"An Atheist Reads the Torah" -- Why I Wrote It and Why You Might Want to Read It

(Several years ago, I undertook to read the Torah.  For specific reasons, see below.  But basically I wanted to find out, to my own satisfaction, just what it said, to the extent possible, given that it's such an ancient text that's been repeatedly copied and edited. 

To rabbis, thus to most Jews, it is a repository of priceless wisdom.   I set out to find it. 

What I found was both enlightening and disappointing.  But at least nobody can ever tell me what the Torah says, because I read it.  And want to male this knolwedge generally available, especially to fellow Jewish atheists. 

What does it say?  Short answer: not much.  A lot of folk-tales and invented history, plus hundreds of rules and regs, plus kindergarten morality.  Please see below.)



The last time I checked amazon.com, there were 6900 books on the Torah – why another?  

Several reasons:

(1) To provide a counter argument—a small but determined piece of resistance – to the explosive growth of religiosity, superstition, and public piety during my lifetime.

“I’m not saying that.”

I was always a secular humanist.  When they put “under God” in the Pledge, I said to myself, “I’m not saying that.”  I was 12.

Religious belief has always been a strong force in American life (“in God we trust” on all our money and as the motto of my alma mater, Brown), and there have been several attempts to formally make this a Christian country.  Even now, people are trying to rewrite American history to portray it all as the story of the emergence of a Christian nation.

All God, all the time

Since that moment 50 years ago when I first articulated, if only to myself, my atheism/secular humanism, I have witnessed a disturbing growth in public piety and religiosity (i.e., the self conscious, smug,  proclamation of and gratuitous talk about religion, as opposed to actual good behavior).

I have witnessed the resurgence of orthodoxy and fundamentalism.  I have seen the outbreak of a war on science and evolution.  According to a Chicago Tribune report of a 2004 CBS poll, “55% of Americans believe that God created humans in [their] present form and only 13% claim to believe in evolution” (from Sarah Igo, The Averaged American).

And of course, I live in the wake of September 11 -- and of the religiously motivated atrocities that preceded and followed it.

I find this all very dismaying.  I was fortunate to have a skeptical father, then a classical/liberal/secular-humanistic education, during which I learned the methods and mentalities that characterize Western civilization, science, and learning.

I could see no reason at the time why these ideals would not triumph, and I left college quite optimistic – and quite unprepared for what happened.

What happened was what the US got a lot more religious.

All God, all the time

Today, 95% say they believe in God, and similarly impressive percentages believe in Heaven, Hell, Satan, and angels.   Athletes and other performers thank Jesus for their victories, as if he were an invisible friend giving them an edge over the competition.  You can actually go on the Internet and buy porcelain figurines of the robed Jesus helping someone with his golf swing and improving other sports abilities.

Not that long ago, politicians were expected to be churchgoers, but little more.  Today they usually soft-pedal it (one thing Obama's good at).  But it's dangerous, as Dubya did, for Presidents to wear religion on their sleeve and proclaim it at every opportunity.  Jesus was Bush’s favorite philosopher.  Does he even know any others? 

Political and religious authority: a dangerous mix

When politicians get religious, it’s not a good sign.  The current merging of Republicans and Christians (some 40% of the party’s base consists of Evangelicals) is extremely worrisome.   History proves that when politicians think they have divine approval, when state power is melded with and reinforced by religious authority, there is invariably a whole lot of death and destruction.

Religiosity rampant

Today, the progress of science – the unraveling of the incredible mysteries of the DNA and the universe – is encountering stiff opposition from ideas like creationism and intelligent design.  Entire institutes, organizations and foundations exist just to prove that a particular creation myth, the one in the Book of Genesis – one of maybe a thousand such myths throughout the world – is true.

But all creation myths have the same truth value – zero, since none of them is based on anything resembling evidence.

Today, the book marketplace is crowded with frightening works concerning Biblical prophecies about the end of the world, which has been frequently predicted but which, as you might’ve noticed, has not yet happened. 

