My post on Huffington Post 8/21/2016
Many people are not aware of the fact that they pray. They may never open a prayer book or attend a house of worship, and yet they do things or have thoughts or feelings that are a form of prayer.
Many people, when they find out that I am a rabbi, become defensive. They seem to have guilt feelings about not praying or not following the laws of their faith. Quite often they would say to me, I don’t find those things necessary. I do what I can to be a good person, which I believe is all that matters.
For years, I used to think their attitude was a cop-out. Naturally, it is expected of all of us to be good people. But what about our inner life? What about our relationship with that cosmic reality greater than ourselves?
Now, in my mature years, I have greatly modified my thinking. I have come to learn that no organized religion has a monopoly on prayer, and no one can tell another person what to believe or how to pray. Since I retired ten years ago, I have spent most of my time at sea as a cruise clergy. I sailed the seven seas and everywhere I went I saw people pray in their houses of worship, either alone or communally. I learned a great deal about praying from observing people, much more so than from all the books I had read on the subject over the years.
First, I learned that people pray all over the world—millions of them. Even in countries where prayer was suppressed for decades, such as Russian and China. In a country like Myanmar (Burma), I saw practically an entire country praying in countless Buddhist temples From Mandalay in the north to Yangon in the south.
Second, it became clear to me that while outwardly such belief systems as, say, Hinduism and Judaism, seem entirely different, in reality all belief systems around the world are interrelated, and prayer (or in the case of Eastern religions, meditation) is universal.
Thirdly, and, for me, the most important revelation of all, has been that prayer is not restricted to a text handed down throughout time which we find in prayer books. Each faith has its sacred texts which are essential for the prayer life of its followers. But all the major faiths realize that reciting those texts is not the end all and be all of prayer. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to infuse the sacred texts with personal meaning that in turn validates the written words and makes them a living reality for us and for those whose lives we touch.
How is this done?
Here is where we come back to the idea of being a good person. Those people over the years who did not engage in formal prayer and said to me in their defense that what was most important to them was being a good person, were not so wrong after all. Any act of love and kindness is a form or prayer, or, if you will, the kind of behavior which sincere prayer is expected to elicit. Without it, prayer is of no value. In other words, more important than professing to believe in God, or praying to God, is doing God’s will, which was best expressed by the prophet Micah who said,
It has been told you, O man,
What is good, and
What your God wants of you,
But to do justice, and love mercy,
And walk humbly with your God.
(To read more about this subject, I refer you to my new book, Why People Pray.)