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Public Prayer May Be Messy, But It’s Worthwhile

The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, celebrating the bounty of nature, was observed this past week and begs a very important question: What was God thinking when pomegranates were created? Does the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe have something against clean shirts?

Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to slice open a pomegranate (or been tricked into doing so) knows that each of the hundreds of seeds inside is surrounded by a droplet of bright red juice. When one slices into the thick skin, the knife passes through the tender center and explodes the tiny juice capsules causing a fine red mist to settle on everything and everyone in the vicinity. The resulting permanent stain leaves an intricate pattern of minuscule red dots, perhaps reminding us of how small we are in the larger universe, yet how capable of altering forever the course of the world around us.

Tu B’Shevat reminds us of the amazing natural world, of the cycles of life and its endless variety, and of the sustenance that we routinely take for granted. We celebrate the coming spring by giving thanks for different types of fruits, and by planting anew to ensure growth in the future. So, too, our faith.

When we read the words of our liturgy, we should recognize that just like the wide variety of types of fruits found in nature, different people might hold a wide variety of views of God and our relationship to the Divine in the world and in ourselves. We might conceive of God as a Parent with us as His obedient children. Perhaps we could see God as the Commander and us as the commanded. Maybe God is represented for us as the Infinite Potential that guides and supports and enables us while we struggle with the limits of our finity and our obligations to actualize ourselves in the world. Maybe some of us hold to a different “God-concept” entirely, or even hold no such concept at all.

The ultimate issue is this: If we can accept that there is something greater than ourselves in the world, that none of us is the end-all, be-all of existence, and that all of our lives have added meaning by the continued existence of a world that we did not create, then we have reason to find meaning in prayer. Whether we thank God, being to Being, for creating the world and all that is in it, or whether we simply express happiness while acknowledging our connectedness to a world external to ourselves, there is a reason to come and join together with the rest of our community in introspection, hopefulness, and gratitude.

In the arena of civic engagement, the issue of prayer itself can be controversial, to be sure. It seems worthwhile to hope that our leaders might be endowed with wisdom to make good decisions, and that our community might experience safety and prosperity; such sentiments would be appropriate prayers indeed at a City Council meeting.

Nevertheless, just as each of us may hold varying concepts of the Divine, so, too, all of us must feel welcome in the public square, particularly when standing before our government: itself an institution of the people; all of the people.

Unlike our friends at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I do not wish to see prayer removed from such civic occasions. Rather, I would like any prayers offered to be inclusive of all citizens.

Instead of the unfortunate term, “secular,” which makes little sense in reference to prayer, the concept of “inclusive” language seems more appropriate. While personally, I prefer to open prayers with, “Lord our God,” perhaps instead of invoking a Deity by name, one could say, “Spirit of the Universe,” “Source of Life,” or perhaps, “Nature’s God,” our “Creator,” or “Supreme Judge of the World,” those last three being language thoughtfully chosen by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence.

When concluding a prayer, rather than expressing a sentiment particular to a single faith tradition, one could opt for more equivocal language, “in Your Name we pray,” “to You we pray,” “for these things we pray,” or even just a short pause, followed by, “Amen.”

Prayer services at any house of worship are, of course, particularistic to a given faith; prayer at civic occasions ought to be universal instead. If the goal is to pray for our community as a collective whole, shouldn’t we do so in a way that brings everyone “in” rather than keeping some “out?”

The pomegranate is a very messy fruit; messy, but delicious. So, too, democracy and freedom: They are very difficult ideas to get right, but well worth it when we do succeed. Rather than abandoning prayer for fear of offending, let us acknowledge our differences and strive for inclusion.

City Hall, the State Capitol, the United States Congress: These hallowed halls are no one’s private religious domain; we ought to ponder and consider and construct any liturgy so that it provides meaning and inspiration to every citizen.

We must not simply stare in dread at the pomegranate in the fruit basket; we need to peel back the skin, even at the risk of being stained by the juice. Then, after the struggle of opening it up, we ought to share the sweetness of the fruit inside with all who might want to taste.

My family and I wish you and yours a genuine enjoyment of nature’s bounty this week, and a true appreciation of how blessed we are to be citizens of this great nation each and every day as well.

Lief is rabbi at Temple Shalom in Wheeling.

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