Prayer in America
Subject: Jonathan Sarna
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded in Fall 2006, as part of Prayer in America, a look at the history of civil liberties in America and the controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT ACT. The documentary is a production of The Duncan Entertainment Group, Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Sarna is one of America's foremost commentators on American Jewish history, religion and life and has written, edited, or co-edited more than 20 books including American Judaism: A History. He is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
What is prayer?
There is communication with God. People pray, to be in touch with something larger than themselves. Prayer is a reminder to human beings that they're not the center of the universe. In Judaism, study is a kind of prayer. A great Jewish scholar at the century used to say that when he prayed he talked to God; when he studied, God spoke to him. And prayer and study have always been interrelated, in Judaism. But certainly there are other kinds of prayers beyond study, there's meditation, and so on. There are petitionary prayers, there are prayers simply in praise of God. But, I think all of them together, are a way of an individual, realizing that he or she is not the center of the universe, that we're really rather weak as human beings and, we seek to invoke something larger than ourselves.
What role does prayer play in constructing one's social and religious identity?
In many ways, prayer creates community. In Judaism, prayer requires a prayer quorum, a minion, ten, historically ten men in liberal movements, ten people. But that suggests the need for community, that people come together, to pray. And while there are individual prayers, people can pray on their own, they hold inferior status, and a community of people that prays together often becomes a community of peers, of social community, a community that, after prayers, may get together to have a meal. So the prayer community very often becomes the primary community, especially for people, who pray on a fairly regular basis. The people who pray together become the people who interact together, and often people who find that they share many other things in common.
I think most Americans, are comfortable with petitionary prayers, they are praying for health when they are sick, if they're very young, they're praying for a good grade in school. They my be praying, for a particular job or, that the person who they love will love them back. We pray, for things we very much want. And, those are the deepest prayers, the prayers that remind us that there's often a gap between what we want and, what we're really powerful enough to attain. And we hope that prayer, will, somehow overcome that gap.
Of course, surrounding those prayers are the familiar prayers. Prayers that we take comfort in because we say them very regularly sometimes, there's a special tune that we have for them. And the interesting thing is, that even those prayers that seem, very regular, and that we might think that we're just going through the motions in saying them, suddenly there'll be a moment when that prayer will seem particularly significant. We may say the 23rd Psalm everyday but, when somebody dies, the 23rd Psalm takes on special meaning. We may say prayers for peace all of the time, but when we have a child, in the Army, suddenly that prayer for peace and that prayer to bring our child home safely takes on a very special meaning for us. And I think those are the kinds of prayers that most Americans are comfortable with.
You've talked about the importance of distinguishing Judaism from Christianity in discussing prayer. Can you explain that for the audience?
The Shema is often the first prayer that a child will learn. It comes from the book of Deuteronomy and the standard translation is, here, O Israel, Adonai, or the Lord, is our God, the Lord is one. And that emphasis on the Lord is one, the oneness of God, is critical to Judaism and really helps to distinguish Judaism from Trinitarian Christianity. Over time, that single line became not just a declaration of faith in God but also a statement of what seemed to Jews to distinguish them, to distinguish them from Christians, to distinguish them from Muslims, it was a statement of radial monotheism. The Lord is one. And it was a statement of acknowledgement, of God.
In your book,you talk about prayers for the government being a real key part of the early Jewish faith. What are these prayers about and why are these prayers so important?
Jews that had been praying for the government really as long as Jews had lived under foreign governments and certainly they even go back to the prophet Jeremiah. But, most often, Jews had lived under kings and a prayer had developed which really stressed Jews devotion and loyalty to the king and queen. Well, after the American Revolution those prayers didn't seem quite right. Of course they were traditional, but, at the same time, there was a desire to change them in some way. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution we see that the prayer is depersonalized. That is, instead of saying we pray for our, King George, there was a statement of prayer for elected officials, a very different matter. We see that the language of the prayer changed. In the Colonial period American Jews still prayed in the Hebrew and said the lines for the king and queen in Portuguese, which went all the way back to their roots on the Iberian Peninsula. After the American Revolution, those lines in which they identified the officials for whom they were praying switched to English. And, most interestingly, a tradition that does not last, but in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, it became the custom to sit of the prayer for the government. Previously, and actually in our own day, the congregation is used to standing. But I think there was a sense that, well we've just fought a Revolution, we're all equal, the king doesn't have any power over us, we can sit as free people. And that was a symbol for them.
But in 19th Century we see a whole range of new prayers for the government that are written, and some of them, really, are prayers for the country, with the government mentioned only later on. A sense that we're really praying for the country that has given us this freedom, and this sense of equality. And the country becomes more important than the government. And these prayers are quite fascinating for what they reveal about the relationship between Jews and the country, the United States, in this case, the country in which they lived. And what was really to their mind, most pray, most important to pray for. There is a prayer that talks about, unity, may all the different groups and peoples within America find peace with one another. An assumption that really, was most critical, what will hold us together. There were other prayers that were more fervent in their expression of patriotism, less this small minority seem unpatriotic. And there were those who really, wanted to say the traditional prayer, even though it was a prayer written for kings, that is if to suggest, well, Jews have lived in many Diasporas and America may be different but it's not altogether different, and they wanted to evoke tradition.
Something you said in our initial phone conversation I thought was interesting. You said you, we had these kind of prayers and then they disappear around Vietnam and then they reappeared post 9/11. Why was that?
