It’s Not Mine!
A Sermon After the Supreme Court Ruling on Prayer
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
May 9, 2014
The American Jewish community is caught squarely in the middle by the Supreme Court decision this week concerning prayer in public places. Being a Rabbi and often invited give deliver invocations and benedictions at public functions such as baccalaureates, created because they could not deliver sectarian prayers at high school graduations, in the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia, and other locations in New Jersey and New York, I have lived in the eye of the storm. On one hand it was a personal honor to be invited to speak in the governing bodies of two states, to stand before graduating seniors and their families of greater Richmond, and before the luncheon of the Virginia (Richmond) Bar Association. Since God gave me two, I can say, and on the other hand I wish I hadn’t been asked. If I speak in the name of YHVH, replaced by the word Adonay meaning master, then someone else can invoke, bless and benedict me – I made that word up - “In the name of Jesus.” I don’t want them blessing me that way, so why should I do it to others? What is good for one particular religion is good for the other. And further, since there are more of them than there are of us, it is clear how prayers will be recited most of the time. And moreover, what the male, Protestant, white, Anglo-Saxon founding fathers could never have contemplated is that there is a significant and growing Muslim population besides representative Hindu, Buddhist and others who are equally franchised American citizens and must be respected. And, lastly, there is a growing segment of America who doesn’t believe in any deity at all and don’t want any deity invoked.
I first became of aware of this entire dilemma when I was in third grade in the 1950’s. We had just moved from Brooklyn, New York to Belleville, New Jersey. To give you an idea of population, there were four hundred and forty classmates in my high school graduating class. We were but four Jews among them. In third grade a classmate started mussing my hair. I asked him: “What are you doing?” However he knew that I was a Jew I don’t know, but he said: “Where are your horns?” I was more than mystified. I was horrified! Remember, I was eight years old. For most of my public school education before the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem we opened first period with the reading from Psalms. Up and down the rows we went as every student had to read a Psalm. All were permissible but two, one exceedingly long and one exceedingly short. Then they, not me, recited the Lord’s Prayer. My third grade teacher, whose name I still remember, took me outside and asked me: “Is there something in that prayer that you can’t recite, which is against your religion?” I was in third grade! I wasn’t even in Religious school yet and I certainly was not versed in holy texts. Somehow I came up with my answer: “It’s not mine.” That, in a nutshell is my answer to the Supreme Court. “It’s not mine.” And in a democracy, I don’t have to walk out the door from MY public institution and you shouldn’t force it down my throat or in my ears.
The divide of the Supreme Court on this issue is also notable, five Catholics in the majority, one Catholic and three Jews in the minority. Protestants need not register. I have a very strong memory about the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. He being a Catholic, the more than rumors went, he would take orders from the Pope in Rome. Perhaps just tongue in cheek, I would like to ask the NSA to check all the communications, which they most certainly must have, between the Vatican and these five justices. It was a very long snail mail. It is less than poetic that the majority opinion was written by a man called Kennedy. The irony is not lost upon me.
While people are scurrying to find silver linings in this ruling, I don’t see them. What do they mean by saying that non-Christians cannot be “denigrated?” What happens when there are non-Christians in the town or hamlet but no clergy of their faiths? How is there inclusion? What happened to the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious fabric of America that everyone has recognized? This flies in the face of everyone of every community. All across America there is a deeper understanding, appreciation and respect of being equal with each other with our differences, especially viewed in the reversal of attitudes towards the LBGTQ population through the subject of marriage equality. How dare he say that if I don’t like it, I should leave the room! That room is equally ours for everyone and no one has to leave it.
We have had a vested interest in this fight. As I have preached before, there is a Jewish woman in Danville, facing the identical situation, who consulted with me before proceeding with a law suit. She lost her anonymity but won the law suit which was held in abeyance because of this case before the Supreme Court. That victory is now pyrrhic, surely overturned by this ruling.
There is a true theological question to which the Court could not address, which doesn’t have an easy or simple answer.
Is God ever absent? Is God ever absent in any place or any time?
Here in the synagogue we have the Ner Tamid hanging centrally in the Sanctuary to indicate by its light that never goes out, that God is eternally present. In the book Night by Elie Wiesel, he wrote that in Auschwitz one asked, “Where is God?” and Wiesel answered, “Here beside us.” Even, especially there, too.
Do you leave your faith in here when you leave and not take it with you, to home, to school, to work? Is religion a behaviorism relegated to a slice of a particular time of our daily pie? Do we check our faith at the door? No! A thousand times no! I don’t do that. A truly religious person can never do that.
Perhaps a better comparison is that my being a person of faith in God is more like my Bios computer program, always running, even when the computer is turned off. For a religious person, how can God not be present? For a religious person, the value system, the foundation for determining right and wrong in an ever changing world is always based on Holy Scripture, God’s word and the teachings of the tradition. It shapes my vision of existence. I wear my kipah at all times to remind me that I am always in God’s presence. In my synagogue the cloth that covered the lecturn extended over the edge and was inscribed in the Hebrew with the words from the Rabbis: “Know before whom you stand.” The artist of this synagogue placed at the epitomy of the room a line from Psalm 16: “I place the Lord before me always.” Is God ever not beside me? There can be no other way. Can I say: “Are we supposed to be Americans without faith?” Impossible.
Now what do we do? So I will tell you:
Every time I spoke in a public venue, I first reminded myself that I wasn’t speaking in here. Here, in shul, I use our particular and unique language, but not out there. I would sit for quite some time to frame my remarks for all to share, respecting all and every person present. I even think of those who don’t believe at all and how to respect them, too. It is very difficult. I didn’t say “Baruch Atah…” and I didn’t use Adonay. When I invoked, every listener could think of God in their own terms of reference. It wasn’t easy composing those benedictions and invocations, but it was necessary.
I could cite our faith tradition for a teaching, a value, a mitzvah, whose message was applicable and suitable to the time and place that I was speaking. I love to hear teachings from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism to learn how other faiths speak, how other faiths value. Written with sensitive language, infused with respect for others, I could never be offended but rather educated, motivated and elevated in listening to other faiths speak. And much we have in common! How holy we all are because of our different beliefs!
The Supreme Court missed a golden opportunity to teach America about tolerance, respect, and the holiness of each individual citizen. They could have united us in a spectacular way and not divided nor denigrated any of us. They could have enunciated the way to say “In God we trust” and honored everybody.
Now, as people of faith, we have to start all over again.