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To Pray or Not to Pray?

If secular people (Jewish or not identifying as Jewish) find themselves in religious settings, what should they do?

You sometimes hear a claim that Judaism doesn’t care what you believe, emphasizing deed more than creed. Anyone reading the English translation in an Orthodox, Conservative, or even Reform siddur (prayer book) would find that claim rather mystifying. The major focus in those services is not doctors who heal the sick, or farmers who grow food or human experience that offers lessons in right and wrong; praise, petition and gratitude are generally directed “upward” to God rather than to each other.

Take the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” by Maimonides, a pre-eminent medieval Jewish philosopher and rabbinic scholar, which are recited daily in traditional Jewish liturgy, and see how many you believe:

  1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
  2. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is One, and that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
  3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, has no body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.
  4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.
  5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.
  6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
  8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
  9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.
  10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, knows all the deeds of human beings and all their thoughts, as it is written, “Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions” (Psalms 33:15).
  11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, Blessed be His Name, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
  12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.
  13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, Blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.

You can do the same with the Amidah (standing prayer) blessings, also part of the traditional daily service. You might agree with some of them, but some people won’t agree with any of them. While Reform Jewish liturgy has softened some of these belief issues, there is still plenty of “God” to go around in those services as well.

For those who believe in a God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, writes Torahs and resurrects the dead, these words pose no dilemma. Similarly, there are those who are comfortable reciting these prayers in Hebrew who may not believe their literal meaning: perhaps they find meaning in the sounds and the rhythm; perhaps they don’t understand them and do not much care what they mean; perhaps they say the prayers simply because the words are traditional, which to them is more important than their being true; perhaps they have found a way to re-interpret “God” into something they can accept.

But there are many who sincerely and deeply do not believe in a god (or at least have strong doubts) and do not feel comfortable pretending to do so or redefining the plain meaning of what they are saying. They are following another Jewish tradition: sheh-lo yidabber ekhad ba-peh v’ekhad ba-lev — do not say one thing in the mouth and another in the heart (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 49a). Generations of Jewish martyrs died rather than say what they did not believe, and they died saying these words because they believed them so deeply. Should we treat these prayers like meaningless sounds, or even worse like Christmas carols that are fun to sing but we don’t really mean? What should Jewish doubters do when faced with participating in such a prayer service? Should they affirm a faith they do not share?

On some level, this issue is similar to a Jewish person visiting a Catholic church, or a Christian visiting a mosque — do what you feel comfortable doing, wait in respectful silence when you do not. If you have some Hebrew language knowledge, you could use the opportunity to practice your Hebrew reading skills or to learn something from the translation. Or you can treat the experience like a cultural anthropologist — witnessing the behaviors and customs of an approach to life foreign to your own, but produced by fellow human beings facing the same existence and challenges you do.

The more important question is what one does next: is a Jewish doubter condemned to perpetual dissatisfaction, always stuck with words and rituals they do not believe? I once officiated a funeral for a Jewish atheist who realized that volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, great works of Greco-Roman history and philosophy, were the same size and color as the Reform Union Prayer Book. So when his wife went to pray, he went to read and be inspired in his own way — and people commented on how closely he was following the service! Between supporting his wife and not knowing other options, he was present in body if not in spirit.

I do not advise replacement reading or the proverbial magazine hidden inside the book. A better answer today is that contemporary religious freedom has opened up myriad possibilities for creative responses to traditional liturgy. Jewish feminists have recast patriarchal language in more accessible terms. Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings uses ambiguous language, praising “The Source of Life,” which could be a god or goddess or simply the mystery of DNA and life itself. And congregations and communities of Secular Humanistic Judaism have created ceremonies, communities and schools that celebrate a cultural Jewish identity through a human-focused philosophy of life.

No longer need we simply endure, or feel like foreign observers in a celebration of our own identity. If we know what we believe, then we can be comfortable hearing what others believe, knowing that we have the opportunity and the strength to express who we are in our own time, in our own way.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the rabbi of Kol Hadash, a Humanistic Congregation in the north suburbs of Chicago, Ill., and the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Chalom was interviewed about his approach to intermarriage in “Mazel Tov” Instead of “Oy Vey”.