Holistic Prayer: Rabbi Avi Weiss is A Prayer!

The Baal Shem Tov taught that before one could pray with love towards God, one must feel love for all others in one's presence. God is only interested in prayer where one feels compassion and love for those all around. Rabbi Avi Weiss is the contemporary embodiment of this Torah lesson: he doesn't stand still in prayer but walks around hugging all who are present.


Rabbi Weiss is the inspiring founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat, as well as the leader of the great Hebrew Institute of Riverdale; he's a legendary spiritual activist; a Jewish leader par excellence. But anyone who knows him more intimately knows that he is primarily a model of prayer.

His book Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality (Maggid), published in 2014, is a must read for all those serious about Jewish prayer. Masterfully exploring various theological themes in an eclectic fashion rare for a rabbinical work, Rabbi Weiss looks at prayer through stories, charts, and underlying interpretational meaning culled from the great commentators of the ages. Traditional prayers are made relevant and meaningful, not through apologetics or sophistry, but through deep wisdom on their inner meaning. By looking at prayers as a way of life, recited in the streets or in traditional spaces, you can feel the letters of the liturgy erupting with overflowing eloquence.

Rav Avi proposes that there are three primary goals of prayer: responsibility, reliance, and feeling God's presence. Prayer should be set -- in time in place, in text -- but that fixed nature should not only provide roots, but wings to soar higher spiritually.

This book is an important one, but even more significant is to watch Rav Avi engaged in prayer, a humbling experience to say the least. He doesn't sit up front in the synagogue but with the people; he doesn't pray for the longest in the room so others wait for him to finish; he simply doesn't bring any pretentiousness to this holy space, only love and humility. He doesn't cover his head with a hat or tallis or wear a suit coat or even a tie; only the most modest attire. He has been a leader in reviving prayer in forward-looking and inward-looking traditional environments.

Once, when I was having a difficult week, Rabbi Weiss flew out to visit me and, in his typical heroic fashion, went where he was most needed at every moment. On this visit, I recall taking a walk late at night in the dark where we sung together. The stars were singing with us. We were praying with our feet, as the expression goes. In this quiet moment, Rabbi Weiss taught me that prayer is deepest when you are walking in solidarity with someone who needs you.

Indeed, prayer is not only for times of sorrow. It is a powerful means of social protest. I recall being arrested with Rabbi Weiss, in an act of civil disobedience, and how he transitioned from the screaming street protest to the soulful police paddy wagon magnificently. Handcuffed in our prayer garments, we sat singing to God in the back of the paddy-wagon. There were only 10 of us sitting there, but on our way to the station we had a legion of angels singing with us.

My favorite line in prayer is V'ani tefilati (I am a prayer). It is this melody that I sung to my beautiful bride as she approached me at the chuppah; Rabbi Weiss was at my side. Rabbi Weiss is the model of living as a prayer. It doesn't stop when the prayer service ends. As he writes in the introduction: "Spirituality is endless, it has no borders." He is singing and humming through his spiritual living as a soulful prayer in all that he does.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."