Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

Why Should I Pray if I Don’t Believe in God?

For many of us, myself included, prayer is one of the most challenging aspects of Judaism. After all, to whom or what, exactly, are we praying? What, if anything, can that entity actually do about the things for which we’re praying? And of what benefit is praying by reading from a book that is filled with hundreds of pages of words that are not ours and that are written in a foreign language? What are we to do with all the prayerbook’s God-language -especially since studies estimate that between half and two-thirds of Jews are agnostic or atheist, and most of the rest of us reject the God-idea described by classical theology – and the God of the prayerbook is so evocative of the God-idea most of us spurn? And why does the Jewish tradition insist we pray with a community?

No wonder synagogues struggle to attract people to come to services! As Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Blessed Memory once put it, “The [crisis] of prayer is not esthetic, it’s theological.” We could improve our music, sermons, and prayerbooks all we want. We could spend millions constructing the ideal worship environment. But none of it will be of any use unless we can demonstrate, especially to the skeptics among us, that prayer is real.

In order to do that, we must first dispel the biggest myth about Jewish prayer, that its purpose is, primarily, to persuade God to intervene in our lives and world, even, if necessary, by supernatural means. According to this myth, if we say the right words, pile on the right praises, or offer the most earnest entreaties, we can change God’s mind.

But this view doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for those who don’t believe. It doesn’t make sense for those of us who struggle with belief or hold an unorthodox theology. And it doesn’t even make sense for those who believe in classical theology (the view that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good). After all, wouldn’t an omniscient God already know what we want before we pray for it? How could our prayers change the mind of a perfect God? And why does God not award the righteous everything they pray for?

But the purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. Rather, the purpose of prayer is to change our hearts. The Talmud famously refers to prayer as avodah sh’ba-lev, literally, the “work that is inside the heart.” In other words, prayer is heart work, an opportunity to refine and repair the inner brokenness with which we all struggle.

Perhaps that’s why the Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah. Tefillah comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Lamed-Lamed, which means judgement, so it more literally translates not as prayer, but rather as the process of judging oneself. Instead of being a confrontation with God, prayer is actually meant to be a confrontation with ourselves, an examination of our own hearts and our own souls, an opportunity for us to hold our lives up to the light of what we can become.

It turns out, however, that, left to our own devices, most of us are not very good at thorough introspection, honest self-evaluation, or personal transformation. Our rabbis knew this about us. So they developed a powerful tool to aid us called a Siddur, a prayerbook.

The prayer book, as our rabbis designed it, is framed as an encounter, largely as a confrontation between each of us and God, but also as a meeting between us and some of the central wisdom teachings and moral imperatives of the Jewish tradition.

In so doing, the siddur holds up to each of us an articulation of our highest ideals and confronts us with the powerful, haunting question, “How does the ‘is’ of your life – your choices, your deeds, your accomplishments – measure up to the ‘ought’ of your life?”

The siddur invites us to use God – the exemplar of love, justice, experience, and compassion – as the yardstick to measure our lives. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way: “Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.” Holding that mirror up to us, and to our world, the siddur asks, “Are you content with what you see?”

So, for example, when one recites the prayerbooks’ words pote’ah et yadekha u’masbi’a l’khol chai ratzon, that God opens God’s hand and with love sustains all the living, that mirror asks, “Have you done enough to feed the hungry?” When one says oseh ha-shalom, that God is the maker of peace, that mirror asks, “Have you been working on peace inside yourself? How about within your household? Your community? What have you done to fulfill the prophetic vision that ‘Nation will not lift up sword against nation?’”

Traditional Jewish prayer, in this sense, is a teacher. It teaches us, in Heschel’s words, “what to aspire to.”

True, the prayers of the siddur are written as statements we make to God. But they are in actuality intended to be statements we make about God to ourselves, forcing us to see ourselves in this mirror of the holy.

Which means that you don’t need to believe in God in order for prayer to work. Though the rabbis who wrote the Siddur believed in the existence of the God they were describing, those of us who struggle with belief can just as easily see the God of the siddur as a personification of our tradition’s highest human ideals. And whether you are a believer or a doubter, viewing yourself in the light of this God idea can push you to clarify your highest hopes, discover your true aspirations, feel the pains you regularly ignore, and recall the longings you so often forget.

Traditional Jewish prayer accomplishes these tasks in another important way, too. The siddur forces an encounter with our ancestors, with the living community of which we are a part, and with our future descendents.

We meet our ancestors in the open pages of the Siddur. In the words of my teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, “the Siddur invites [us] to stand with a millennium of Jews who have been praying these words.” When we stand with those relatives, we are challenged to consider whether we are worthy of the gifts they gave us, whether we are upholding the legacy they left us, whether we are doing enough to cherish the treasure of Jewish tradition that so many of them were prepared to endure pogroms, and torture, and the gas chambers, rather than abandon.

The Siddur also forces us to encounter the present Jewish community. It provides a common prayer-language – meaning both a common liturgy and the shared Hebrew language – that is surprisingly universal among Jews, wherever they live, and whatever ideological flavor of Judaism they practice. By worshipping with a shared script, we expand beyond the confines of our own limited lives and become more than we are alone.

And, when we open the Siddur, we meet our descendants, the Jews of the future, who will ultimately run their fingers over those same pages and chant those same words. When we do, we are compelled to ask whether we are doing everything we can to ensure they embrace the Judaism we are bequeathing them, whether we have given them the resources necessary to make that Judaism a living part of their lives, and whether we have done enough to make sure the world they inherit is better than the one we were born into.

Jewish prayer invites us to ask ourselves many powerful questions several times a day, every day.

True, there is discomfort and danger to our status quo inherent in those questions. That’s why the Siddur frames our prayer as an encounter with a God that is all-knowing. It enables us to confront those hard questions with Someone who already knows our answers. And because that Someone is described as, above all, being loving and compassionate, we can answer without shame, because however we respond, we will not be judged or disregarded. Whether we stand in the presence of that Someone because we believe she is really there, or whether we temporarily imagine that Someone to have an opportunity to be ourselves honestly, prayer enables us to fully encounter ourselves, and live better lives through that encounter.

Prayer is heart work, and in that sense, it is hard work. It takes study, and dedication, and practice to be able to do well. Nevertheless, whatever the content of your belief – or lack thereof – know that prayer works. It might not change God’s mind. And it might not change your mind about God. But give it a chance, and it may very well change your heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
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