People went crazy in the year 2000, just as they went crazy in the year 1000.  The world didn’t end, and computers didn’t crash.  But that doesn’t mean the end-times aren’t coming, and a lot of people are getting ready – and scaring the hell out of each other and the rest of us as well.

Here is religion's outrageous rationale: the elevation to unquestionable truth of a single piece of writing, which is in turn nothing more than the ramblings of ancient writers with a vivid imagination or a good memory for legend, or perhaps both (and perhaps hallucinogenic drugs as well…who knows?).

Technology and religious fanaticism

And today, we don’t just have religious fanaticism – we have easily exportable and technologically leverageable religious fanaticism. 

In the old days, if you were a religious true believer, spreading your orthodoxy was a major hassle.  You had to get on your horse, gather other fanatics, seek out unbelievers, hack them to pieces…maybe it was satisfying in its own up-close-and-personal way, but it was highly labor- and resource-intensive.

Today, 19 people with box cutters can board airplanes and wreak havoc, all out of religious fanaticism.  And I don’t even want to think about cyber-terrorism.

These developments, coupled with the flowing together of religious power with government/state power, which is happening, paradoxically, in some of the more backward areas of the world like the Middle East, as well as in some of the most developed, like the United States…means that today’s resurgence of religiosity and religious orthodoxy is not just an academic or doctrinal matter – it is a stark threat to our very existence on earth.

As I mentioned earlier, when governments believe that God is on their side, it is usually very bad news for human beings.

The ideals of Greek/Roman Humanism, Classical Jeffersonian Liberalism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment – the only ways in which humans have made progress, since prayer and worship yield nothing except job security for clerics – have not triumphed.

Quite the opposite.  They don’t even get a fair hearing today.  I see the world drifting backward, into the darkness.   And one of the forces driving it backwards is religious orthodoxy.

I believe there are many closet secular humanists out there – and they are one of the key audiences for this book.  They may suspect that the Bible isn't all it's cracked up to be, but they don't really know what it says, except as clerics feed it to them.

They need intellectual ammunition.  And that is what I mean to give them.

(2) Not the devil

A second reason why I wrote the book…and this sort of follows from the first, is to put a more positive face on secular humanism…and give other secular humanists the intellectual tools to do the same

When you think of the animosity and exclusion that homosexuals faced 50 or 100 years ago, it’s not too far-fetched to say that secular humanism is the new homosexuality.  The Boy Scouts resolutely refuse to accept gays and atheists.

To fundamentalists, secular people are…well, the devil.  Atheists have no God, therefore no morality.  I’ve heard this charge repeated over and over until I am really tired of it.

I just heard it repeated again by someone who should know better but is cognitively incapable of knowing better, namely an Orthodox rabbi writing a column in the Providence Journal

He repeated the cliche – which is untrue at best and libelous at worst – that dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong are products of atheism.

This is absolutely ridiculous.  Tyrants deify themselves and the state.  They have nothing to do with secular humanism.

Good without God

For way too long, secular humanists have been vilified as lacking in morality or in lacking a basis for morality.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  You do not need God in order to be good and in fact some very God-fearing people are, as we all know, very bad, as is God himself, especially in the Torah..

The second word in the title of my book is “atheist.”  But in the subtitle you find the phrase “secular humanist.”  I very quickly switch from one to the other, because I want the secular humanist point of view to be positive.  I want secular humanists to understand that they have something to be for, not merely against: if they read the Torah, they do it to find out the truth, a higher ideal than Biblical obedience.

Humanists stand FOR something.

What’s so important about “a-theism” anyway?  As Rabbi Wine asks, Why not classify religions as humanistic/ahumanistic?  Since the only beings who practice religion are humans, isn’t that just as important a division, if not more so, than theistic/atheist?

Some regions, such as Buddhism, are inherently atheistic or nontheistic.  Buddhism is humanistic as well.  Likewise, Secular Humanistic Judaism is both nontheistic and humanistic.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are mixed.  They are humanistic when they promote humanistic values, such as tolerance, nonviolence, the value and autonomy of human beings, charity, courage, compassion, honesty, and so on.