The fascinating thing about the prayer for the government was that, in the 1960's they begin to disappear. There are two very significant prayer books that don't include a prayer for the government, almost as if Jews, were dissenting a bit from the way the government went, or didn't have a prayer that seemed appropriate. And fascinatingly, after September 11th, people want to pray for the government, and they go searching for prayers. And prayers for the government come back in a very significant way. More liberal movements have new prayers, which are appropriate to this situation; more traditional synagogues naturally will say, the traditional prayer. But in the wake of 9/11, people realize that they cared very deeply about the country and wanted in the synagogue to see their deep concern about the country exhibited in an appropriate prayer.
Would you characterize that as civil religion?
American civil religions has always been concerned about patriotism, because, in a country where you have so many different religions, we need something that unites us. And, even George Washington and the federalist papers recognized that religious freedom and diversity needed to be coupled with a sense that all, religions would be loyal and patriotic. That, I think was somewhat challenged in the 1960's, when many congregations found themselves in active dissent from the policies of the government. But I think, 9/11 brought back, a sense of what unites us, when an enemy attacks America, blows up its buildings, suddenly we remember, that we really do all care very deeply about the country and its freedom, and that that idea is larger than a particular government or a particular policy. And in that sense, praying for the government does become a kind of civil religion, we are united in our commitment to patriotism.
Are there any downsides to that?
Well, the basic Robert Bellah argument paid attention to inaugural addresses. And indeed, as he knows, there is a fair bit of patriotic piety in those inaugural addresses. I think in recent years Americans who are non-believers or whose beliefs are totally different from the standard kind of Judeo-Christian, Muslim, way of praying felt that they're suddenly outsiders, they're not included.
What is particularly interesting, though, is that if you look not at inaugural addresses, but at Christmas messages of American Presidents, you see something very different. Christmas messages, until very recently, were, not surprisingly, overtly Christian. And, although they spoke to all Americans, they really left out Americans who didn't observe Christmas. There are some Christians who don't observe Christmas, there are some Orthodox Christians who observe Christmas on a different day, and then, of course, there are Jews and Muslims, and Asian Americans who don't observe Christmas at all. And the Christmas messages reminded me that American civil religion has often been rather narrowly Christian, leaving out, forgetting about Americans who belong to one or another non-Christian, minority faith. And clearly, if we're going to have, a civil religion, especially now when America is such a diverse country, it needs to be a civil religion that is all-embracing, rather than a civil religion that pretends that everybody is Christian.
And that leads me into what you described in your book as a Reform strategy for saving Judaism. Why around the mid to late 19th Century, do some Jews feel this is necessary? How do worship and prayers change to almost reflect an integration of Christianity?
As Jews become comfortable in America, and very much seek to integrate into the American mainstream, I think many 19th Century Jews felt that their prayers and their whole mode of worship seemed very foreign to their neighbors and they found it somehow uncomfortably alien, even to themselves. Their world had changed, they were not American, and they wanted their religion, their Judaism, to become more Americanized. Specifically, many of these immigrants didn't know Hebrew very well. They wanted prayers that they could understand. Their Protestant neighbors understood the prayers, they wanted to understand them too. And they said, we want our prayers in English. Many of them found that the service was much longer than the service of their neighbors. Jewish services can go two hours, three hours, on high holidays, even many more hours. Their neighbors tended to pray for an hour or two. So they too, these Jews too said we want shorter prayers. Their neighbors often had music in their prayers. As part of the prayer service, they had an organ, perhaps, and that set a certain mood, an uplifting mood. And many Jews wanted an organ as well. And, finally, their neighbors almost always had a sermon at the very centerpiece of the worship, a sermon that was didactic, a sermon from which people could learn, and many Jews liked that idea as well.
Now, some of these things were easy to reconcile with Jewish law and tradition, a translated prayer book, a sermon; some were impossible to reconcile with Jewish law and tradition. And, Reformed Jews, argued that Judaism actually has to change if it is going to survive, unless Judaism becomes meaningful to us as Americans, then our children won't be Jewish at all, they said, and therefore, introduced changes into the worship, new prayer books and modifications in prayer designed to keep their children within the fold. Other Jews said, no, as a minority, the only way we can maintain our integrity in America is by preserving tradition and we cannot deviate from Jewish law, and we don't want to deviate from the prayers that were so evocative for our parents, and our grandparents, and so on. And they were reluctant to make many of those kinds of changes. But both felt that their strategy was the best way to preserve Judaism in America.
I'd like to explore that difference a little bit more with you.
It's what I would call the difference, perhaps, between, a traditionalist approach and, a Reform or acculturation and acculturationist response. One is more impressed with the need to transform Judaism the other actually felt that it was better to transform Jews by educating them to the tradition. Both have the same aim, which was to keep Judaism going. But their strategies were very different. Certainly one was more eager to accommodate itself to American culture; and the other felt it was important in some ways to resist American culture.
A very good illustration of this is in the seating patterns of synagogues. Traditionally Jews had separated men and women in worship, as, indeed, most Christians did in the middle ages and later of course, in America, already in the Colonial Period, family seating had replaced gender separated seating, and the idea developed that the family that prays together stays together. It is the idea of the, the church as the guardian of the family. Well, when Jews come to America, some of them find that idea very meaningful to them, they would like to pray with their wives and their children around them as one happy family.
