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Praying matters
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Praying matters

Vayachel | Exodus 35:1-38:20

On June 14, 1954, millions of Americans stumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1892 original said, “one nation, indivisible.” Now Congress required everyone to insert “under God” after “one nation.”

Recognizing God in 1954 was not just piety; it was a Cold War response to Godless Communism. Since the Pledge is as close to a public prayer as we are likely to get, we should wonder if prayers, too, can be politically motivated.

Shabbat candle-lighting, for example, derives from Exodus 35:3: “Light no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” Early in the rabbinic era, this verse prompted vociferous debate. The Sadducees, a party of scriptural literalists, thought it mandated dousing all fires before Shabbat began. The Pharisees said fires already lit could continue burning.

The rabbis inherited the Pharisaic mantle and assured people that God could never have intended us to keep Shabbat in cold, dark gloom. Shabbat demanded oneg, joy. The rabbis, therefore, permitted Jews to light fires in their homes before nightfall on Friday; in fact, they demanded it! And ever since then, Shabbat has featured symbolic candle-lighting.

But Shabbat lights were not yet a mitzva — there was no blessing. That came only in the ninth century, when a sect called Karaites reasserted Sadducean literalism and declared the entire rabbinic tradition misguided. In response, the rabbis upped the ante, declaring Shabbat candles a mitzva and requiring the blessing, “Blessed is God…who commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”

A more recent example of politics is Chief Rabbi Herzog’s 1948 prayer for the State of Israel, which called it “the first flowering of our redemption.” The phrase came to be seen, by some, as a mandate for the wholesale eviction of Arabs from their land. We live in a “post-moral” age, went the reasoning; what was unethical before “the first flowering” is ethical today.

Some new prayer books, therefore, omit the phrase or go out of their way to prevent such a radical reading of it.

The politicization of prayer is welcome as a sign that we think religion matters. Prayer should address such matters as the nature of Shabbat (in rabbinic times) and the theological standing of Israel (in our own). Prayer is not just praise, petition, and thanksgiving addressed to God; it is a message to one another, a way we get our own values straight.

A couple of months back, for instance, synagogues might have prayed that Marlise Machado Muñoz — the brain-dead women forced to remain on life support against her family’s will — be given death with dignity; or we might pray for Congress to be granted the wisdom to raise food stamp allowance. Controversial, yes, but some things ought to matter enough to warrant praying for them, a welcome break from the saccharine sentiment of prayers for peace on earth — virtually meaningless petitions. Such generalities have their place, but why not pray for the things that are actually within our power to bring about — which might galvanize us to work for them?

If prayers speak only in platitudes, religion itself becomes platitudinous, precisely what religion should not become.

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