A Jewish Prayer with a Message for the World

Why write an entire book on a single, short prayer?

Rabbi Zalman Weiss, Author, Adon Olam: A Search for Meaning ,

The power of a single prayer
The power of a single prayer
Flash 90

I have been asked to explain why I wrote a book based on a single Jewish prayer, and more specifically, why I wrote on Adon Olam. Curiously, my response to this question begins and ends with righteous gentiles and would-be Jews; which is somehow fitting given that it is the time of year that we read Parshat Lech Lecha.

On a more somber note, it is also rather timely given the controversial news of late surrounding the issue of conversions. For over a decade I have devoted a large part of my day to helping righteous gentiles achieve their long sought after goal of becoming Jewish. These people come from a wide variety of colorful backgrounds, but they all share a deep, intense desire to be the best servant of G-d they can be. Most stumbled upon Judaism after failing to find true and meaningful answers to their questions of faith within their previous religions, and they experienced frustration as they came to realize the errant ways of their ancestors. Many tried their hand at a number of faiths, yet only to find yet more hollow and unsatisfying answers.

Somehow, by means known only to G-d, these truth seekers found their way to my home in Jerusalem. Their earnest questions stumped me time and again. I knew that Torah had to have the answers, so I posed their inquiries and doubts to the heads of yeshivos, to Dayanim (Rabbinic Judges) and leading Torah scholars (one of whom is a recognized “Gadol HaDor”). It was not surprising to receive deep and clear answers from these people.

What I found strange was a consistent pattern: These great rabbis, some of whom had never met each other, were all directing me to find the answers to these difficult questions in the words of the well-known prayer, Adon Olam. On one occasion, I found myself wrestling with an extremely complex and complicated question (yeshiva students would call it a ‘bomb kasha’ - a question to beat all questions). When I came to the rabbi to discuss the ‘bomb kasha’, I was already anticipating that I would once again be turned to Adon Olam. Sure enough I was. It was at this point that I decided to take a deeper look at this ’prayer’.

Wow! A whole new world opened up for me. Just a few sentences of this prayer provided a seemingly endless source of answers to both questions of yesteryear and the most modern dilemmas of faith. My students seemed relieved; after years of searching for truth and meaning, the words of Adon Olam answered even their most burning questions.

Years passed, and then one day I was told by a judge on the Rabbinic Conversion Court that my students were extremely strong. Their success at becoming good Jews seemed to be surpassing many ’frum-from-birth’ yeshivah and seminary students. It became clear to me that I needed to put my findings on Adon Olam in written form for future students.

After more years of research, I presented my findings to Rav Weinbach Ztz”l (Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ohr Sameach). His response was unforgettable: “If you were Rav Steineman (one of the most highly regarded rabbis in the world), then some might read what you have written, but you aren’t Rav Steineman, and you’re not known by the public to be a Torah Scholar. My suggestion is to write these deep truths in the form of an enjoyable novel, so that this much-needed information will reach potential converts and Jews in the biggest way possible.” He told me, “Don’t bark up the wrong tree. If you try to relay this in a form that Torah scholars will read, you will lose the readers who really need the information. The scholars are not likely to open the book; they don’t even realize that there is so much more depth and meaning in Judaism that they could be searching for.”

So, I listened to Rav Weinbach and I wrote my book, Adon Olam: A Search for Meaning as a novel, but it offers much more than a great plot. It brings to life the text of the Adon Olam prayer. The last prophets carefully crafted these timeless words to answer serious questions of faith at a time when they foresaw there would be no one left to provide the answers.

To readers with a lot of Torah knowledge who think they have all or enough of the answers, I say “think again!” Torah scholars who have read Adon Olam tell me that they never understood just how deep our beliefs really are. Many Talmidai Torah scholars have told me that reading the book as a novel didn’t deter them. Instead, they found it made the depth of the material much more digestible.

The reactions of my students from the non-Jewish world are inspiring. They are refreshed and invigorated at finding truth, and say the ’clouds’ blocking their path were pushed away by these words from our ancient sages.

Watching people go through the process of converting to Judaism has strengthened my own faith so much through the years. I am pained to watch as our own people build higher and higher barriers to thwart these righteous gentiles in their earnest desire to seek and serve the G-d of Israel. We are supposed to be a light unto the nations, yet so many of our own nation seem to think it is their job to extinguish every light that could help the sincere among these people to ‘come home’. As recent news has shown, converts don’t always have a positive experience as they study and formally convert.

It is bad enough that many individual converts suffer from having nasty comments or false stories sent to Conversion Courts to thwart their conversion process. But most painful of all is the fact that here in the Jewish country, our government offices have recently instituted rules, often unknown to the public, that do not realistically allow potential converts to accomplish their goal of becoming Jewish.

It is outrageous to me that in countries that persecuted our ancestors, it is today easier for a soul yearning to become Jewish to freely chose his or her destiny; while in the Holy Land, most of my students have found the doors to conversion are actually an ‘iron curtain’ slammed closed in front of them. Lawyers do not help, nor does the Supreme Court. The time has come for the public to know that in Israel it is almost impossible to become Jewish, unless one becomes a citizen via proving that a grandfather was Jewish.

We’ve become our own worst enemy. My students are sometimes imprisoned, deported, refused entry to yeshivas - all for the heinous crime of wanting to become a good Jew and live in Israel. Private rabbinical courts continue to convert these righteous people, yet their hopes of actually living in Israel as good Jews is thwarted time and again. I am consistently inspired by how these people never give up their hope of becoming Jewish, despite the despicable bureaucratic and other difficulties placed in their path. A wonderful resource on this topic is the book Spark Ignited by Michaela Lawson and Ashirah Yosefah; it illustrates the difficulties converts experience in painful detail.

I wrote Adon Olam: A Search for Meaning to offer the wisdom of our ancient sages to Jews everywhere as we live in these tumultuous times. The secrets they encoded into the Adon Olam prayer foresaw the times in which we live. The book sold out in Israel in one month and had to be reprinted. I also wrote this book to be a light to the truth-seekers among the nations. It is my personal prayer that the nearly nine years of research I invested in writing this book, and the discoveries I made, will clear away clouds of confusion and doubt, and strengthen the faith and hope of Jews and righteous gentiles throughout the world.

Adon Olam: A Search for Meaning is available from Menorah Books, Amazon, and a growing number of bookstores in Israel and the USA.