They also thought that this would underscore the equality of men and women. And therefore we see, in the middle of the 19th Century, the introduction of mixed seating, by the Reform movement, really beginning with the great Reform Jewish leader Isaac Mayer Wise in Albany. But other Jews felt differently and they didn't call it family seating, they called it promiscuous seating. And, to their mind the brining together of men and women maybe unrelated, men and women sitting together during prayer was unthinkable. A violation of Jewish law and, at a deep level, I think they thought it was better for an individual to confront God as an individual, without the family, methodically confronting God on his or her own, and that, in fact, the family might be a distraction. So that, in fact, we, to this day, have two different modes of seating within American synagogues, the bulk of American synagogues have family seating, mixed seating as they would call it, much as most churches do. But Orthodox synagogues have maintained the tradition of gender separate. And the nature of the prayer experience is different, depending on whether you have mixed seating or separate seating.
Time and time again during waves of immigration emerges this idea of America as the new Eden. Can you talk about that.
Certainly Jews who were escaping Europe, who came to America either as refugees from persecution, or, because of significant religious restrictions in their country of origin, were deeply impressed by American freedom. The fact that they could worship as they wanted to, they could open up a new synagogue without seeking government permission, they could decide who would be their Rabbi, who would be the head of the synagogue, the government had no say in any of this. This was really remarkable, to many Jews. And we certainly do find, immigrants who look, upon America almost as a, a new promised land, and will talk about their city or their country using metaphors traditionally applied to Zion.
But then there were others, especially traditional Rabbis, who saw America very differently. To them, this was, as they said in Yiddish, a Treif Medinah, an unkosher land, a land where it was very difficult to keep the Sabbath, a land where, Rabbis were not even supported by the government. They were not independent, they were suddenly dependent on the good graces of their, congregants. A land where, in some ways, it was much more difficult to observe the commandments, than it had been in the Jewish communities where so many immigrants came from. So you had both views of America, a very positive one, a land of freedom; but also a land that was fraught with dangers for Jews who sought to maintain their traditions intact.
When you talk about the difficulty of keeping the Sabbath, and that leads to a particular Sabbath prayer. Can you explain why that was so difficult and what the potential solutions might have been?
The Sabbath was one of the most serious problems for American Jews. One of the most distinctive ... of Judaism is its adherence to the Biblical Sabbath. God rested on the seventh day of creation and the Jewish people has always maintained Saturday as its Sabbath. Well, when the bulk of Jews came to America, this country had a six day week, and the day of rest was Sunday, not Saturday. And that day of rest was not just for Christians in many communities there were significant laws known as blue laws, which required everybody to rest on Sunday. For an observant Jew, that meant he suddenly had a five day week, not a six day week, and it was mighty difficult to find jobs for people who wanted to keep their Sabbath sacred, and it was difficult to earn a living if you were working, one day less than everybody else. And so, there were real difficulties, especially for immigrants. Some of them said, I can't keep the Jewish Sabbath anymore, even though that was so central a way of defining oneself as a Jew. Others said, well, I'll keep Friday night, Friday night we'll go to the synagogue, we'll light the candles, we'll have a special meal; Saturday, I have to go to work. Some talked about maybe, in America, transferring the Jewish day of rest to Sunday. Happily for Jews, beginning, in the 1930's and much more significantly after World War II, the five day week becomes the rule and that solved the problem, because there were two days of rest, and it was much easier for Jews to observe Saturday as their day of rest. The conflict between the Jewish day of rest and the American way of work disappeared.
One of the periods that I was really fascinated by reading your book, is the Civil War period. I'm familiar with lost cause theology, but I wasn't familiar with that in that Jews were fighting for both the Union and the Confederate forces. Can you example the role of prayer or lost cause theology for Jewish Confederate Soldiers?
Jews in the Confederacy viewed the south very much the way their Christian neighbors viewed it. And they viewed the cause they were fighting for in quite similar ways. During the war some southern Jews articulate their sectional grievances in prayers, prayers that northerners, have trouble reading today, prayers that spell out the wickedness of the north, and that see the southerners cause as just and defined it in Biblical terms. And, of course, after the war ends, many Jews view the defeat in, classic Biblical terms, just as Judea fell, so the south fell. Suddenly, they felt as if the Temple had been destroyed which they analogized to the Confederacy being destroyed. And, we see Jews memorializing their dead bed in the south. And, we see, Jews, creating various kinds of memorial statues, Moses, Ezekiel,... mourning her dead. This is all a way of memorializing, the lost cause, really, in a very similar way, to what, to help. This is really a way of Jews memorializing, the lost cause in a manner that quite resembles that of their Protestant neighbors, they had fought along side them, during the war, and they suffered with them, during and after the war, and they wanted to remember that lost cause, really theologize that lost cause very much in the same way that their neighbors did.
And then, here we are in the north with the Union and I noticed you mentioned some northern Rabbis link Lincoln's death with Moses, Can you talk to that?
Abraham Lincoln is assassinated on the Jewish holiday of Passover. Of course it's also Good Friday. So it was natural that Christians who memorialized him, made use of Good Friday imagery, but that certainly wasn't going to do for Jews. But here, Passover, the Exodus, Jews automatically analogized Abraham Lincoln to Moses, just as Moses dies just as he is about to enter the Promised Land, so Abraham Lincoln is, shot down just as he is about to enter the promised land of this reunified nation. The analogy for Jews seemed perfect, especially given the celebration of Passover. And it really allowed Jews to look upon Lincoln in religious terms, in ways somewhat analogous to those used by their Christian neighbors.
