Culture, Religion

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.

7 thoughts on “Why I don't Pray in Churches

  1. While this was a beautifully written piece and I certainly respect every individual’s right to follow whatever religious traitions and beliefs best suit his or her needs and values, I find it incredibly, unbearably sad that the Orthodox Jewish community refuses to participate in interfaith activities designed to bring together the nation rather than to divide it. By continuing to separate themselves from the larger American community as a whole, they perpetuate and even create negative stereotypes and perceptions about Jews — as the ones who refuse to mingle and to show tolerance and appreciation of America’s rich religious tapestry.
    (As I said, I respect everyone’s belief to feel as he or she feels they must, so I appreciate not being flamed or attacked for this comment, which I’m sure will be an unpopular viewpoint.)

  2. Kate-
    As an American, with a strong commitment to the separation of church and state, I find it troubling that the Orthodox Jewish community would be asked to participate in a service held in a Church for political reasons. By holding the event in a Church, and by centering the event around faith- Orthodox Jews who believe that they cannot pray in churches are excluded. If, on the other hand, there was a day of prayer and reflection in which people of all faiths, and those who are not members of any faith group, could pray or reflect in their own manner- I would, of course, be saddened if Orthodox Jews did not participate. The fact is that Orthodox Jews committed to the traditional liturgy all participate in prayers for our new president, as they will continue to do weekly. If, in a country whose founding principles allowed for religious difference in it’s inhabitants, Jews are hated for being a distinct religious group with unique forms of worship, I find that to be a shame, and do not think the fault lies with Orthodox Jews.
    That said, I do, of course, consider it important that each Jew (orthodox or otherwise) participates in serving this country, contributing to it, and improving the lives of our fellow citizens as members of our national community.

  3. Although I don’t often find myself in church, on the infrequent occasions when I am, I most certainly do pray there. The surroundings and the worship always make me, a liberal Reform Jew, grateful to be “she-asani Yisrael,” to have been born with a pure soul, and to appreciate what a wonderful number is echad. What better place to give praise to God for these blessings?

  4. I am a secular gentile with a religious question. Why do many religious Jews spell the deity’s name G-d when written in English, when “god” is a Germanic word that was first used in the context of pagan religions? It is obviously not related in any way to the name (or various names) of the Abrahamic deity. As I understood it, the ineffability of the Hebrew God’s name had to do with the actual forbidden pronunciation of the four lettered Tetragrammaton.

  5. Why do many religious Jews spell the deity’s name G-d when written in English, when “god” is a Germanic word that was first used in the context of pagan religions?
    Beats the hell out of me.

  6. Adrian: they do it because they are addressing or discussion God under that name. If God were referred to as “Xuxa in the Sky”, I imagine some religious Jews would write “X-xa in the Sky” as an extension of the reticence to dishonor through casual use the unique Hebrew name of God Y~H~V~H.

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