2: How do I pray if I don't believe in G!d?


[Intro music from Laurie Spector plays]

Hey, welcome back to Thread, a questions and sometimes answers podcast about Judaism. I’m your host, Rabbi Ariana Katz, and this is episode 2! And maybe one day we’ll get on a predictable release schedule. Stay tuned, fair listeners.

Let’s jump right in! [Music ends]

Today’s question comes from so many people, including Gracie and Michael and Julia, who asks:

How does one relate to prayer that mentions God when one doesn't believe in a supernatural G!d? What even is praying without G!d?

I’ve gotten a few questions specifically about prayer from y’all already, so we’ll start here and talk about G!d and supernaturalism, and then save more about the who/what/when/where and especially, how, for future episodes.

This is a really important question: What do those of us who don’t believe in G!d do with all the liturgy, that calls G!d a ruler, redeemer, savior, king, vengeance-taker... What happens when you dare to read the English translation of a prayer, and blammo, your bubble bursts? “Who chose us over all other nations” “who made me a woman” “who causes the blind to see” “ever loving and compassionate..”


To start, and we’ll spend more time learning from her work at the end of this episode, Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes so beautifully in her sermon God in Metaphor (link in the blog):

For many people, attending High Holydays services is a bit like going to a play where you really don't like the main character—where, much of the time, you doubt the very existence of the main character! If the “main character” in our traditional High Holydays liturgy is God, this can be quite a problem for anyone seeking a meaningful spiritual experience...Many of the dominant images of divinity that we encounter during these Days of Awe—God as King, as the Power over “who will live and who will die,” as Heavenly Father—fail to resonate with (or actively repel) many contemporary Jews. We're then left either to suspend our disbelief, be happy that we can't understand the Hebrew, or just close our eyes and enjoy the music, in order to make it through.

This experience of saying prayers without having to interrogate their meaning or how closely it mirrors your own belief is particularly unique to faith traditions where the liturgy is not in the native language of the congregation. So for any of us who are speaking and praying in Hebrew but not fluent (and liturgical and Biblical Hebrew is different even than spoken modern Hebrew too...) we have the luxury of...avoiding the uncomfortable translation issue.

So that is Actual Strategy Number One (ding!) for how to relate to prayer when G!d isn’t your speed: Accept that the meaning of the words are not the reason you’re praying, and honor all the other things that bring you to davven instead.

That can be empowering, to say “I pray these words because of tradition, because they are comforting, because this is What Jews Do” regardless of what I think about it.

Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in a 2013 piece from Tablet, An Athiest’s Synagogue Search

There is inherent value in saying words I do not mean, praying to a God I do not believe in, and kissing a Torah I do not believe was written by him. There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people.

That last moment is a reference to Jacob, who when he wrestled with an unknown person, maybe an angel, is given a new name: Yisrael. To be an Israelite is to quite literally be a G!d-wrestler.

OK so thats one approach.

Next: I learned this teaching from Elliot BatTzedek and the Fringes Havurah, a feminist non-Zionist havurah in Philly. Havurot are self-governing groups of people who come together to pray and be in community. She taught me this quote from Rabbi Rachel Adler. Rabbi Adler was one of the first theologian/ethicists to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into the interpretation of Jewish texts and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. She is a professor at Hebrew Union College in LA! My friend Rabbi Lori used to have her 2nd hand desk!

So b’shem Elliot b’shem Rachel Adler, this question:  “if we don’t mean the words we say when we’re praying, then why are we praying?!” Which brings us to Actual Strategy Number Two (ding ding) After thorough investigation of your siddur (prayerbook), and finding the story that it weaves is not one you personally can abide, find other words to say! In the vein of the Reconstructionist Torah blessing that instead of the traditional אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים, who chose us from all other nations, the Recon blessing is אשר קרבנו לעבדתו, who draws us close to Their works. Change the words, stay in the format of prayers but shift the words and images you cannot abide.

For example, I will often say רוח העולם, Spirit of the Universe, instead of מלך העולם, King of the Universe, because like the Prophet Samuel, I am inherently suspicious of the monarchic system. So an easy fix, when blessing wine to say ברוך אתה אדושם אלוקינו רוח העולם בורא פרי הגפן instead of אלוקינו מלך העולם...It keeps me in the flow of the prayer, actually allows me to pray well with others and just have a moment of cacophony, and we’re fine, if not a little confused for wear.

Or perhaps like the Humanistic Judaism blessing, that says

ברוכים האדמה השמש והגשם אשר יוצרים פרי הגפן,

We rejoice in the earth, the sun, and the rain, which produces the fruit of the vine.