One of the areas that we're looking at is the social gospel at the turn of the 20th Century. What's going on in American Judaism at the time that reflects this kind of social change, social justice?
Jews do begin to articulate an interest in social justice. We see that expressed very strongly in the Reform platform of 1885, known as the Pittsburgh Platform, which has a social justice plank, there is a significant Chicago Reform Rabbi named Rabbi Amiel G. Hirsch, who calls his newspaper, Social Advocate, and he is a very significant proponent of social justice. And we do begin to see developments analogous to the Protestant Social Gospel develop within the Jewish community in the late 19th Century. We see women, for example, who form sisterhoods to go out and assist the immigrants; we see Jews becoming involved in the settlement house movement; and in a fascinating way, we see, literally, the coming together of the Jewish and the Protestant movements when Walter Rauschenbusch's son, the son of the man who wrote the book on the Social Gospel, marries the daughter of Louis Brandeis, the great Jewish Justice deeply interested in social justice versus Supreme Court Justice, and in a sense, this brings together these two streams in marriage.
Later on, Reform Jews change the terminology, talk less about social justice and more about what they call te coun oman, repairing the world. This is a Kabalistic idea born of Jewish mysticism, which is significantly modified to allow Jews to imagine that their activities, in helping the poor, in improving race relations, in promoting peace, in a sense, are a form of repairing the world, making the world a better place. And by using a Hebrew concept this allowed them to really make clear that they were drawing from Jewish sources, earlier Reform Jews drew from prophetic sources in the same way that Christians drew from gospel sources.
What role does prayer play in all of this?
I think for some Jews, the very activity is a form of prayer. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he marched in Selma, alongside Martin Luther King, said, I felt as if my legs were praying. The idea that one prays through action, I think is a very significant one in, social justice and, indeed, I think there are some Jews who do not necessarily find meaning in verbal prayers, in their reciting the Psalms, or, repeating the Jewish prayer of the 18 Benedictions. But, indeed, they find enormous meaning in working in a soup kitchen, in demonstrating for human rights, in alleviating injustice. And this, too, for them is a way of serving God and is their manner of praying actively.
Tell me about the role of Jewish prayers when World War I broke out.
World War I really marks the first war where we had a very significant number of Jews in the military, four to five percent of the armed forces are Jewish. And a new organization is formed, the National Jewish Welfare Board, to meet the religious needs of these Jews. Now they had a very, difficult problem, you have Orthodox Jews, and Conservative Jews, and Reform Jews, and the U.S. Government is only really willing to print one Jewish prayer book, not a prayer book for each movement. And, amazingly, the leaders of these different Jewish religious movements get together and are able to fashion a Jewish prayer book for the men and women in the armed service. This prayer book has some favorite Reform prayers and it has some Conservative, some Orthodox. And it is printed in hundreds of thousands of copies, and distributed to all Jewish soldiers, as if to say that Jews have their form of worship, and the U.S. Government recognizes it as absolutely legitimate, no different from the way it recognizes Protestant and Catholic worship. And similarly the military distributes Jewish translations of the Bible which are different from Protestant and Catholic translations of different numbers of books, and obviously don't include the New Testament, and have a different translation of some key verses. And the government distributed those to Jewish soldiers, the sense was, Jews are participating as equals in the war effort, and their religious needs should be met the same as those of any other participant in the war effort.
You've talked about World War II as the ultimate synthesis of patriotism and religious duty. Why and how does this occur?
World War II is different from previous American wars for Jews, you're fighting Nazism. The Nazis have made a war against the Jews, and suddenly we're also fighting the Nazis as a threat to democracy, as the people who are allies of those who bombed Pearl Harbor. So for Jewish soldiers, you were suddenly able to fight the German enemy, both as a Jew seeking to avenge the destruction of European Jewry that was going on, and as a proud American fighting to make the world safe again for freedom and democracy. And these came together Jews volunteered for World War II never, I think, did Jews feel before or afterwards, that there was a war that they believed in so deeply, that was such a duty, that would be so important to them, both as Americans and as Jews, as this war against the Nazis. And, the involvement of Jews was very deep.
The sense of President Roosevelt as the man leading the troops, almost a divine figure in those days for Jews, later some would change their minds, but in those days a sense that he was leading the free world against our great enemy. And, indeed there were many prayers that were uttered in synagogues, both for the welfare for the troops, but also prayers for the country and for the free world. Never before or since did American Jews feel so acutely, this sense that everything they believed in was at stake and they were fighting for that, they were fighting for their people, their country, their whole civilization.
And of course, coming out of this, is the realization and horror of the Holocaust. And, with this s the Jewish prayers for the dead. Can you explain the resonance of this prayer?
As Jews begin to understand what is going on in Nazi Germany by 1942, 1943, and 1944, one is learning about the concentration camps, about the death camps, about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, about the death of millions. And many American Jews had close relatives who they had left behind, and who they suddenly realized they would never see again. There is a significant pageant, that the Jewish community develops during the war, we will never die, it was called. And it really tried to bring home what was going on in Europe, how desperate the situation was. And even though the title said we will never die, the conclusion was, the Kaddish, they, the prayer for the dead, the sense that one had to say this prayer in Aramaic that is known by Jews across the whole spectrum of Jewish life as the prayer that is said by mourners, that we have to say that prayer for European Jewry that was no more. And the saying of that prayer en masse for those who perished, was an act of deep spirituality, of deep mourning, an act that brought home, I think, to many Jews, even before we had the postwar pictures of the Holocaust, just what was going on in Europe, and what it would mean, for them and for their families.
