Many times in my 35+ years as a rabbi I have been asked to "pray over" some sort of public convocation. I admit to being of two minds. On the one hand, this very Protestant tradition is ensconced in American life, and so it behooves those of us in the clergy to learn how to do it in an inclusive and appropriate way -- one that reflects our own religious integrity but does not deliver the message to segments of our increasingly diverse society that some of you just don't belong. On the other hand, I agree with a friend who is a federal judge -- public prayer has no place in the proceedings of government. A partisan political convention is a peculiar hybrid. It is technically a private affair, but it seeks to steer the course of government.
I have volunteered many times to be a part of the invoking and benedicting of occasions such as the conventions. I like to think I do it pretty well. I have been privileged to receive invitations to participate numerous times (my first time in Washington was for a gathering of Jewish Republicans; I shared the bill with Henry Kissinger, Jean Kirkpatrick and Haley Barbour -- just us four. The treat of the day was hearing Chairman Barbour correctly pronounce "Agudas Achim" after much coaching.)
In spite of many attempts over many months, I did not secure an invitation to attend, let alone participate in, the Republican National Convention this year. If I had, I would have said something very similar to the prayer I offered at the interfaith gathering the day before the Democratic National Convention (with language from the Republican platform, of course). The theme, by the way, was "pursuing love and kindness."
In the spirit of this gathering, I invite you to join me in reflection. Those of us who profess a faith in community call upon our Creator by many names. Those of us who profess an individual faith seek a name upon which to call. Those of us whose faith is in the better nature of humanity call upon those internal resources that inspire them. In the end, every call is issued in the hope that we are made vastly stronger and richer by faith in many forms and the countless acts of justice, mercy, and tolerance that faith inspires. Those words appear in the platform to be considered in the hours ahead, but they are true independent of any vote or acclamation.
My tradition, the Jewish tradition, instructs us to pray for the welfare of the government, explaining that the authority it wields keeps us from consuming each other alive. Where there is no respect for government, where the rule of law is replaced by the anger of the mob, our opponents become our enemies, our enemies become our demons, our demons become our leaders. And instead of e pluribus unum, instead of a unity out of the many, we become suspicious of any difference, turning on each other and fleeing in fear at the sound of a driven leaf.
But a good government, that is a government which IS good and which DOES good, a government envisioned by our Founders and established by we, the people of the United States, a good government deserves respect, demands respect, inspires respect. How, then, shall we ensure a good government, one for whose welfare we continually pray?
First and foremost, by the pursuit of love and kindness. Those are qualities that create a beloved community, one that cherishes every life. Love and kindness create togetherness when they bring our collective strength in support of those who need it most.
Good government, for whose welfare we continually pray, is one that seeks peace and pursues it. The Torah, our sacred Scripture, demands we call for peace even in wartime, that diplomacy is always the first option to create togetherness even with those we oppose.
Good government, for whose welfare we continually pray, is one that does not claim that any group holds privilege over another. My tradition, the Jewish tradition, shares the teaching with Islam that humanity is descended from a single set of parents so that no one may say “my ancestors were greater than yours.” Creating togetherness honors every member of the human family.
So as we move forward into this second set of political deliberations, let me offer words of prayer I hold for those of every faith and no faith, of every party affiliation and no party affiliation, for those who will vote their principles and those who will vote their interests:
May it be the will of the one who gives of the divine glory to mere flesh and blood to bless us with good leaders – leaders who ARE good and who DO good – who honor every member of our diverse family, who are strong enough to seek the peace, and who, through love and kindness, will guide us in creating togetherness. May we, the American people, thus be inspired always to pray for the welfare of our government.