Fabulously Observant: What's wrong with school prayer?

American institutions from the Boy Scouts to Alcoholics Anonymous have been able to include nonsectarian prayers and credos for decades without turning into Christian organizations.

David Benkoff 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Benkoff 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prayer is essential to Judaism. The Talmud states we should say at least 100 blessings per day, and the Shema suggests we speak holy words when we sit in our houses, when we walk along the way, when we lie down and when we rise up - in other words, almost everywhere. But not in public schools, according to the overwhelming majority of American Jews. I think it's time to rethink that stance. America's public schools, by and large, are in a sorry state. The problems with drugs, violence, pregnancy and dropouts are well known by now. But there are other problems with public schools that are more subtle. Cruelty, teasing and bullying can often lead to deeper scars than a schoolyard fight ever could. Some suggest that teachers, administrators, and parents need to solve these problems - which is a good idea. But at bottom, these issues are character problems, and prayer is one way to introduce discipline, self-examination and character-building. One objection American Jews have to school prayer is that it might make some Jewish schoolchildren uncomfortable. Well, guess what? Prayer itself is supposed to make us at least a little uncomfortable. It is a method of measuring ourselves against our ideal, which can be no fun. But it's good for us. And as long as the prayer is nonsectarian, Jewish students won't feel like they're being evangelized into Christianity. WILL A NONSECTARIAN prayer be a slippery slope to a Christian prayer? History suggests not. Our money says "In God We Trust" and that hasn't led to a Christian reference on our currency. The Pledge of Allegiance has included "under God" since the 1950, and there has been no slippery slope to "under Jesus." Besides, American institutions from the Boy Scouts to Alcoholics Anonymous have been able to include nonsectarian - but religious - prayers and credos for decades, without turning into Christian organizations. Thousands of Jews have comfortably said the Boy Scout Oath ("to God and my country") and the Serenity Prayer ("God, grant me the serenity") without feeling like they are being proselytized. Some opponents of school prayer state that it's wrong because it violates the separation of church and state. But the separation of church and state wasn't handed down from Moses at Sinai. It is what we make of it. It once had room for school prayer, and all it would take is a couple more sympathetic Supreme Court justices (or a constitutional amendment) and school prayer would no longer be inconsistent with First Amendment law. So what would a nonsectarian school prayer look like? A committee of clergy and laypeople of a variety of religious persuasions should develop it, but I'd suggest it begin with a moment of silence, and then go something like this: "God, bless my teachers, my principals and my friends as we begin this school day. Give me the guidance to learn from my schoolbooks and my fellow human beings. Open my heart to be compassionate and kind as I continue to expand my mind." As for me, I pray that the American Jewish community expand its own mind to reconsider calcified opinions and explore whether it should support school prayer after all. DavidBenkof@aol.com