I’ve got this friend Jack, and one day he asked me if I really pray.

“It happens sometimes,” I said. “How about you?”

“I don’t believe in G‑d,” Jack replied. “I’m an atheist. But I pray sometimes. Lately, more often.”

My mind went through a thousand comebacks. My heart put them aside. Jack kept talking as though I had countered him anyways.

“Prayer feels right,” he told me, “and it’s helpful. The G‑d thing is, well, not for me.”

“So who are you praying to?” At this point, I couldn’t help but ask.

Jack thought for a moment, then replied, “I can’t explain it. But it’s not G‑d.”

Intrinsic Prayer

According to Pew, quite a few self-proclaimed atheists will occasionally pray, especially in harrowing times like our own. After thinking about it, I don’t find that hypocritical or even inconsistent. On the contrary, maybe they’re connecting with something very real.

The need to pray seems intrinsic to the human Without prayer, we are all fair prey to the monster of existential angstbeing. Without prayer, we are all fair prey to the monster of existential angst—that terrifying loneliness of a human being who has stepped back for a moment to behold his own warm sentience floating helplessly within the vast sea of what appears to be a cold, brutally dispassionate universe.

Prayer is the human spirit pushing back against that nihilist apparition, insisting that there must be something deeper, that just as his own physical body frames a living person—a deliberate, innately free and unpredictable being—so too beneath the façade of this universe is tucked away a mystery, a being-ness of unbounded freedom, one that knows him and hears his voice. For did not he himself emerge from its womb?

And he finds nothing else to call it but “You.” The one to whom I pray.

Someone who has religion in his life—especially if it’s something he’s come to embrace and discover on his own—he has a ready outlet of expression for this communion with that existential mystery. He has regular times for fixed prayers, grace before/after meals, and rituals that imbue his daily life with transcendental meaning.

But there’s a trap lurking within human nature that easily subverts all the depth and wonder of such a life. You see, you might start believing that all this makes sense to you. That’s quite human—to stuff all of reality into neat compartments of the mind. But now the mystery that coursed like warm blood through the veins of those prayers and rituals congeals and clots, even freezing in place.

To the point that when we ask, “Who is this to whom you pray?” there’s an answer ready to spit back. And that’s when the real problem begins. That’s when a man’s god becomes an idol, only a little bigger than his own self.

The atheist knows of that little god and those who The atheist knows of that little god and those who worship it. And he rejects such a notion.worship it. That “invisible entity” or “deity” as they are wont to call it. As though within the set of “all things that could be or not be” exists one particular entity that made them all and rules them. And he rejects such a notion. Which greatly angers the religious person.

Accessing the Unknowable

But perhaps we are misjudging this atheist. After all, if an atheist feels a need to pray, that itself is an indication of a deep searching, a small opening into a place so intimate to the human soul it simply cannot be expressed in anything other than a silent prayer to something unknowable.

And it is that sense of the unknowable that leads him to so strongly reject that crude, little god, that idol, that certain small minds may have carved out for themselves.

And quite justifiably. The true mystery that the human soul detects breathing within this all-encompassing universe could not be another number of the same set, another “entity” that could be or not be. As the Zohar expresses it, “You are One, but not in a numerical sense.”1

Meaning: Not part of any set. Not like any existence we know.

Or as Maimonides plainly writes, when we say “G‑d is One” we mean that G‑d is not an entity as we know entities, because all entities as we know them have two possible states—being and not being. G‑d does not have that duality. We cannot even say that “G‑d exists”—for that implies that there are two things here, Him and His existence. But He is void of all dualities, even that of being or not being.2

We are speaking then, on another plane of reality, a plane upon which nothing else can be called real. There is only One.

No, Jack Slack didn’t learn Maimonides or pick up a Zohar. But, to some degree at least, maybe that’s what Jack meant: This mystery to which he prays on occasion, it’s not the little god he imagines religious people worship. Because as soon as you describe it, that’s not it.

Jack touches truth, but can’t embrace it. Just as it’s a Jack touches truth, but can’t embrace it.shame that some religious people can’t allow themselves to live with the transcendental and unknowable without boxing it in, so it’s a shame that Jack can’t allow himself to embrace the mystery he feels. Both suffer that same fear of the unknowable.

But truth is there. Because all of us touch truth. Because—although smaller truths may be difficult to grasp—the ultimate truth is readily accessible to all.

I better explain that.

Getting to the Source

The Ari, the greatest of the kabbalists, taught that the prerequisite for the creation of the cosmos was a complete and utter withdrawal of the primordial infinite light. Only then could a finite trickle of light return to generate and sustain a universe.3

In his most articulate interpretation of this withdrawal,4 R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that only the light went into hiding. But the light is not G‑d. G‑d is the source of light. And the source of light is never hidden. It’s there in plain sight for all to know. Even small children know it’s there.

What is there? What is it about? What does it tell you? To what lofty heights does it lift you? In what mysterious ways does it enlighten you?

That is light. The light was withdrawn. You But the essence, the origin, the source of all light—that is always accessible, everywhere, at all times, to all beings, in all things.will have to labor, struggle, toil, and even then in a lifetime attain less than a glimpse of a minute reflection of a dim trickle of the light.

But the essence, the origin, the source of all light—that is always accessible, everywhere, at all times, to all beings, in all things.

And so, adds R. Hillel of Paritch, the essence-core of every person’s soul is always immediately accessible to him or her.5

That innermost of the soul knows the innermost reality. Not that it understands. It is not something you understand—just as ideas are not things you touch. You have to be that reality to know it.

The essence-core of the soul knows. And that place in the soul is always accessible.

Even accessible, Reb Hillel might agree, to an atheist. The atheist even has a slight advantage: his rejection of any form or describable entity that could be called G‑d. It is only that noisy, endless light of intellect and reason that stands in the way. Put aside all preconceptions and within that quiet void, there is only the very source of light.

You

What do we call that source of light?

Any description is a lie. The most divine name is almost profane.

Even to say “Him” or “Her”—certainly the chilling, impersonal “It”—is already saying too much, as though you recognize this entity enough that you can say that it is here or not here.6

Light contains some sort of information. Light can be distant and hidden, light can be present and revealed. But the source of light is only known because it is here, now—because it is absurd to imagine otherwise.

Indeed, concealment and revelation, being and not-being—all these apply to light. In reference to the Source of Light, they are meaningless.

So that the only word we can use is “You.”

And, indeed, look in a prayer book, count the words. The word that will appear more than any other will be “You.” To say “You” to One who cannot be called anything else—that is the essence of prayer.

As R. Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch wrote,

You that all know of You.
You that all put their trust only in You.
You that all plead only to You.
You that no creation nor emanation knows who and what You are.7

Perhaps this is what is to be learned from the faith of the atheist. In the words of R. Menachem of Kotzk, “If you’re praying to the same G‑d today as you prayed to yesterday, you’re already worshipping an idol.”

So, I’m thinking, it could be that this is just what is bothering Jack Slack, the atheist. He, too, after all, has inherited a neshamah, an inner breath of that unknowable G‑d. It’s an inheritance that comes without conditions—not even a stipulation that you must profess belief.

But when squeezed tightly, Jack can’t help but Pray to the ineffable mystery that all of us knowfeel that undismissable breath at his very core. And it doesn’t feel like anything anyone has ever described.

Don’t be an idolater. Pray to the ineffable mystery that all of us know.