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Grant Us Peace: An American Reform Jewish Classic Prayer

For those of us who grew up in the Reform movement or joined it during the course of our adult journey, Grant Us Peace is a familiar and much beloved prayer both because of its English language text and its various musical interpretations. What is less known is the surprising history of Grant Us Peace. Grant Us Peace serves as the final section of the “18 Benedictions” or Amidah in the liturgy of the synagogue, appearing just before or as a prelude to the Silent Prayer. Its text, based on two traditional prayers for peace (Shalom Rav from the Ashkenazic tradition and Sim Shalom), is essentially an original Reform composition combining Judaism’s ancient hope for universal peace with prayers for national wellbeing and personal virtue, the basis of good citizenship. 

The origin of the English language text of Grant Us Peace is surprising. In fact, it did not appear in the original 1892 Union Prayer Book I (UPB I) prepared for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) by Rabbi Isaac Moses of Chicago. The Conference withdrew Rabbi Moses’ text which they viewed “as a dilution” of Rabbi David Einhorn’s radical German 1858 prayer book Olat Tamid which had been translated into English in 1872. However, instead of immediately reworking the Moses prayer book, the CCAR proceeded to publish the UPB II, a High Holy Day prayer book, in 1894. It included the first known version of Grant Us Peace before republishing a thoroughly revised UPB I. 

Thus, the original text of Grant Us Peace appears in an “Evening Service for the New Year” under the Hebrew title of “Sim Shalom,” although the actual prayer for the Evening Service is entitled Shalom Rav. Because Grant Us Peace was originally written for the High Holy Days it included a reference to the “Book of Life,” later dropped when the prayer was added to the Sabbath liturgy. 

The first version of Grant Us Peace, was originally read by the “Minister” as follows: 

Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace, and enable Israel to be a messenger of peace unto the peoples of the earth. Bless our country that it may ever be a stronghold of peace and be its advocate in the council of nations. May contentment reign within its borders, health, and happiness in its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship and fellowship between all the inhabitants of our land. Plant virtue in every soul and may love of Thy name hallow every home and every heart. Inscribe us in the book of life, and grant unto us a year of prosperity and joy. Blessed be Thou, O Lord, Giver of Peace. Amen. 

The UPB series proved to be immensely popular in the Reform movement and within 20 years it was used by over 300 congregations which had purchased over 100,000 copies of the prayer books. The text of Grant Us Peace remained essentially stable in subsequent editions of the UPB series. In the 1940 edition edited by Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, “all the inhabitants of our land” was broadened to “the inhabitants of all lands.” At the same time, a Hebrew text of Shalom Rav was provided by Rabbi Freehof including a request for a blessing on “Your people Israel,” perhaps a veiled Zionist reference, as opposed to the use of the name “Israel” in the original UPB II, employed in the more universalistic theological framework of the “Mission of Israel” as “a light to the nations.” On the other hand, Freehof did not include the “closing blessing” of Shalom Rav in his Hebrew text. 

In Service V of the 1975 Gates of Prayer, additional subtle changes were made. For example, the original “source of peace” was changed to a name of God with capital letters, “O Eternal Source of peace” and the formal “Thou” was dropped. Also, the phrase “advocate in the council of nations” was changed to “advocate among the nations,” perhaps reflecting distrust in the United Nations after its 1975 adoption of Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a racist ideology. 

The most recent Reform Prayer book, Mishkan T’filah (“Sanctuary of Prayer”), published in 2007, includes a version of Grant Us Peace as an alternative (left side) reading (v. p. 179), in an apparent attempt to define it out of the mainstream of Reform Judaism. The closing, particularistic Hebrew prayer, “Praised are You, Eternal One, who blesses our people
with peace” is included in English, Hebrew, and transliteration. Interestingly, the Hebrew version of Shalom Rav (right side, p. 178) includes an insert for Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in both Hebrew and English, thus restoring the original Grant Us Peace’s tie to the High Holy Days. 

The enduring popularity of Grant Us Peace attracted the attention of one of the leading composers of Reform liturgical music, Canadian born Ben Steinberg (b. 1930) who included a Hebrew version of “Shalom Rav” in his immensely popular 1973 L’cha Anu Shira: Sabbath Eve Service For Cantor, Choir, Congregation and Organ. According to Steinberg, “L’cha Anu Shira was commissioned by Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in memory of Cantor Sol Altschuller (1917-1964). The premiere of the work was performed on November 21, 1969 by Cantor Roy Garber and the choir of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun under the direction of the composer.” In the musical text, Steinberg notes that an optional text is inserted “for use with the [1967 British] “Service of the Heart” Prayer Book, although the more universalistic Hebrew in the British prayer book actually is not included in Steinberg’s score. 

When asked recently by Hazzan David Tillman of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania about his inspiration for his Shalom Rav, Steinberg replied that “the text spoke to me in such a meaningful manner that I felt that I was spiritually speaking to God and actually pleading for Peace for the people of Israel. The piece almost ‘wrote itself ’ as I studied the text.” (Communicated to author by email, February 28, 2020) In other words, despite its “Classical Reform” musical quality, Steinberg fully restored the text’s ancient particularism. The same particularism was further reinforced in the 1974 post-classical version of Shalom Rav by Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander which along with Steinberg’s version is widely used in contemporary Reform synagogues on Friday night. Indeed, the temporal proximity of the Steinberg and the Klepper-Freelander versions of Shalom Rav constitute a cultural border between and mid and late 20th century modalities of American Reform Judaism. 

Finally, a few observations about Steinberg’s Shalom Rav as a musical composition which is deceptively complex and sophisticated work. According to Hazzan Tilman, the composer set the text in G Major, a key that is calming and soothing. The Major tonality is particularly “Western” and “American” in its affect. Interestingly, Steinberg also uses a “triple meter” which is used in a gentle melody for “Dona Nobis Pacem,” Latin for Grant Us Peace in the Catholic tradition. 

Shalom Rav and its English language rendition, “Grant Us Peace,” remain classic prayers in the religious culture of American Reform Judaism. They harmoniously blend Jewish universalism and particularism, affirm the value of the ethical life, and proclaim peace as the ultimate goal of the Jewish tradition. They transcend intradenominational differences and powerfully express what is classic about every expression of American Reform Judaism. 

The Reform Advocate Volume XI, Number II: Passover 2020 

Rabbi Dr. Lance Sussman Senior Scholar, Roots of Reform Judaism 

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