Another mode that fits in with Actual Strategy Number Two (ding ding) is to find other liturgy. If the issue is relating to prayers that give G!d the sole power and rulership over the earthly domain, is there a different prayer that exists you might say? Or a piece of contemporary liturgy that does the trick? Forever big ups to movement elder, artist, historian, teacher, poet, and educator, activist, healer Aurora Levins Morales’ V’Ahavta, and the poet healer Marge Piercy’s interpretive Amidah (I’ll post links to them both on my blog!)

And one more: Actual Strategy Number Three: It’s all metaphor (ding ding ding!) Words, as we have them, are empty, they are just symbols and tools we use to explain the gigantic world and life among us. Rabbi Toba Spitzer continues in God in Metaphor:

To make real use of our liturgy, it is helpful to remember that the words in our prayerbook were written as poetry, as evocative metaphors to foster certain mind-states and attitudes in those who interact with them. Instead of asking, “Do I believe this?” we can ask of a prayer, “Where is this trying to take me?”Metaphors like” King” and “Creator of the Universe” are intended to help us feel our own relative smallness in relation to the cosmos, to invoke a sense of humility and service, while at the same time suggesting that there is Something in the vastness that both cares about us and holds us accountable. The metaphor of “Parent” speaks to an experience of returning home, of coming back to That which loves and accepts us. As with any metaphors, we need to remember that these are not definitions of God; they are poetic entryways into an experience of Something both within and around us.

We can also begin to employ new/old metaphors for the Divine: Water, Makom (place, rootedness), Rachamana (compassionate), Ruach (spirit), Ehyeh (the process of being), Echad (oneness.)

In response to this question overall, I’m thinking about the Rambam, as I do. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon born 1135 in Cordoba, Spain is one of the most prolific and influential Torah Scholars. He was also an astronomer and physician. Rambam held fast to apophatic theology--that is, negative theology. It is impossible, says the Rambam, to say anything about G!d. He writes in Chapter 50 of the Guide for the Perplexed, “Those who believe that God is One and that He has many attributes declare the Unity with their lips and assume the plurality in their thoughts.” So, you can say what G!d is not all you want:

“All we understand is the fact that [God] exists, that [God] is a being to whom none of Adonai’s creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other beings and whose relation to the universe is that of a steersman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real simile, but serves only to convey to us the idea that God rules the universe, that it is [God] that gives it duration and preserves its necessary arrangement.”

This is totally at odds with what we see in the siddur--what you might call positive theology, or cataphatic theology (not something you learn to pronounce in rabbinical school.) God is a warrior, God is a lover, God is the one who makes the Sun and Moon and Stars in their correct positions. This position of positive theology opens up an Actual Strategy Number Four (ding ding ding ding ) for us: that is, connect with the images you can connect with, and leave the rest. In communal group prayer, no one person will ever be fully represented or have their views reflected. So, if this positive-theology of the siddur is trying to take lots of little bites, follow the “more is more” philosophy and say everything they want about G!d, you too can (ding ding ding) take little bites from the liturgy, and hold true the things that work for you, and leave the rest. Maybe its the things that feel true about the People Israel, or the poetry of moments of liberation, or the themes of love and care that the siddur speaks of, outside of an existence of G!d.

Core to this question of “how does one relate to prayer that mentions God when one doesn't believe in a supernatural G!d?” is “why relate to prayer at all?” What is it about the prayer experience that draws you in to this tradition? Is it obligation, a feeling that praying three times a day is a mitzvah from our teachers? Is it community, a sense that something happens in the room when the people sing, the same words? Whatever the reason, being drawn to prayer without a belief that there is a being on the other end of the phone is a powerful, hopefully empowering concept. Your use of the technology of prayer is because of another draw--be it to mitzvot observance, communal practice, preservation of tradition. I invite you to see this as an opportunity for creativity, for continuing the Jewish project of finding yourself in the tradition, and making sense of the parts you’ve inherited from the people became before us.

To close, these words from Mary Oliver z’l, which is printed in our Hinenu siddur.

Praying, by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

This week’s continued reading is:  

All Revelatoin Begins with Heartbreak: Radical Faith in Torah and Ourselves, From Maimonides to Plaskow from Rabbi Jason Rubenstein

An Athiest’s Synagogue Search by Jonathan Zimmerman on Tablet from 2013

God in Metaphor: A Guide for the Perplexed by Rabbi Toba Spitzer

You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud. The next episode will be out before Passover b’li neder--no promises!

Have a question you want to hear me answer? bit.ly/threadpodcast, or arianakatz.com/thread. Be in touch! rabbi@hinenubaltimore.org, and join us at Hinenu for a service or learning--find our schedule and more at hinenubaltimore.org.

Thanks to Elissa Martel for the Thread art, and Laurie Spector of Hothead for the music.


Ariana Katz