For years, I led people in prayer. It was always clear to me that prayer operates on three levels—personal, communal, and universal.
On the personal level, I have always found prayer (mostly silent prayer, or meditation, while all alone) to be a form of spiritual therapy. In moments of extreme mental pain or extreme joy, it connected me with something much more powerful than myself, and anchored me in a safe harbor. While alone, it reassured me I was never alone.
On the communal level, it connected me with my people – amcha yisrael. Not only those with whom I prayed, but also with the entire Jewish people worldwide. It was always clear to me that personal prayer by itself is not enough. Prayer is much more powerful when it becomes a group experience, a spiritual support system, if you will, in which one does not pray only by oneself, but also as part of a community of faith that is able to fulfill the Talmudic dictum that the world stands on three things—Torah, or knowledge; avodah, or worship; and gemilut hasadim, or acts of love and kindness. All three are interrelated, and all three must come into play to make prayer effective.
As I became a student of religions, especially in recent years as a cruise rabbi, which gave me the opportunity to travel around the world and observe people at prayer everywhere, I found out that millions of people worldwide pray both individually and communally. I also discovered amazing similarities in both personal and communal prayer, East and West. While the form may differ, the essence is the same. All people everywhere pray for healing, for peace of mind, and so on. The two things I took away from this experience are, one, prayer is a universal expression of the human heart, which, in a sense, makes the entire human race one global community of faith; two, both personal and communal prayer continues to play a central role in the lives of people everywhere, as it has for centuries, and most likely will continue long into the future.
This brings us to the third level of prayer, namely, the universal. Here is where I find prayer to fall short of human expectations. By universal prayer I mean praying for what is known in Judaism as tikkun olam, repairing the world, putting an end to violence and war, and establishing a world order of—to paraphrase the Christian expression—peace on earth and good will towards all people. For years, I stood at the pulpit and I concluded the service with the words expressing the wish for a world at peace. As I grew older, I became more and more frustrated by the realization that I was mouthing words, and that the words I was uttering did not have the power to redeem the world.
Back in the 60s, when I first became a rabbi, I was very proud of my colleagues and teachers who played a leading role in the struggle for social change in America. America has come a long way because of their sacrifice, although it still has a long way to go. I am equally proud of my movement for the decision to ordain women, a decision which has greatly revitalized the movement. Thirdly, I am proud of my movement for its continuing work in making our liturgy more relevant and more inspiring than ever before. All these are significant steps towards repairing the world. But there is still one step missing, as I discuss in my new book, Why People Pray. We need to link up with all people of good will around the world, both people of the other faiths and of all movements for social betterment, and pursue a new universal language of prayer, in which there is no triumphalism or exclusivism, but rather the recognition that we are all travelers on a small planet, one species created by one cosmic source, custodians of this small planet, who can no longer afford to wage wars and engage in violence. This will be the first right step towards a true tikkun olam.
Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber, a member of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR rabbi.