” (Yiddish for school or Beth Haknesset.)  This is true because our agnostics will never be asked whether they believe anything.  Jews do not subscribe to a list of beliefs despite the 13 principles elucidated by Maimonides (1135-1204).

   The advantages of coming to a Beth Haknesset every Shabbbat are great.  Here are some of them as experienced by the agnostics now in regular attendance.  First, you make many friends and you will meet many of your old friends and relatives. Second, you will become connected to a four thousand year old tradition which gives each of us a true inherited nobility. 

   When Benjamin D’Israeli (1804-1881), also known as Lord Beaconsfield, first ran for a seat in Parliament in 1835 he was opposed by a member of the British nobility.  His opponent pointed to his ancient British ancestry and contrasted it with D’Israeli whose Jewish name at once indicated a recent foreign (Portuguese) ancestry. Countering his opponent's claim to nobility and long ancestry, D’Israeli said that his ancestry was far longer and his nobility yet more impressive than that of any English lord. Was he, Benjamin D’Israeli, not the descendant of Jacob, the first Israel?  Well, D’Israeli won and became perhaps the most famous prime minister England ever had.

   All of us share in that ancient ancestry. By coming to the Beth Haknesset each Saturday, we hear the Torah read and hear it discussed by the rabbi so that we feel a true connection to our four thousand year tradition. Sociologists call such a connection “existential validation” because belonging to a human group tells us who we are and defines our roots.

   Every Beth Haknesset serves to celebrate life cycle events. Birth, Bar Mitzvah, marriage, illness, retirement and death are all given attention in the Beth Haknesset. Surely every one of us needs to mark our life cycle occasions.  Therefore we want to support the Beth Haknesset so it will be there when we need it the most.

    The Beth Haknesset also marks the yearly cycle of nature. We celebrate Pesach in the spring. We celebrate the Ten Commandments on Shavuoth in the summer. We celebrate the Harvest in the fall at Sukkoth. We celebrate the whole year at Rosh Hashanah and we celebrate our humanity on Yom Kippur. We celebrate freedom in the winter at Chanuka and we celebrate a lot more. In fact, our greatest celebration comes every Shabbat when we light the candles on Friday night. Now surely, every agnostic can enjoy all that.

   Here is more. Every Beth Haknesset, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform, has an education program. Everybody can take advantage of learning Hebrew, learning history, learning Talmud, learning philosophy, etc.  Now among us diploma chasers there are so many educated people that we truly enjoy education. Every agnostic likes to learn. In fact, we can even argue and give the rabbi a hard time. What more can you want?

   Well, there is more. Every agnostic can join a committee of his Beth Haknesset and get involved in “shul” politics. This is not only great fun. It also helps keep the Beth Haknesset alive. If it were not for those few willing to do most of the needed work, no “shul” could exist. An agnostic can even be elected to office, including the presidency of a Beth Haknesset.

   Now we all know that among us Jews it is action, not belief, that counts. Believe what you like but do something. Start by reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, the great Jewish Viennese psychologist, and then enhance your whole existence by joining us this Shabbat.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.


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