One of the other sections that we're looking at is the First Amendment, religious freedom, and how it relates to prayer. And you suggested that the experience of Judaism in America can be closely linked to constitutional freedom. Can you explain why you would argue that?
The Constitution really represents a remarkable moment and a remarkable document as far as Jews were concerned. First of all, it said no religious test shall ever be required for any office of public trust. That meant the Jews no longer had to take an oath on the New Testament in order to be a lawyer or in order to hold public office, meaning, de facto, they could never hold those kinds of offices. Certainly, a Jew could be President of the United States, because, even though there is an oath of office, it is not a religious test that is required. They are not required to swear fealty to a particular religion or even a particular holy writ.
And then, of course, the First Amendment goes even further. Our Congress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise there of. The First Amendment means that Judaism is co-equal, with all of the other religions, it is not a dissenting religion, as it would be, even in England and in so many Europe states, different from the state religion. In America there isn't a state religion. No religion is established, and Jews insist that, under the First Amendment, they need to have equal footing with all other faiths, not secondary status. And, indeed, their right to exercise their religion, is guaranteed by the constitution, there can be no restrictions on the height of synagogues or in how they look, or where they can be built. And nobody is looking over Jews shoulder to find out what kinds of prayers they are saying. So, this meant an enormous amount to Jews, who had really not enjoyed that measure of religious freedom, guaranteed by the central documents of the state, in any other country.
At the same time, though, late 19th Century, there becomes this push among Christians to add what they called the Christian Amendment to the Constitution. How did the Jewish community react to that?
Well, in the wake of the Civil War, there were Evangelical Christians who argued that this terrible war clearly was the result of some terrible sin. And, they concluded, this great sin must be that, that God and Jesus and Christianity are not mentioned in the Constitution. And, they felt that, to protect the country that needed to be rectified. And they, therefore, sought to have a Christian Amendment to the Constitution, which would alter the preamble so as to write Christianity into the body of the Constitution itself, and to make America a truly Christian country.
Well, from the point of view of American Jews nothing could have been worse than that. Everything that they had fought for, the very reason that they had come to America was to have religious liberty and to be in a country where they might be a co-equal and the Christian Amendment seemed to them to be the very antithesis of what they thought America was about. And so, we find Jews fighting the Christian Amendment, and insisting that America indeed was great because it had granted equality to people of every faith. And this became a consistent fight. Indeed, of efforts to amend the Constitution, to add Christianity to it, really continued for a century. And, for all of that time, Jews, played a, an important role, I think, in reminding politicians that they were good Americans too, and that it would be wrong and, indeed, un-American, to turn them into second-class citizens.
You've described the Jewish position on religion in schools as a delicate balance between a fear of Godlessness and a fear of Christianization. Can you explain that a little bit?
As the public schools develop in the 19th Century, Jews really are very happy with this institution because they're very devoted to education and importantly, they felt that the public schools were, divorced from religion, that they were not inculcating a particular faith, as was so often the case elsewhere. But, indeed, many of the children were getting a general education in the public schools and getting their particular religious education in Sunday schools or afternoon schools, but, in some setting, apart from the public school.
Nevertheless, as time goes on, there is a sense that every child should somehow learn the fear of God, should have, some sense of the power, an importance of religion taught to them in the public school. And the question becomes how to do that in a way that will not marginalize members of minority religions or, indeed, those who have no religion. Certainly there are those within the Jewish community in the 20th Century who argue that church/state separation means there should be no religion in the public school, religion is what people learn in their church or their synagogue, and the public schools should be secular. But there are others within the Jewish community who really do feel the Godlessness of the public schools, who worry that a generation that is raised without fear of religion without any acquaintance with, with our religious traditions, would be a generation that would have trouble. Taking its role as citizens in the country, and those Jews do want to find some way of bringing religion into the school without that religion being particularistically Christian.
This is not an easy thing to do. There are some prayers that are written, a famous one in New York State where Jews and Christians joined together in writing a prayer that everyone could say. There were Jews who argued that the Lord's Prayer was originally a Jewish prayer and was a prayer that everybody could say, although many other Jews said what do you mean, that prayer appears in the New Testament. But it is important to know that there were two views within the Jewish community. I think by the 1950's, the majority of Jews, having seen many abuses in the public schools knowing that many Jewish children were made to feel second-class citizens, either by inappropriate Biblical versus, or by Christological prayers, many Jews felt the only solution is to remove prayer from the public school and they supported the U.S. Supreme Court when it did just that.
But there were other Jews who continued to worry about a Godlessness and felt that it was very important to find some prayer that people of all faiths could agree upon. And they pointed out that prayers are said in Congress, and prayers are said on many state occasions that broadly speak of God but not in particularistic terms and they felt that perhaps such a prayer, could find its way into the classroom. The courts ruled otherwise and, by and large, I think, the Jewish community has supported that set of decisions, perhaps because they know that from bitter experience, that the minute prayer and Bible reading comes into the schools, there is, a very strong chance that it will be abused by those who seek not just to inculcate religion broadly, but seek to inculcate the teachings of their own religion, to the detriment of those who may have another religion.
Was there then a kind of joining of forces between those in the Jewish tradition that were opposed to school prayer and Catholics? Or was it the Catholic argument, the Jewish argument?
