Vayishlach: Prayer at Public Meetings

“A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi walk into a bar.”   This week, I experienced a variation on this old joke introduction.  An Iman, a Reverend, and I walked into a meeting of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  We had been invited to participate in a panel discussion on the proper role -- if any -- of religion in the public square. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is afraid that his brother Esau, whom he hasn’t seen since fleeing from him many years earlier, is coming to exact his revenge.  Jacob bargains and pleads with G-d to save him and his entourage, and even wrestles with an angel (has hallucinations?) out of his anxiety.

During the discussion, we “clergy” panelists were asked the following question:

Many city councils and some public colleges hold invocations at the start of their meetings or special events.  Suppose you are invited to deliver such an invocation.  What would your response be?

  1. Decline the invitation with no explanation.
  2. Decline the invitation, explaining that you do not believe in government-sponsored prayer.
  3. Accept the invitation, but lead a moment of silence rather than giving a formal prayer. 
  4. Accept the invitation, and try to make your prayer as inclusive as possible.   
  5. Other.  Please explain.

The Iman went first and chose option “c,” a moment (or minute) of silence.  He explained that a broad-based, “inclusive” invocation would feel strange and inauthentic.  Moreover, he didn’t feel that prayer was appropriate in City Council settings.  Not surprisingly, this comment drew warm applause.

The Reverend chose the “just say no” option, “a.” Like the Iman, he explained that, were he to accept, he would have to make the prayer as inclusive as possible.  A generic version would feel false to his beliefs, too.  Better to not even try to give something watered-down.   Our audience seemed accepting of this, too, albeit there was no applause.  It wasn’t the rationale they presumably supported – no publicly sponsored prayer because there shouldn’t be any -- but at least the result was the same. 

Then he handed me the microphone.  I admitted that I was struggling with the question, perhaps due to my “mixed” educational background. 

As a lawyer, I knew that “separation of church and state” was nowhere in the Constitution.  It came from a letter that Thomas Jefferson, who hadn’t even been at the Constitutional Convention, wrote to an acquaintance.  Rather, the Constitution only forbad religious tests for political office, the “Establishment” of a state-sponsored religion, and interference with the “Free Exercise” of religion.   (Wouldn’t banning religious City Council meeting invocations interfere with councilmembers’ free exercise of their religion, I wondered, but didn’t say?)

As a historian, I knew that the Founders spoke and wrote emphatically about the necessity for virtue in self-government.  (See, for example, numerous quotations at They regarded Protestant religion as virtue’s natural wellspring and thus hadn’t conceived of, nor wanted, an entirely secular government.   Rather, they sought to avoid the historical evils of religious wars and state persecution of dissenters.  The idea of a strictly secular public square was a 20th century phenomenon.

Yet, I was also wearing a Jewish “hat” – literally.   I was a member of a small “religious” minority in America.  I had grown up resenting public prayers ending “In Jesus’s name we pray,” and Christmas decorations on streets and fire trucks.  On the other hand, I enjoy Hanukkah streetlight decorations in Jerusalem, where there is no “separation.”  And I remembered feeling conflicted when I visited the Israeli Supreme Court, peeked into a courtroom with a mezuzah on the door, and saw Arab litigants inside.   Nor do I appreciate Orthodox control of life-cycle events in Israel.

These and other conflicting thoughts competed as I took the microphone.   Even though I’d been given the question in advance, I’d only pondered it briefly.  Now I had to decide “on the spot.”    

My answer didn’t feel completely satisfying, and the stony faces proved that it certainly didn’t match the audience’s sentiment.   I said that at City Council meetings and similar venues, the motivation of the person giving the invocation likely isn’t to impose a particular belief system or deity upon all in attendance.  There’s no compulsion going on – certainly not state compulsion.  Rather, the motivation likely expresses a desire for good judgment, actions in the public interest, respectful discussions, etc.   That is, public virtue.  For that person and, I suspect, for the majority of people in attendance, as for the Constitutional founders of this country, religion is the most important source of inspiration toward public (as well as private) virtue.  And so, I said, I support it.  

So long as the City and other public agencies rotate the invocation among people with various beliefs, including atheists, I have no problem with individuals invoking their own specific “source” toward public and individual virtue.  It’s a balancing of interests, but, in the end, a respectful one in a pluralistic society.  (Prayer in pubic schools requires and receives much stricter scrutiny).

Jacob was afraid for himself, but also for the well-being of the large family and retinue of which he had become leader.  He expressed his fear, anxiety, and hopes to G-d.  We 21st-century Americans also have public as well as private fears, anxieties, and hopes, especially when tragedies strike.  It’s not only appropriate but healthy, even necessary for us to have an outlet for these as a public body. 

My answer surprised me.  Living in an overwhelmingly Christian society, I had always been opposed to prayer in public settings.  But I’ve changed my view.  I have come to realize that public prayer is important.  I am no longer opposed to it, if done respectfully (by which I don’t necessarily mean “inclusively”) and is not exclusively Christian.  I now realize that most people in America turn to their religion for guidance and inspiration in existential and moral matters.  

We need more attention to public virtue, even if the person speaking isn’t doing so for me (or any religious or non-religious group) in all particulars.  Religious invocations shouldn’t be off-limits in public meetings.     

Shabbat shalom.    

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  • Vayishlach: Prayer at Public Meetings



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