But they are decidedly ahumanistic when they practice exclusion, intolerance, oppression of women, discrimination, persecution, violence, ancestor worship, the submission of human beings to divine authority, and the mindless, unquestioning veneration of ancient texts.

Crusades and Inquisitions

Secular humanists have nothing to apologize for.  We do not start Crusades, we do not conduct Inquisitions, we do not torture and burn people who disagree with us.  We don’t kill people over the meaning of ancient texts. 

And, on a kinder, gentler level, we do not force our religion into the faces and lives of others by putting our ideals on parade insisting that politicians all adhere to them…or by staging in-your-face public celebrations of our values.

Can you imagine a baseball player, after hitting a winning homerun, saying, after the game, “Well, that was a great triumph for human effort — for me, the thousands of hours I’ve practiced…and the great advice from my coaches, not to mention the encouragement of the fans.  I want to say, right here and now, that God and Jesus had nothing to do with it.”

(3) What does the Torah really say?

A third reason why I wrote the book was that I’ve had long had misgivings about the Torah and what it said.

I had grown accustomed to seeing books of Torah commentary with the square of Torah text in the middle of a page with learned rabbis' comments arranged around it.  But I had never thought much about how people got from the original text to the commentary.

I began to focus on this question after 30 years spent in the theoretical study and practical application of linguistic principles, though never to religious texts.  And the reason I re-focused on the issue had to do with the fourth reason for writing the book:

(4) The direct provocation of a single individual.  He was the grain of sand in my oyster.  The match to my haystack.

I became familiar with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism at the Birmingham Temple (MI), where the Torah was kept in a library.  It came as something of a shock to me to encounter a humanistic temple in Deerfield (IL) where the Torah was actually in front of the congregation in its own little modernistic, lucite-and-brushed-metal Ark – and was actually read from on occasion.

This was the case when my then-wife and I first affiliated with Temple Beth Or in the mid-90s.  I eventually left and came back when there was a new Rabbi.  He was not of a secular humanistic bent when it came to the Torah.  Quite the opposite.

He was a Humanist convert from Conservatism.  His father was a rabbi.  His schtick was that he didn’t believe in God, but regarded Torah a “core resource,” the source of much wisdom.  He considered the persona of God to be an exemplar for human conduct – and said as much from the pulpit.  He had – and has – his followers.

I didn’t believe either of these propositions, but since I hadn’t read the Torah, I didn’t know for sure.  If the Jews had anything as good as the Buddhist and other Eastern wisdom from the same period, great.

I realized that I had to read the Torah in its entirety.  And I committed myself to the project.  I was determined to find out the truth: Is the document relevant and insightful to modern people?  Is the persona of God worthy of admiration?

I went in with no prejudices one way or the other.   If the answers to these questions had been yes, I would have written no book.

But there are about 6900 books on the Torah, and as far as I know, not one of them answers the above two questions the way I do: no and no.

There really is not much there. 

The Torah doesn’t have much to say to us on matters of morality and good living – why would it?  It’s from the eighth century B.C.E.  Its God, despite a few benevolent moments, is a vicious, vindictive tyrant.

The authoritative version of what the Torah really says (as far as we know)

I selected the Jewish Publication Society translation, which is both recent and authoritative.  Although I have a doctorate in linguistics, I’m just a beginner in Bible-text studies.  It was important for me early on to establish the scholarly credentials of the translation I was using.  As an linguist, I was able to do this.

Sure enough, the JPS version turned out to be highly authoritative, benefiting from the work of many scholars over a long period, repeatedly revised and refined.  I checked with an eminent rabbinical authority anyway…and the individual confirmed that this was indeed the authoritative version.

Later I acquired, as a backup reference, Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary… and found that he began with the very same translation.

Although I don’t recommend that you make the same 440-page slog of a journey through the JPS Torah, I will tell you that I encountered some surprises, which I will be happy to pass on to you.

Torah surprises

It came as something of a surprise to me that the Torah is selectively read, and that there is a great deal of subject matter that is never mentioned in Sunday school or uttered from rabbinical pulpits.

