I grew up in a era when prayer was common in the public school system. Certainly the Pledge of Allegiance was recited every morning, if you want to count that as prayer. Grace might be said before snack time. And during the winter season, I have vivid memories of trying to negotiate the lyrics of ‘Silent Night’ so that I would mouth the words but not say aloud the lines about Jesus as savior during our music periods. I was, after all, the only Jewish kid in my entire elementary school, and the idea of asking for a different song selection never even occurred to me. But although I never said it to anyone, and I may not have even understood it myself, those moments always made me feel uncomfortable, a reminder of the Jew as existential eternal outsider. So this week’s Supreme Court ruling permitting the recitation of public and specifically sectarian prayers before town hall meetings in upstate New York was something that caught my attention.
On the one hand I get it. It is a Christian country, and if I want to live in a Jewish majority I can always move to Israel. And some would probably say that we have become overly sensitive about these issues. After all, look at me. I grew up singing Silent Night in elementary school and I became a rabbi. In fact it may be in part BECAUSE I was put into those situations that I became a rabbi. Nevertheless, I found Justice Elena Kagan’s argument for the dissent in the case persuasive. Note that she did not propose banning prayer, but rather recommended that “opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”
So in a sense it is up to the faith community, and in my eyes the Supreme Court’s decision has opened the door. There probably are not many Jews in Greece New York, but what Jews there are should make sure they get themselves into that monthly prayer rotation. And there are probably fewer Muslims, but if they are in the area they also should insist on their own opportunity to deliver the session’s invocations on a regular, rotating basis. So you would have a Christian pastor one month invoking Jesus as savior. Then a rabbi using the Hebrew word for God ‘Adonai’ in his or her prayer the next month. A secularist should also have an opportunity to say whatever he or she might say. And last, but certainly not least, an Imam would begin a session with the following words: all praise to Allah! I would like to be a fly on the wall at THAT meeting, watching the faces of the town’s residents as they received, as it were, a taste of their own medicine.
As John Cougar Mellencamp sang in his song Pink Houses, ‘ain’t that America, for you and me, ain’t that America, something to see, ain’t that America, home of the free…little pink houses for you and me.’
And by the way – did you ever hear the one about the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian who walked into a town meeting?