In a medical school classroom, a young woman was praying to the universe.  She sat in a circle with a dozen fellow medical students, all silently practicing mindfulness meditation.  When the meditation was over, they went around the room, each one explaining how they came to the practice of mindfulness.  “In the meditation practice,” the young woman began, “I can sense a wellspring of love emanating from the Universe, and I feel great gratitude for this loving embrace.” “But”, she added almost defensively, “I’m an atheist.” Is this student really an atheist?

An atheist is understood to be someone who doesn’t believe in God. That seems simple enough. But what is this “God”? This word-“God”-is casually flung about in modern culture and yet rarely defined or explored seriously.

When many of us think of the word God we tend to imagine something ‘beyond’, a being up above who interacts with nature below but is not a part of the natural world; in other words, God is super-natural. The super-natural is associated with fairies, monsters, and a shirtless muscular guy throwing lightning bolts. The word “God” is therefore inadvertently tied to this imagery, and many self-proclaimed atheists make good fun out of this fact, ridiculing the “Abrahamic faiths” which they assume all share this super-natural God.

However, “God” is, of course, an English translation; in the original Hebrew of the Torah the word “God” doesn’t appear at all. If you were to open a Jewish prayer book or Torah text, instead you would find a cryptic four letter word which Jews traditionally do not pronounce; we read this word as “HaShem” or “Adonai” meaning “The Name” or “Master”. This “Name” contains the Hebrew words for past, present, and future- יהיה, הווה, הייה-suggesting a presence that dwells within time. We conclude every prayer with the declaration that The Name is “in the Heavens above and on the Earth below, there is nothing else”; not ‘there is no other god,’ but rather “there is nothing elsein all of reality.[1] The Name is alternatively referred to in Jewish tradition as “Life of the Worlds”, “Master of all Deeds”, and other designations, many of which suggest a pervasive intrinsic force within nature.[2] The most important of these appellations is perhaps simply “One”.[3] The One encompasses every wave and particle of nature, not merely a super-natural deity but nature itself: the warm wind on your face, the energy of oscillating protons, the fruity esters in your ale, and the faint whisperings in the recesses of your mind.

This is a far cry from the supposed God of the Abrahamic faiths, up ‘there’ and utterly super-natural. It seems that the Creator of the Torah was quite literally lost in translation, a victim of casual conflation. Translation always involves interpretation and alteration in meaning. This is especially true when translating from a three-thousand-year-old Eastern spiritual vocabulary into a modern Western one.  Often, Hebrew words cannot be translated at all; HaShem and God are simply two very different things.

HaShem is reality, and therefore spiritual growth and closeness to HaShem is fostered by deepening our awareness of reality. But what is reality? Is it the past? The past is merely a construct of the memory, which we all know can be quite selective. How about the future? The future is also a projection of the thinking mind, which offers us ideas about who we want to be or what we hope to attain.

The present moment is the only true reality that isn’t a construct of the thinking mind. Yet just thinking about the present moment isn’t the present moment either. If you hold an orange in your hand and decide to smell it, your mind will begin to think about smelling the orange: whether or not you like the smell, what else it smells like, and eventually what memories relate to the orange smell, likely all without your awareness. But is any of that thought really the orange smell itself? Of course not. Only if we can quiet our minds can we fully experience present moment sensations like smell. Attentiveness to the present moment, to life itself as it unfolds, is the door to perceiving the true nature of reality. However, the mind tends to get pulled along on an untamed river of thought. It requires human effort to climb out of the river and stand on the bank, observing the flow of thought. The ability to directly experience life and sense the Oneness of all reality requires an effortful exercise of the consciousness ‘muscle’, an exercise known as meditation practice

Meditation is known as a practice because that is exactly what it is: practice. We have to practice diligently in order to gain the ability to be mindful and to develop what is known in Hebrew as kavana – present-moment focused consciousness.

Kavana sits at the heart of tefillah, a Jewish meditative practice that is heavily burdened with misconceptions. Many Jews struggle with tefillah because they harbor unexplored notions of “prayer” and “God”. In our centuries-long sojourn in Europe we Jews have lost touch with our meditative traditions and techniques. Tefillah is commonly perceived in a Western lens, as an attempt to change the mind of some being separate from us and convince that being to do our bidding.  However, “to pray” in Hebrew is “l’hit’pallel,” a reflexive verb- something one does to oneself. The words of our prayers, our tefillot, are most often in the active present-tense- “forming light” “creating darkness” “making peace”- bringing our awareness to the present moment reality.  The Amidah, The Standing, serves as the pinnacle of the tefilla-meditation. We take three steps forward and enter the realm of direct experience. We seek to align our hopes and desires with those of the Life of the Worlds, and thereby sense our interconnectedness with the Universe. Without mindfulness practice the thinking mind gets in the way, or takes us away. We might be jolted out of a reverie about a Youtube video on how to cut pineapple to find ourselves taking three steps back and completing the Amidah.

Perhaps our meditating medical student was an atheist in regards to the “God” of the beyond, yet she seemed very much open to The One, The Life of the Worlds, HaShem, a Creative, loving, and conscious presence. It’s my hope that we can rediscover our meditative traditions and avoid conflating things like “HaShem” and “God” or “prayer” and “tefillah”. We owe it to ourselves to relinquish childish spiritual notions and unexamined ideas that we’ve inadvertently retained. If we don’t, not only do we risk losing our unique spiritual traditions, but we produce a generation of Jews who think that they’re atheists. As Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was known to have said, ‘there is faith that is actually denial, and there is denial that is actually faith.’ When our concept of “God” is so limiting and simplistic, it’s actually detrimental to faith. On the other hand, when a person professes atheism simply because they can’t come to believe that Charlton Heston split the Red Sea under orders from a king in outer-space with a big white beard, that person may be expressing an aspect of true faith in HaShem.

[1]From “A’lei’nu, a text traditionally attribute to Ye’ho’shu’ah an early warrior-prophet-king of the Jewish people

[2] Life of the Worlds-“Chai Olamim”- is the name for HaShem used in some mainstream Jewish blessings, such as the blessing after drinking water.

[3] “HaShem is One and His Name is One” from the Kabbalistic hymn “lecha dodi”. Shema, perhaps the fundamental declaration of Jewish faith, states “HaShem is our Power (elokeinu), HaShem is One”.