There is, for instance, a story in the book of Genesis (Ch. 34) about the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, by the sons of a local chieftain.  Her brothers take revenge by convincing the rapist’s kin (the Hamites) to be circumcised, then killing them while they’re recovering from the surgery!

As Mr. T. might say, I pity the fool who gets this passage for his/her bar/bat mitzva!

More importantly, there are long passages that vilify and predict the direst consequences for those who stray from God’s commandments (e.g., by becoming secular humanists).

52 verses of curses

One such passage (in Deut., Ch.  28) goes on for 52 verses and states at one point that the sinners’ plight will be so awful that women suffering from starvation will eat their own afterbirth!  The amount of space and attention devoted to – not to mention the richly detailed grotesqueness of – these punishments far exceeds, in terms of quantity of text, God’s better moments, and I find the curses to be some of the most eloquent writing in the Torah.

Adam and Eve: what it really says

I also discovered last some of the best-known stories don’t quite say what we are told they say.  The Genesis account of Adam and Eve says nothing about sin, sex, redemption, or the fall of man.  The serpent doesn’t even tempt Eve directly.  What exactly is the offense supposedly committed by Adam and Eve?

Genesis, Chapter 2, Verse 17 says, “but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not yield to it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”  In Chapter 3, we find the somewhat contradictory “the serpent said to the woman, ‘you are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.’”

So this is the problem: aside from the threat to their lives, Adam and Eve are not to acquire moral discernment.  Apparently that is to be left to God.

Tower of Babel: what it really says

There’s a similar distortion in the telling of the story of the Tower of Babel.  Again, according to tradition, human arrogance is punished.  What was the nature of this arrogance?

Genesis 11:5 tells us that “the Lord said, ’If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to do nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.’”

Arrogance?  Or aspirations?  If we look at the words of the text, it becomes clear that it is human aspirations that give God a problem.

As for the Babel story, language barriers are serious obstacles to human brotherhood and peace on earth.  There's no better way to exclude someone to his face than by chatting to another in a foreign tongue.  God (i.e., the Bible writer) has a point: if we all spoke the same language, think what we could accomplish!   


Most important of all, I discovered spin.  Spin is a particular kind of speech and writing about the Torah and the rest of the Bible.

It does not explain or elucidate, unlike commentary that provides archaeological or historical background, or perhaps alternate translations, to help readers better understand a certain passage.

No, this is commentary whose production resembles a cotton candy machine, spinning out long gauzy interpretations of what the Torah writers really meant to say, reinterpreting, translating, inserting metaphors, and often just making things up.  Plus, a lot of quoting out of context.

All in all, it adds up to what I call “rabbinical spin,” the process of transforming the simple (and often well-meaning) Torah text into a document of profound relevance.

Massive con job

So… in addition to all the other motivating factors for writing the book, there was the discovery of this massive and long-standing intellectual con game – the selective quoting, the quoting out of context, all the other “interpretive” strategies that constitute rabbinical spin – which I am eager to expose.


Now that you know the reasons why I wrote the book, you’ll understand why I have included the content that I have included.

The first chapter lays out the difference between translation and inference, between translating a text and spinning it.

This chapter also includes an appendix that explains why the JPS version is the magnificent work of scholarship that it is.  There’s also an appendix of “Torah FAQs” – since I found that most people don’t know the basic facts, among which are that the Torah is not the Bible and none of the events in the Torah actually happened or have any historical basis.

In the second chapter I actually analyze and dissect a learned rabbi’s statements about what the Torah says.  I identify the places where he departs from Torah content or simple paraphrase…and inserts passages from elsewhere in the Torah or starts creating his own metaphors, cross-cultural allusions, and made-up “interpretations” simply fashioned from whole cloth.

The third chapter is a Torah summary.   No spin.  Just what it says.

The next two chapters deal with the Torah’s morality (unimpressive) and the persona of God (more often than not, the CEO from hell).

The concluding chapter explains why it really matters – how the humanistic interpretation of the Torah is actually an example of humanistic values in practice, especially the scientific method, whereas the traditional treatment is a denial of these values.


