At its heart, Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, about each of us having an opportunity to enter into the new year with a clean slate, absolved of our past transgressions. Forgiveness, however, requires confession. In order to be freed of the burdens of past guilt, each of us must first acknowledge what we are guilty of.
In that spirit, I feel compelled to begin this Yom Kippur with a confession of my own:
I don’t believe in God.
OK, now that I have successfully shocked and outraged a sizable percentage of you, I am ready to follow up that confession with an important qualification: I do, indeed, believe in God. I just don’t believe in the god that I’ll bet most of you presume I believe in because I am a rabbi. And I don’t believe in the god most of you think that you’re supposed to believe in as Jews, even though, if we are to be honest with each other, I’ll bet most of you do not actually believe in that god, either.
You know, of course, the god I’m talking about. Maybe some of you are picturing that god right now, no doubt aided by the imagery evoked in the High Holy Day prayerbook, that of God as Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King; an old, masculine ruler who sits on His throne to judge all his creatures with perfect judgment, patiently listening to our prayers to determine who among us is worthy of another year, choosing which of us to inscribe for life. This god knows everything, including that which is hidden and that which has not yet come to pass, and is all-powerful.
Let’s call this God-image “classical theology,” since it’s been the most popular understanding of God since Aristotle.
There are, of course, plenty of voices and texts in our tradition that support the classical view. And some of you may indeed, with purity and sincerity, believe in a god so understood. My intention is not, in any way, to belittle or refute your faith. If you find that classical conception of God meaningful or helpful, then I laud and celebrate your faith, especially if you take that faith seriously and live by its demands.
Personally, though, I struggle with that understanding of God for any number of reasons. I certainly believe that there is more to reality than the observable and quantifiable. I identify that awesome mystery as God. But as a person persuaded by science, I am skeptical of the supernatural. So, while I acknowledge that we do not yet understand every aspect of how our universe works, I cannot believe that there are forces that operate outside the bounds of nature’s laws. Even if God exists, God must obey the rules.
I affirm that there is power, and maybe even consciousness, in the cosmos that both far exceeds my own and is impossible for science to verify or reject. I call that immensely powerful and conscious organizing force God. Yet I cannot reconcile a power or a consciousness that is simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. If such a power existed, bad things would not happen to good people. I suspect that most of us who struggle with the notion of God, or reject belief outright, do so largely on similar grounds. For God to be God, God must be good and just.
My theology, my belief in a just and loving God bound by natural law, may be unorthodox, but it helps me understand the universe and my place in it in a way that I find personally meaningful, intellectually compelling, and compatible with traditional Judaism.
However, since we are being honest with each other today, I have to admit that my rejection of classical theology sometimes makes one particular religious act especially difficult for me: prayer. After all, to whom or what, exactly, am I praying? What, if anything, can that entity or power actually do about the things for which I’m praying? And, on top of all that, of what benefit is praying by reading from a book that is filled with hundreds of pages of words that are not mine and are written in an alien language? What am I to do with all the prayerbook’s God-language, especially since it is so evocative of the God-idea I reject? And why do I need to pray with a community?
These problems are probably even more acute for those among us who are agnostic or atheist, and studies estimate that is between half and two-thirds of you. No wonder we have such trouble getting people to come to services! We could improve the music, the sermons, and the prayerbooks all we want. We could spend millions constructing the ideal worship environment. But none of it will be of any use if the vast majority of us see prayer irrelevant and obsolete. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Blessed Memory once put it, “The [crisis] of prayer is not esthetic, it’s theological.” Our synagogues will remain empty 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 who struggle with belief or hold an unorthodox theology. And it doesn’t even make sense for those who believe in classical theology. 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?
No, the purpose of prayer cannot be changing God’s mind. Rather, Jewish tradition has always emphasized that the purpose of prayer is actually 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. We strive to do the right and the good, but we are so often unclear about what the best next step ought to be, given our present circumstance. We judge ourselves either too favorably or not favorably enough, and avoid insights that might compel us to change direction. We compare ourselves to others, to their actions, their accomplishments, or their possessions, rather than measure our lives by the yardstick of our own potential.
