Do Reform Jews have to believe in God?

With so much pain and suffering and chaos in the world and in our own lives, a lot of people have a hard time believing in God.  And yet, the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is to believe in the existence of God.

Why?

The sages say it’s because God is the foundation of the whole Torah, and without God, the other 612 mitzvot simply wouldn’t have any authority.

My student Judy came up with a great analogy to explain this: Suppose you drop your kids off at grandma’s house and tell them, “You better follow grandma’s rules.” The only way they’re going to follow Grandma’s rules is if they believe that Grandma is really in charge. And in order for them to believe Grandma is really in charge, they have to believe there actually is someone called Grandma, who gave them rules to follow.

It’s the same with the Torah.

God says, “Remember all my commandments and do them.” But if you don’t believe God has any authority to give you commandments, why would you follow them?  And how could you believe God has that authority unless you believe that there is, in fact, a God?

Simple logic, right?

Well, maybe not so simple.

Reform Judaism, in every one of its four platforms since 1885, has affirmed the centrality of God in our religious philosophy. At the same time, we know that in Reform Judaism today, there are many who don’t believe – and we still think of them as good Reform Jews.

In the early 1990s, this issue was put to the test when a “humanist” congregation applied for membership in the Reform movement.

This synagogue practiced Jewish traditions, celebrated Jewish holidays, and its members were Jews. So what made them “humanist”? They had eliminated God from their prayer book and their services altogether. In effect, it was Judaism without God.

How do you think the Reform movement responded to their petition to join the Union?

They said “no.” (Click here to read the movement’s full statement outlining its reasoning.)

Belief in God has always been central to Reform Judaism, they said. So while individual members of Reform congregations can believe however they choose, a congregation that – as an institution – eliminates God from Judaism is simply outside the boundaries of Reform Judaism.

This means that – even with all the change in the world, and all the good reasons to doubt – in Reform Judaism, it is still a mitzvah to believe in God.