“Rabbi, How Can I Pray if I Don’t Believe in God?”

Nov 5, 2014 by

“Rabbi, How Can I Pray if I Don’t Believe in God?”

Many of us find it difficult to think of the world as having any kind of metaphysical aspect to it at all. But if that’s the case, then there’s no room for God if the empirical world is all there is. And if that is the case, then why should we pray?

Consider the Sh’ma, for example. It is a Biblical text that we recite in each of our services: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God the Lord is one. That’s what it means – it gets called the ‘watchword of our faith’ in the old Union Prayer Book, because it’s a foundational text for us. If you don’t believe in God, how can this statement be meaningful to you?

There is a way to approach it even if you don’t want to adopt a grand metaphysical view of the world. Let me explain.

The first word is often translated as ‘Hear’ – but it could also be translated as ‘Listen’ or ‘Pay heed.’ That means: don’t just hear it, but put down your phone or your magazine, stop thinking about something else, and really listen. This is important. Are you fully present? Are you fully engaged?

Listen, Israel. The Lord, your God.

‘The Lord’ is actually a euphemism. We are avoiding saying what’s literally written there. The text says Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which is the unpronounceable name of God. It’s God’s first name, if you will, and only the High Priest may say on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, we say Adonai in place of that unpronounceable name. Adonai is our way of addressing the transcendent divine creator – the God of everyone – in the context of our own uniquely Jewish relationship.

But you could also think of it as the name for the creative force in the world, the energy that drives evolution forward that allows chemical reactions to become life. You could decide to say ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘blind chance.’ You are naming a process here; it does not have to be a person.

The Lord is one.

When we say that the Lord, Adonai, is one, echad – what does that mean?

The point of saying echad is the idea that God is singular. By singular we mean unique, unlike anyone or anything else. Extraordinarily different. Transcending time and space, beyond our definitions of it, more than our imaginations allow.

This might not seem like a particularly important point, but it is actually most crucial. When we try to define God – when we try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible – we imagine things that are not God.

It’s like creating a small box and asking God to step inside so that we might carry God around with us like a good-luck charm.

God is so much bigger, and grander, and wilder than our charms and incantations. What most folks call ‘God’ is just a subset of the whole.

What do you do, then, if that’s a bigger statement than you want to make? Is it necessary to take it literally? Perhaps you might think of it this way: every human being is created in the image of God.

Imagine, then, that it says, ‘Listen, O Israel: every human being, your fellow-humans, every human being is singular.’ Take that message to heart and act upon it.

In other words: if you find it too much, to grand, to foolish to contemplate God, the universe, and everything in the macro scale, then think about God in the microcosm. Value human life, each individual you meet. Listen carefully when people talk. Put down your phone, and stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and listen. Every human being is singular, created in the very image of God. Listen.

If you listen long enough, eventually you might see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a category. A person rather than a stereotype.

In other words, if you are not sure how to love God with all of your heart, all of your mind, and all of your being, then direct your attention to the individuals around you, find what is godly in them, and love them for it.

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD., serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh.

2 Comments

  1. Joe Bigliogo

    If I don’t believe in god (or gods), it means there can be no first name like “Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh” or “Adonai” for things that don’t exist. It also follows there is no “transcendent divine creator” or “energy that drives evolution”. The only energy that allows life to exist is the heat and light from the sun. Evolution is driven by natural selection which is not a force or energy. It’s just a fancy way of saying that life adapted to it’s environment has a better chance of survival and to passing on it’s genes to future generations.
    We already have names for these processes and framework called science that observes, measures and explain. There is no reason to call these processes “God” and stir up confusion in the minds of many who think of god as a personal god.
    “We try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible” Yes we can only explain things in terms of things we already know. If something is presumed to be greater than my capacity to know then I really have no business holding any opinion, value judgement or whether or not it even exists. Indeed I have nothing to say about things I do not know.
    The rest of this article I cannot make any sense of as it wafts into a hazy incoherency. So I’m still stuck with the inescapable notion that without god prayer is futile because there is no one listening to my prayers except me.

  2. Thanks for your comment. This essay was intended to give a framework for people who wish to pray but cannot find a reason to do so because they do not believe that there is a personal god who listens to prayer. It’s addressed at agnostics as opposed to scientific materialist atheists, which is probably why it’s not making sense to you. I am happy to engage with you here, if you would like, to discuss the issues that you raise.

    At one point in my life, I was an atheist. I did think that religion was nonsense, and that prayer was just plan delusional.

    What caused me to change my position was the realization that science provides explanation of ‘how’ but it does not explain the ‘why.’ It didn’t answer the basics: Why do we exist? To what end?

    It is possible, of course, to reduce the how meaning of our lifespans to “passing on our genes to future generations” but it seemed to me then (and to me now) that such a position is unnecessarily reductionist. There is a lot more to it than that.

    When I do a eulogy, for example, I am very much aware that the sum of a person’s life is best measured in relationships: whose lives were touched, and changed for the better, by the person who passed away. And at that moment of closure, it does seem to matter that this person lived and was loved. Why is that?

    So, when I first started thinking in those terms, that’s also when I started thinking that maybe there were things, such as love, relationships, and emotions, that are not explained by a purely scientific materialist view. A family, for example, is so much more than the simple math of procreation.

    You don’t have to agree with me, of course; I’m just explaining why I think the way that I do. All the best to you.

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