Not true believers, unless they are open to humanist conversion.

True unbelievers, although a small minority of the population, will now have a rational, plausible, philosophically and scientifically consistent way of looking at the Torah.  It’s okay to believe that none of the events in the Torah actually happened.  Instead, historical and archaeological data tell us quite a bit about the early history of the Jews, and it is there, not the Torah, that we find the true beginnings of our people.

But by far my main target audience is the vast mass of potential doubters who are sitting in synagogues and churches (or not sitting in synagogues and churches) thinking that they simply cannot accept the traditional program…yet not knowing what the alternative might be.

Here’s a litmus test: if prayer makes you uncomfortable, embarrassed, just a little bit humiliated, you are probably a secular humanist, and you will find the book interesting and informative.

To stem the tide of ignorance and superstition, to help reason get back on its feet and make a case for itself: these are the purposes to which I’ve dedicated my book, my blog – and the rest of my life.


(The first person to request it after I post this can receive a free, autographed copy.  For everyone else, it's available on amazon.com.)

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Comment by Alan Perlman on August 3, 2012 at 8:37pm

God of the Torah is easy to dislike.  He calls himself "jealous" and the Israelites "stiffnecked" (several times).  He's the CEO from hell.  He tells Moses that he, God, better go ahead of the Jews because if he marches with them, he'll get so pissed that he'll kill them.

Instead of this Calvinistic prick, why didn't the Torah writers come up with a deity who's kind and forgiving, who shows the Israelites how to grow as human beings and to find the path to right conduct and a good life?  Because, primitive fools that they were, they themselves didn't know what these things meant.  So their morality is primitive (see Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

They very definitely created a god in their own image - a Bronze Age monarch with supernatural powers.

All religions are founded on the notion of thought crimes.

Comment by Rich Goss on August 3, 2012 at 11:27am


“For instance, sin can only be a result of action in Judaism, never thought. That's one of the things that I found enticing about Judaism.”

 You hit on one of the concepts that turned me off about Catholicism sine Grade One.  Do you know the main difference between a dictatorship and a totalitarian state?  The former strives to control behavior, but the latter strives to control thought.  Thoughtcrime in other words, but in the case of the church, thoughtsin.  Minga, how come the word isn’t in the dictionary?  There’re two commandments against it! 

 Christopher Hitchens has a field day with “divine invigilation”, God is watching our every move and thought.  Geez, Lord our God, gimme a break.  Like, even when I’m dreaming about some porn star, the lord is watching to see if I get a woody.  Not fair.  What a fukkin’ control freak!  Still gets me mad ‘til this day.


Comment by James Yount on August 2, 2012 at 8:52pm

The liturgical prayers require you to bend the knees, straighten them and then slightly bow at various parts.  The whole motion together looks like what we see at the wailing wall.  It all goes with the idea in Judaism that physical action is more important than intentions.  For instance, sin can only be a result of action in Judaism, never thought. That's one of the things that I found enticing about Judaism.  I came from a Christian background that was always stating that you were guilty of even fantasizing about doing something wrong, ie lust for a married woman.  There is a command against coveting your neighbor's etc, etc, etc but I've rarely heard a Rabbi preach thought crime. 

That being said, I HATE THE GOD OF JUDAISM.  He's a megalomaniac. He not only commits genocide (the flood) but orders his followers to perform genocide (the Amelekites).  He rewards blind obedience, even to commands of unspeakable cruelty (Abraham and Isaac).  So I'm not defending the devotion to this Yud Hey Vav Hey shithead.  I'm simply acknowledging that Judaism contains a lot of good aspects too.  Especially in some of the rabbinic debates.  There's a reason that Jews become lawyers so often!  And in a society that existed in the middle east among some of the worst of humanity, Judaism managed to instal a very good system of laws and justice.  They established many guidelines for the justice system that we still use today, such as equal weights and measures.

