Saturday morning often finds me in synagogue. I like the minor-key melodies, the music of the Hebrew, the ancient echoes of the archaic liturgy. I go for the comforts of ritual and community, and the subtle dramas that unfold across the seasons. Setting my life aside for those hours restores me, even as I spend much of that time wondering why I’m there.
What’s the point of praying when you don’t believe in God? That was the focus of a class I taught at my synagogue Tuesday night.
We began by considering the Amidah, a silent prayer that follows the form of a subject petitioning a ruler to grant wisdom, forgiveness, justice, and other good things. As a private meditation, the Amidah encourages personal interpretation. The praying atheist can make sense of it by turning it inward. Rather than asking an external power for forgiveness she might consider how to make right wrongs she has done, or cultivate her capacity to forgive others.
I closed the session by talking about retooling traditional texts to reflect one’s beliefs. I gave the example of the Sheva Brachot – the Seven Blessings at the center of the Jewish wedding – which we reinterpreted when my daughter got married. Rather than saying blessed be God for creating man in his image, we said blessed be compassion, graciousness, patience, kindness and truth—attributes the Bible ascribes to God, and values a praying atheist might strive for.
The prayer that generated the most discussion in class was the Mi Sheberach, the healing prayer. When it’s time to say the Mi Sheberach at my synagogue here in Providence, the rabbi invites anyone with a friend or relative who is ill to come forward and offer their name. Between a dozen and thirty people quietly walk to the front of the room and form a line facing the congregation. The cantor chants in Hebrew, May the One who blessed our ancestors—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—bless and heal the one who is ill. There he pauses, as the rabbi walks from person to person, and each one inserts a name.
When the list is complete the cantor finishes the prayer, asking God to show compassion upon those who are ill, to restore, strengthen and enliven them, and to send them a complete healing—not just of the body, but also of the soul. Of all the prayers the atheist in me has trouble saying, the Mi Sheberach bothers me most. It just feels so, well, superstitious, to make such a specific request, about specific people who are not even there to hear it. And it gets worse when you consider the formulation used to name those who are ill. In just about all other contexts, my Hebrew name is Ruth daughter of Isaac (my father’s Hebrew name.) In the Mi Sheberach, I would be referred to as the daughter of my mother.
Why? One explanation is that it’s best to pray using the most definite facts available, and maternity is easier to verify than paternity. Another explanation is that the person who needs healing requires zchoot—merit—either by their own deeds or their parents’, and mothers are likely to have more zchoot than men, for reasons I won’t go into here.
Both these explanations point out problems, which Harold Kushner describes vividly in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. “Do I…really believe in a God who has the power to cure malignancies and influence the outcome of surgery, and will do that only if the right person recites the right words in the right language? And will God let a person die because a stranger, praying on her behalf, got some of the words wrong? Who among us could respect or worship a God whose implicit message was ‘I could have made your mother healthy again, but you didn’t plead and grovel enough’?”
These questions should trouble even committed theists. They certainly trouble me. But what troubles me more is how many intelligent, reasonable people, including respected physicians, participate in the Mi Shiberach. What troubles me most is that I do it, too. Help me figure out why I do it, I asked my class.
Because you’re feeling powerless, and feels like doing something,” someone pointed out.
“It reminds you to think about the person, and to consider what you might be able to do for them,” someone else said.
“The spectacle of all those people standing up there, worrying about loved ones who are ill, makes the whole congregation think about the fact that people need healing, and reminds us of the need for compassion,” a third person said.
I wrapped up the discussion with a third explanation I have seen for why we use the mother’s name in the prayer. We use it because the prayer addresses the Shechinah, God’s caring, nurturing and sustaining aspect. The mother’s name is also connected to the concept of mercy, which in Hebrew, rachamim, has the same root as womb. A theist praying the Mi Sheberach might picture God as a caring mother. An atheist might turn the prayer inward, and focus on his own role as nurturer and sustainer.
As a parent, I have plenty of experience soothing hurts. The connection between mothering and sustaining was most obvious when I breastfed my children. Anyone who has done this knows the sensation of “let down,” the chemical tingle as the milk begins to flow. It can be triggered unexpectedly, such as when you hear someone else’s baby crying. Even after I stopped nursing, I felt that tingling again from time to time. But it grew less and less frequent. Then, ten years after I weaned my younger child, my mother became ill. I called her hospital room, heard the helplessness in her voice, and felt my milk letting down. Nursing is nursing. The next time I feel moved to pray the Mi Sheberach, I’ll remember that moment.