Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber’s Why People Pray is a remarkable book. It is ecumenical and yet aware of a great deal of the history of both Jewish and Christian spirituality, as well as Muslim and Eastern approaches. Rabbi Schreiber is learned, but down to Earth. He is not afraid to tackle the difficult questions (e.g., is anybody listening?) nor to give, on the one hand, the honest answer that ultimately we do not know many of the answers, but on the other hand, his own convictions born out of a lifetime of serious searching. The thirty-five chapters are short, most just a few pages, but they are packed with insights for the pious and even the free-thinkers. He quotes sources as disparate as Huckleberry Finn and Thomas Merton, William Blake and the Muslim Al-Hadid, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and Stevie Wonder and Karen Armstrong, as well as much scripture from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and many traditional Jewish sources.
Born in Israel pre-1948 to secular Jews who had escaped the horrors of the Holocaust in time, Morry Schreiber found his way to religion on his own. Perhaps because of this, his approach to spirituality is fresh and open. He does not preach, but inspires and leads the reader gently to consider the value of prayer. The tone is conversational, and yet a great deal of wisdom from a life lived on three continents and that has traveled much of the globe is packed into this small volume.
The book is divided into three parts: What is prayer? What do people pray for? Prayer today. In the first chapter we learn about Rabbi Schreiber’s childhood and also his general approach to the subject, in which he says, more or less, that to live in a sense is to pray. The second chapter “Is Anyone Listening?” is one of the most important because the author’s honesty and openness is so clear. He admits that we do not know for sure, but he senses a divine presence in his life. Of course, he says it much more eloquently than that. He goes on to talk about the sources of prayer and then the essence of prayer, which he calls the “expression of our deepest emotions” (p.17). In this chapter the range of expression is seen, from the quiet of a traditional Quaker meeting to the exuberant African-American holiness worship service. An interesting chapter on prayer and magic explores the difference between magic in its negative connotations and at the same time explores the positive associations of the word magical in our understanding. Another interesting chapter deals with prayer and sacrifice and notes that after the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis used Hosea 14:3 as a way of transitioning from a religion of sacrifice to one of prayer:
Forgive all guilt
And accept what is good;
Instead of bulls we will pay
[The offering of] our lips
In a chapter entitled “Creative and Static Prayer” the focus is on the need constantly to update written prayer materials so that they will reflect the current context. Nevertheless, some prayers are timeless and seem to be able to cross temporal boundaries better than others. Rabbi Schreiber gives a wonderful example of a fourteenth century Syrian Muslim prayer for peace which would be very appropriately prayed today. The next chapter is a reflection on the power of words, both their positive and their negative power, depending on how they are used. They were used rhetorically in very negative ways building up to the Holocaust, but they can also be used with great positive power. In the chapter called “Prayer, Work and Creativity” the concept of prayer is extended beyond words to the area of human work and especially creative work. The works of Van Gogh and Gauguin are briefly considered in this section.
In the section on prayer and meditation, Eastern spiritual traditions are brought into view, especially Buddhist practice. Rabbi Schreiber notes that in Judaism Kabbalistic traditions and in Christianity contemplation are also forms of meditation. He moves from meditation to life with people, in which he balances the individual nature of meditation with the communal aspects of prayer.
The next chapter is a reflection on praying to God as a father figure, where Rabbi Schreiber admits the problems inherent within Judaism and Christianity given the overwhelmingly masculine imagery in the Bible. He indicates that God is neither male nor female and that there is the Virgin Mary for Catholics, the Shekinah, the feminine divine presence for Jewish women, though this may be too abstract, and women biblical characters now included in the prayer book. What could also be said is that since God is neither male nor female, we can create new imagery for God that is gender neutral or that is binary: God as mother and father, since there is some female divine imagery in the Bible.
In the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer, Mordecai Schreiber not only shows the specific Jewish roots of the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but also tells a moving story about a group of Polish soldiers facing death who together recited the Lord’s Prayer, allowing them to go down in dignity. The next chapters deal with prayer and various attitudes/experiences: humility, triumphalism, suffering, repentance, afterlife. The final chapter in Part I deals with the efficacy of prayer. The bottom line is that there are no guarantees, but one should pray anyway.
In Part II about what people pray for, there are chapters on: Healing, prosperity, life cycle prayers, yearly cycle prayers, sabbath and prayer, prayer and peace of mind, prayer and war, and prayer and world peace. Part III on prayer today has several important chapters. “Prayer and the Holocaust” deals with the difficult issues of how to pray in the aftermath of the horrible genocide. The chapter on the “Detractors of Faith” deals with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and reflects on how to respond to their attacks on religion. “Prayer for Freethinkers” is a chapter making the case that prayer is not just for the pious, God-intoning crowd; there is plenty of room in his mind for those who are uncomfortable using God-language. The last two chapters are “Prayer as a Way of Life” and “A New Language of Prayer” in which Rabbi Schreiber considers some of the areas in which we need new vocabulary, less sin oriented, more gender neutral, less tolerant of poverty, more eco-friendly.
Why People Pray provides ample material for a study group and includes many anecdotes that will be of use to those preparing sermons. It could be used with teenagers straight through to senior citizens. This is a rare book, delightful, and wise.
 Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), Ho 14:3.
Alice Ogden Bellis is the Professor of Hebrew Bible at Howard University School of Divinity.