Well, remember the 19th Century, Catholics had a very different view than Jews did about the public school. Catholics looked at the public school and said, this looks very Protestant, we can't raise our children in the public school and turn them into good Catholics. And Catholics created a separate Catholic school system. Jews in the 19th Century did not create a separate Jewish school system, they by and large used the, the public schools and created a supplementary Jewish educational system, a Sunday school, an afternoon school. And so, well into the 20th Century, Jews and Catholics, I think, found themselves arguing in somewhat different ways. They come together at a particular moment, in the '20's when, the State of Oregon seeks to ban, Catholic Parochial schools and the Jewish community writes a very important brief, written by Louis Marshall, which the Supreme Court accepts and overturns that Oregon law, making it clear that Parochial schools are legal. But there is no big Jewish push towards creating Jewish day schools, really until the postwar era. The, really, only, few handfuls of schools by 1945.
So, the Catholic, interest tended to be an interest in making funds available for Parochial education. That was different from the Jewish concern with separating church from state; however, as more and more Jews, began to become interested in Jewish day school education, which, by our day, has more students, really, than Sunday school or supplementary school, not more than both of them together, but it's really the largest now of a kind of Jewish education, the interest in getting state funds for Jewish day schools naturally began to grow and, over time, we have seen that Jews and Catholics, and Evangelicals have found common cause, at least some Jews have found common cause, in trying to find ways to make funds available for religious schools. Other Jews find, this abhorrent, and there is a very significant division within the Jewish community on this issue.
One of the other interesting moments in the book is when you talked about the Jewish community by the second half of the 19th Century being large and powerful enough to vocally oppose Thanksgiving. What was the reason or the rationale behind the kind of, the opposition at some point to Thanksgiving? Is it of part of this Christianization of this day?
In the early 19th Century, Thanksgiving had not yet become a national holiday as it would become in the Civil War, but, different governors would issue Thanksgiving proclamations. And, some of those governors would phrase their Thanksgiving proclamations in highly Christian terms, as if one, as if Jews didn't have to give Thanksgiving, or as if Jews were excluded from, the Thanksgiving that was being proclaimed. Naturally Jews found that offensive. In some cases, when it was brought to the attention of a governor, the governor would change the proclamation or apologize, and would attempt to be more all-inclusive next time. In some cases, governors, resisted insisting that the majority of citizens in the state were Christian, and that it would, so to speak, be trampling on the rights of the majority if they wrote a proclamation that would suit a small minority that did not recognize Christianity. And, in those cases we find that there were occasions when Jews would refuse to participate in the Thanksgiving proclamation because they said, we were excluded. Of course, once Thanksgiving became a national day, Jews were included and I think for perhaps a century and a half now, Thanksgiving has been part of American civil religion, really, and people of all faiths find it possible to merge their traditions of Thanksgiving with the American Thanksgiving and do participate as Jews, or as Hindus, or as other minorities, in this great national Thanksgiving day.
How has Jewish prayer changed over the course of American history?
The major changes in Jewish prayer, I think, are the fact that, outside of Orthodoxy, more and more prayers are said in English I don't really like that, 'cause that just moved back in Hebrew. The major changes, I think would be prayers, became shorter, much more attention paid to decorum, everywhere a sense, that there was a proper way of praying, and that people should pray together. A good deal of English comes into the prayer, the sermon becomes central to most prayer experiences and except in Orthodox settings, instrumental music becomes very central to prayer and even within Orthodoxy, group singing, becomes an important part of prayer. All of these represent differences from the way things were either in early America or in much of Europe.
One of the things that happens to Jewish prayer is the shift from Hebrew to English prayers which in some ways parallels Catholicisms' moves from Latin to English. Could you talk to that?
Sure. And, certainly there was a movement on the part of Jews to want to understand their prayers and, indeed, as more and more Jews stopped being able to read Hebrew, they wanted to participate in prayer and they wanted those prayers, therefore to be in English. But at the same time, I think there becomes a feeling that something is lost when you pray in English. First of all, you're no longer praying the same way that your ancestors did who prayed in Hebrew. And, with the rise of the State of Israel, there's a realization that you're not praying in the same way that Jews in Israel are praying. And, as more Jews come to learn Hebrew, there's also a sense that Hebrew is a very important part of being Jewish.
The language connects one with Jews everywhere, with tradition, with the Bible itself. And, so there is a move back towards Hebrew, indeed, some new prayer books will include a transliteration of the Hebrew, the Hebrew written out in English letters, so that everybody can, say the Hebrew words, even if they can't read the Hebrew letters and there has been a back-to-Hebrew movement, I think in many synagogues. Even though, I think they're continued to be Jews for whom understanding what they are saying and paying close attention to the very words and meaning of the prayer is essential. Other Jews are interested in saying the same prayers that their forefathers said, the words are important even if they can't understand those words, because those words are so filled with traditions, and memories, and associations. In some ways this is very similar to the Catholic story with Latin, do we want prayers that we understand or do we want to pray with the majesty of an ancient language that has been so central to our tradition and our forebears.
Is prayer in American Judaism more of a public or a private matter? Is there one type that's more privileged?
Yes. In Judaism, public prayer, group prayer, prayer that is said, ah, with a prayer quorum, a minion, as it is called in Hebrew traditionally ten men in non-Orthodox setting it's not ten people, that prayer is privileged over individual, private prayers. Some of the holiest prayers that Jews say can only be recited in a minion, in a quorum of ten. And, indeed they, the Holy Torah can only be read in public where there is a minion, a prayer quorum present. Judaism privileges prayer in a group it is felt that that does more honor to God the King.
