Why I don't Pray in Churches
I write this with full respect for the care, thoughtfulness and intentionality that Rabbi Haskel Lookstien brought to his decision to represent the Orthodox Community in prayer at the National Cathedral, and, at the same time, with appreciation for the complexity of that decision. I understand the need of the RCA to explain that Rabbi Lookstien is not representative of all Orthodox Jews- and am proud of the Orthodox International Rabbinic Fellowship, for their defense of his right to make independent Halachic decisions. These and these are the words of a living g-d.
His decision, as well as my experience, standing in a prayerful moment in Harlem, listening to a Christian invocation for our new president and knowing that it did not speak for me, as a queer person, or as an Orthodox Jew, has led me to reflect a bit on the difficulties of religious pluralism, and on my own sense of exclusion from that national moment of tremendous joy.
At the time, I turned to a Jewish woman, next to me, and we had a brief conversation about the appropriate Jewish response. Was it a shehechiyanu? baruch Hatov v’Hameitiv? personal, unscripted prayer? silence? all of the above? My own religious experience was private, a moment of gratitude to my maker, who blessed my country, and allowed me to witness this day.
It was only later, this shabbat, that I took part in a moment of communal prayer in honor of our new president. It was at a Shul, where the Rabbi spoke about the importance of prayer, and of supporting our new president, his advisors and our nation, through the prayer for our government that we recite every week. It’s power came precisely from it’s habitual recitation, it’s meaning from the awareness of the changed world within which we recited it, and from the faith in one, undivided g-d that the synagogue space, and that community, represented. Our language, and the shape of the space we stood in, reflected our unwavering fidelity to a Halachic tradition that is older than any of us, and that shapes the way in which we allow ourselves to pray.
I don’t think I could have had that moment in a non-denominational service. To go, I would have had to violate the Halacha that I believe would prohibit me from attending. My prayers would not have been true to my convictions or to my religious practice- and while my presence might be seen as exhibiting acceptance of the multitude of other religions represented, it would, in fact, be a rejection of my own way of life and manner of prayer. I feel fortunate to live in a country that does not force me to make that decision, but instead, allows me to live and believe in my distinct way. I love this country most when I feel that it has room for each of us- that I live in a nation of people who are free to choose when, where and whether to pray, in our own particular ways.