I'm not exactly sure about the relevance of Mitt Romney and Mormonism on the Torah, but I guess politics is heavily on all our minds lately.  My take is that his wailing wall excursion was just him doing the political shtick for PR in Israel.  We all know he needed a little good PR after the rest of his international excursion!  Further, Romney may think that he'll become a god one day, but if anyone knows of a politician who doesn't think they are one already, please let us know. ;)

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 2, 2012 at 7:01pm

To Richard...That is what scares me most: apocalyptic visions becoming a self-fulfiling prophecy. One of several ways religion threatens our existence.

BTW, there's an interesting history of how Jewish movie moguls created modern Hollywood, with movies that depicted their ideal vision of America.

Comment by Rich Goss on August 2, 2012 at 2:54pm

I hope I didn't sound sarcastic in my previous post.  Alan is certainly right about the contributions of the Jews to America and the world.  Absolutely laudable.  The Sarasota Opera recently presented a documentary on how the Gershwin, Berlin and Copeland families all immigraed to the U.S. under similar circumstances in the 1890s when the czar's nephew got assassinated.  By 1920, Manhattan was 20% Jewish. 

But I'm the coiner of the "endmeme."  Search the word on Youtube.  I can see it coming in some of Romney's statements about Iran.  What scares me is the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I even think W. Bush's hard-headed, fundamentalist bellicosity helped bring on 9/11. 

The vast majority of humanity, (Christians and Mohamedans) believe in the Second Coming of Christ or the Holy Prophet.  Not a healthy situation. 


Comment by Alan Perlman on August 2, 2012 at 2:08pm

Jim...It's posible to find wisdom everywhere -- and better, I've found, not to confine oneself to one culture's output. 

My take on Jewish unity and exclusiveness is that it was driven partly by centuries of persecution.  The Jew as victim is enshrined in W. culture.  The Jews internalized the image, as well as the pain, which they turned into their own brand of wry humor. 

What they did right was wall themselves off, encourage procreation, forbid intermarriage, and develop valuable but portable job skills (trade, jewelry, spices, medicine, and yes, moneylending), all the while preserving a tradition of learning, literature and disputation, which served them well when the Enlightenment opened up secular opportunities.  Other cultures have done many of the same things, as Thomas Sowell points out (e.g., Japanese, overseas Chinese). 

Comment by Alan Perlman on August 2, 2012 at 1:59pm

It's always possible (and devoutly to be hoped) that Romney will be a wishy-washy, go-through-the-motions guy when it comes to his religion, like Obama.  I can't imagine him practicing Mormon rituals publicly.  He must know how his faith creeps the rest of us out.  Even the WW behavior could be perfunctory and propitiatory.

He doesn't talk a lot about God, which is encouraging. 

I'm an optimist.  At least he's not a Scientologist.  Too much overt Mormonism would turn a lot of people off, and he's a politician first and foremost.

I don't know how the rocking-with-praying got started or what purpose it serves.  Maybe it helps whip them into a praying frenzy, throwing reason out the window.  The more Orthodox you are, the more you rock.  My assimilationist parents did not do it.

Comment by Rich Goss on August 2, 2012 at 4:19am

James, did you see Mitt Romney bowing and kissing the Wailing Wall last week?  To me, that's as scary as can be.  This man might some day have his finger on the nuclear button.  Can you imagine the crap buried in this guy’s subconscious?  He believes when he dies he and his wife become Gods of their own little universe.  I think you’re trying to defend the indefensible.  True, the Jews have accomplished great things, and been through a lot, but they have some pretty strange ideas. 

Question:  How are the rabbis at the Wailing Wall not reminiscent of the little plastic birds in the novelty shop that dunk their beaks in the glass of water and then pop up again?



Comment by James Yount on August 2, 2012 at 12:12am

I always liked the Midrash Rabba.  There's some good wisdom in there.  All man made like everything in religion and I know your personal grievances are with Judaism, but I always found Judaism more authentic and grounded than Christianity.  Still chalked full of it's own craziness, but you have to be doing something right to maintain a culture for so long.  Especially if you take into account all that the Jews have been through over the millenia.

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 31, 2012 at 8:11pm

You could definitely say that about the Book of Revelations, among others.  Whoever wrote that  was wacked out!



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