Is prayer central to being Jewish?
I certainly think that to Jews who want to follow the commandments, a prayer is central, indeed, Judaism says that one should engage in prayer three times a day and indeed, say a prayer before one, eats, and before one enjoys, any part of the world. And tradition says one should try and say a hundred blessings a day. That said, clearly, there are many Jews who have made a huge contribution to the world, but who were not spiritually moved and, rather than praying they spent their time in various kinds of activity. And I would say, even historically there have been Jewish movements that place tremendous tension on the act of prayer itself, they are deeply spiritual and they feel that prayer should take up a great deal of ones time and focus and attention. And there were others that tried to zip through the prayers very quickly because what one should be doing is studying or performing actively good deeds and not spending all ones time in prayer. And these tensions are really well within the tradition.
There are many Jews who are not moved by the world of synagogue prayer and they come on the high holidays for a few hours but are deeply committed to Jewish life. It is important to remember, Jews are a people in addition to Judaism being a religion, and identifying with the Jewish people and its needs, identifying with Israel and the people of Israel these too are very important commandments. And I think there are different Jews, who have different emphasis in their religious lives.
We touched on civil religion earlier. So, how would you define civil religion in the American context?
I think it's very important to think about civil religion in an all-embracing way, in a way that embraces the totality of religions in America. All of the religions of Americans should be part of our civil religion, and our civil religion should reflect a commitment to religion as a positive good and to religions liberty as the only way that we can, live together in peace and harmony. The great danger of civil religion is that it becomes a particularistic religion, or the religion of the majority masquerading as the religion of the entire population. And, when that happens, civil religion ceases to be, the religious embodiment of the American people as a whole, and, indeed, instead it becomes a kind of religious establishment which goes against, our fundamental First Amendment freedoms.
What is the kind of genesis of this idea and why does it remain so powerful for so many?
I think that for as long as we have had nations and people, they have believed that God is on their side. And it's much easier to believe that God is on our side than to ask are you on God's side. And, I, think that we do not need to change ourselves nearly as much if we feel that God is smiling on everything that we do. Whereas, if we ask ourselves as an interrogative of our actions, the actions that God would demand of us as human beings, then we might come up with a very different kind of conclusion. But, most peoples have preferred the first question to the second.
In your opinion, is there anything distinctly unique about American experience?
I think that what is so remarkable about America is that religion has continued so very strong in this country that so many people do pray and do believe in God. When we compare America to Europe, then we see, what a difference there is. Europe has secularized enormously since World War II, most of the churches stand empty, and the majority of citizens do not pray in America, the majority do. I believe that the reason that Americans are, as a group, so religious and so, if you like, into prayer, is precisely because there are so many ways of being religious and so many ways of praying. There isn't a government or a Cardinal or an Archbishop telling us how we should be religious, there is no central figure insisting that, unless we pray in a certain way, we are in violation of God's law. People can find their own way of deriving meaning from prayer, and it is that, very religious pluralism, I think, that has allowed Americans to remain religious, and to remain interested in prayer, because if the prayers at one house of worship don't move you, there are any number of other ways of praying, of being religious, available for exploration. Everybody ought to be able to find a mode of prayer meaningful to him or to her.
Now let's talking about health and prayer for a little bit. Are there traditions and Jewish prayers for illness and good health?
I think that, in the 1950's and '60's, when faith in medicine was rising, prayers for health, became, more rote and in many cases, disappeared from synagogues or would be banished or kind of quick mumbled prayer by an old-timer who would pray for the health of this or that. Most, people and most modern Jews argued, that we need a good doctor, rather than an effective prayer. But, as time went on, I think there began to be greater appreciation for spiritual health alongside of good medical health. Belief that one was going to get healthy and that one could do something for oneself began to be seen as, as more and more important in good health and, perhaps we all lost a little bit of faith in the almighty doctor, and came to believe that Almighty God had more of a role in health, then perhaps we had once thought. And I had been very struck by the return of prayers for the sick in synagogues across the spectrum of American Jewish life. And these prayers are often said with great fervor sometimes particular names are said aloud by members of the congregation, other times they are simply mentioned, either by the Rabbi or by individuals privately, but the sense of praying for those who are ill has I think become a much more important part of Jewish worship and the very fact that there is now stirring music by Debbie Friedman which has come to be used in a great many synagogues across the country brings together-- no, let me say that differently. And this healing prayer, as she calls it, has indeed become a highpoint of many Jewish services.
In this show wea re going to be looking at prayer, religion and the prison system. And there's been a push,in some quarters, towards faith-based prisons leading critics to ask, is prayer really important, is it necessary, is it good public policy? So is there something you'd care to comment on from either of those angles?
The tension has been between a real sense that I think many religious people have that religion does keep individuals on the right path. If I have a sense that God is watching me, even when nobody else is watching me, obviously I'm not going to steal or commit a variety of other sins, because I have a sense that nothing, is outside of the divine, how do I say it in English. Nothing is outside the divine preview, God is all seeing. And in that sense we know that religion can be a significant deterrent, religion can also give great meaning to the lives of people, who haven't found meaning in their lives before.
