As an example I’m going to focus on one community in NYC called Lab/Shul. On their website, in the FAQ section, they explain what they mean by “God-optional” this way:
“The notion of Divine Presence is a personal and unique experience for each individual, as well as a significant historical feature of Judaism. In our ongoing search for authentic, common, spiritual ground, we replace the reliance on the English term “God” with a multiplicity of metaphors and prisms that embrace a more modern, gender-neutral, and abstract relationship to what is ultimately beyond language. We invite you in on your own terms, in your own way, to co-create this experience with us.”
As you can see, God is still very much required, but they’re using more abstract language to talk about God because they know the word God doesn’t work well for a lot of people. Atheism and non-theism are not considered an option. This is hammered home by the question about whether they use Hebrew for prayer:
“Yup! Like our ancestors before us, we use a mix of Hebrew and the vernacular (these days, English). While we write our own unique, poetic, God-optional English translations, we leave the original Hebrew sources mostly untouched with a few significant changes: we replace the gendered and autocratic word “Melech” (“King”) with the more nuanced and non-gendered word “Ruach,” roughly translated as “Spirit” or “Breath.” We also replace the declaration that Jews are chosen from all other people with the idea that we are all chosen for our unique voices in the world.”
As can be seen here, in order to participate in Shabbat or holiday celebrations/observances, vocal affirmations of belief in God are required. While they’re willing to change the Hebrew in some instances to reflect their beliefs, changes to reflect atheism/non-theism are not embraced. This is not “God-optional.” God-optional would be providing choices that truly are godless.
I’m not picking on this community. I’m sure they’re great. But this is a misleading common practice in liberal Jewish circles (meaning non-Orthodox). People are very fond of saying that Judaism doesn’t require belief in God (and it doesn’t, that’s true), but then insist that Shabbat and holiday observances consist almost entirely of prayer to a God they say they don’t require belief in. That is inconsistent.
Now, obviously, public observances need to have some consistency. Everyone can’t be off completely doing their own thing, and obviously there are a lot people who do believe in God and want to pray. And that’s fine. But don’t try to market it as god-optional or accepting of atheists/agnostics if the entire program consists of prayers and songs addressed to God.
This is, in fact, why the Society for Humanistic Judaism exists. Our integrity is important to us. We don’t want to chant prayers to a God we don’t believe in. We say what we mean, and mean what we say, which requires liturgy that reflects our actual, non-theistic, Humanistic beliefs. Just as Lab/Shul rejects the word melech (king) and language about the chosen people to reflect their beliefs, we reject god language altogether to reflect ours. Every movement changes and rejects things that don’t reflect their beliefs so they can continue to practice Judaism with integrity.* So, why do so many communities trying to attract the people who doubt or disbelieve in God want to require atheist and agnostic Jews to put aside their beliefs? The only reason I can really see is a continued bias against atheism and agnosticism as somehow morally wrong or intellectually deficient, as something to be grudgingly tolerated until it can be overcome rather than embraced as a valid worldview in itself. According to Pew (2013), 23% of the American Jewish population are full on atheists, and another 38% aren’t sure about God. It’s time to embrace a truly God optional Judaism.
*Note: Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism have all changed the language of the prayer service to reflect their beliefs, for example, by adding the matriarchs to the first blessing of the Amidah, or using “creative interpretation” for the vernacular translation of prayers, or excising language about being Chosen, or cutting out the blessing thanking God for not being born a woman, etc.