Our rabbis knew this about us. בְּטֶרֶם אֶצָּרְךָ בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” So they developed a powerful tool to aid us called a Siddur, a prayerbook.
The prayer book, as our ancient 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?”
In place of our own ego, or that Facebook acquaintance we always stack ourselves up against, 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?”
When you intone the siddur’s words that call God rofei holei amo Yisrael, Healer of sick, you are holding up that mirror to yourself. It asks, “Are you taking care of your body? And what have you done to aid the sick and injured?”
When you say 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 you say ga’al Yisra’el, that God is the redeemer of Israel, that mirror asks, “What is holding you back from living your best life? What is keeping you from true happiness? What are the possibilities you haven’t yet seen, the opportunities you have not yet seized?”
You’re holding that mirror when you recite the Shema, the Jewish declaration that God is One, that all reality comes from the same source and is interconnected. The mirror exposes the hypocrisy of uttering such a statement while simultaneously mistreating those of other races, religions, nationalities, abilities, and economic status, or while plundering and poisoning our planet.
We’re looking at ourselves in that mirror when we say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your power.” Will it reflect a person who embraces God’s highest characteristic of compassion, a person who loves both his neighbor and the stranger? Or will it show a person who vilifies, humiliates, exploits, intimidates the immigrant, the refugee, the disadvantaged, the broken? Will it reflect a person who hoards her wealth, or will it reveal a person who gives generously, devoting her resources to acts of kindness, justice, and world-repair?
When you say oseh ha-shalom, that God is the maker of peace, that mirror asks, “Where are you on the whole peace thing? 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…Redemption, purity of mind and tongue, or willingness to help, may hover as ideas before our mind, but the idea becomes a concern, something to long for, a goal to be reached [only] when we pray.”
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 in God can just as easily see the God of the siddur as a personification of our highest 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. In addition to inviting us to see ourselves through God’s eyes, the siddur also forces an encounter between each of us and our Jewish ancestors, between each of us as individuals and the living community of which we are a part, and between each of us and 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 long-lost relatives, we are challenged to consider whether we are worthy of the great 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. When I pray with the Siddur, I worship alongside my Zayde’s Zayde, and I am forced to wonder whether I am worthy of being his heir; and I worship with Moses, Hannah, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the Ba’al Shem Tov, and Debbie Friedman, and I am forced to consider how I can become a righteous, questing soul on their level.
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. This is true whether I pray with a real, living Jewish community, which is the tradition’s ideal, or whether I pray privately, since, by worshipping with the shared script, I am expanding beyond the confines of my own limited life and becoming more than I am alone by binding myself in that moment with all the Jewish people.
The confrontation demands that I ask myself, “Do you love the Jewish people? What are you doing about that resentment you have in your heart for other Jews, other Jewish communities, other forms of Jewish expression? And have you done enough to support the State of Israel and imperiled Jews around the world?”
And, when we open the Siddur, we meet our future 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 lovingly 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. Indeed, though it is possible that an absence of faith keeps us from synagogue, I’m willing to bet the real reason most of us stay away from Jewish prayer is that we intuit the discomfort and danger to our status quo inherent in those questions. Most of us would rather not look at our reflection in that mirror and see ourselves as we truly are. We fear we would wilt under those bright lights, and fear the life changes our answers would demand.
And in framing our prayer as an encounter with a God that is all-knowing, the Siddur provides us an opportunity 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, only shown, if we are willing to see it, the next, best possible steps we can take forward. 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 as a result of 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. That’s why this year we at Temple Beth-El are hosting a year of adult learning about prayer. We’re calling this exciting education program “Mastering the Service of the Heart.” All year long, we will be holding classes and seminars aimed at making Jewish prayer more enriching, more relevant, and more real. Whether you are a believer or a skeptic, a prayer pro or rookie, I invite you to join us for any or all of these opportunities.
Whatever the content of your belief – or lack thereof – as someone who wrestles with God as much as anybody, I nevertheless want you to know this: prayer is real. 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.