At the same time, there is always this great concern. What about the religious minority? If we teach somebody that the only way to achieve a proper life is through Jesus, what about the Jewish prisoner who doesn't believe in Jesus? Do we say that he should be evangelized or do we say that in a religiously pluralistic country the Jewish prisoner will gain as much from his Jewish heritage, and the Muslim prisoner as much from his Muslim faith, and the atheist prisoner may gain all sorts of meaning from his philosophy as the Christian will form his belief in Jesus.
So on the one hand, we know that religion can make a difference in people's lives; on the other hand, in a religiously pluralistic community, it is enormously important not to turn institutions like prisons, where, after all, people are gathered involuntarily into missionizing agencies which, of course, it is not what our government is supposed to be about.
You talked earlier about the separation of men and women in certain services. I wonder if you could just maybe touch a little bit upon the role of women and prayer historically.
Historically in Judaism, prayers were only led by men. The Cantors were men, the choirs were male choirs and the center of action was on the men's side of the synagogue. Indeed, in early synagogues, the women were above, the men were below, they were auditors, they could also look upon what was going on, but all of the prayer leaders were male.
Of course, in America, where women have played such an important role in churches and visited churches, more and more, American Jewish women began coming to the synagogue, in other places it's rare, women would come twice a year, but they might pray privately, but not in America. In America, where the women went to church, we see already in early 19th Century and even earlier, women are going to synagogues in larger and larger numbers. And that has an impact and clearly, women are beginning to seek more active roles. And as time goes on, we see women's choirs and we see then mixed choirs and other ways in which women participate. But I have to say that it is really only in the last few decades really, that we have seen women Rabbis and women Cantors, and we really in non-Orthodox Congregations, have opened up the role of prayer leader to women.
In Orthodox Congregations there are some where there are separate women's prayer groups, these have become increasingly popular, although not uncontroversial where women will lead the prayers. But when, everybody gathers together, all of the prayer leaders are men. But I think the tendency over time in American Judaism has been to open up more and more opportunities for women, recognizing that women seek to pray no less than men do and, that in an egalitarian society, religion, too, needs to strive to be more and more egalitarian.
I'd like your opinion on this quote. "Prayer affords an opportunity to recognize how Americans, despite their diversity, are unified in their spirituality with one another and with a higher being. Americans today must understand prayer as a unique unifying force." How would you respond to that point of view?
I think that while it is true that most of our religions in America do have formal gatherings for prayer it is as important to recognize the diversity of prayers as it is to recognize that we all use the same term, often for very, very different experiences. The kinds of prayers that go on in an evangelical setting, would be horrifying to a Quaker and vice versa. There are places where prayer is really meditative and contemplative, and other houses of worship where prayer is shouted out and is very public and loud. There are some who believe that prayer has to be said in a particular language to be efficacious, in Hebrew, in Latin, in Greek; others insist that the Almighty understands all languages and that one should pray in whatever language one is comfortable speaking. There are some who pray in tongues and there are some who cannot even understand the notion of praying in tongues. So prayer unites us but it also divides us. And in that way it is like religion itself, we, the vast majority of Americans claim, in one way or another, to be religious, but we mean very, very different things by religion, and so, too, in prayer.
The final question's a kind of a prediction for the future, if you wil. You spend so much of your time and your scholarship looking back on traditions and these changes. Where do you see the future of the prayer experience or the Jewish experience moving forward if you were to say, 50, 100 years, if you were to hazard a guess?
The Internet, the world of technology is making such changes in the world of prayer. We have only begun to understand its possibilities. Just yesterday I got an e-mail calling on Jews around the world to simultaneously say Psalms at a particular moment, in the hope of bringing peace to the Middle East. This would have been unimaginable, it would have taken years to try and organize such a moment of simultaneous prayer, and now it was attempted and sent around in moments.
New prayers are created and distributed at electronic speed, in ways that once were impossible. And indeed, people can sign on to prayers, join their names to particular prayers in ways that were never before possible. So I expect that we are going to see technology shaping prayer experiences in all of our religions in the years ahead in extraordinary ways. And, it seems to me likely that our prayers will become more powerful, indeed, because we will know that we are able to share those prayers with people around the world. That these are prayers not just of us as individuals, but prayers that are being co-joined by millions and millions of people everywhere.
Is there anything as we finish here that you would like to say that you feel I haven't touched on this subject?
You know the only thing, the only thing that I wanted to underscore was that, increasingly, it has seemed to me that we do need to understand that there are people who truly like to pray as the radical individual confronting God without anybody disturbing them. Indeed, there are Jews who warp themselves in the Tallit, in a prayer shawl, to keep out any intrusion of the left or the right, so that it is simply the individual speaking to God. And, indeed, many of those people prefer separate seating. I don't want to be surrounded by my wife, by my family, at time of prayer, prayer is my moment to speak directly to God above.
There are other people for whom prayer is inevitably a group experience. I want my voice to be joined to that of the entire congregation as we sing together. And it is the very power of the group that makes for them the prayer efficacious. Actually, both ideas are found within Jewish tradition and, really, within many religious traditions, but the experience of prayer is very different. And, perhaps, in the final analysis, God made people different and those differences are expressed in how, in turn, they pray to God. Some people are deeply spiritual, some people are not; some people prefer to pray as individuals, some people prefer to pray in groups; some people insist they cannot possibility say a prayer unless they understand every word of that prayer, and other people insist that, ah, what makes the prayer meaningful is its arcane vocabulary, the power of those ancient words, even if they can't understand the words, they know they are somehow efficacious.
There are perhaps as many different ways of praying as there are human beings. And in the final analysis, maybe that's how God meant our world to be.