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Jewish Journal

The Other Invocation

by Rob Eshman

January 14, 2009 | 1:14 pm

The swearing in of the 44th president of the United States will be a moment freighted with enormous expectation, trepidation, relief and significance. I don’t know about you, but at moments like that, I could use a rabbi.

President-elect Barack Hussein Obama — as if he doesn’t have enough problems — decided to go a different route. First he tapped Pastor Rick Warren, leader of the Saddleback Church, to give the invocation.

But Warren has said some cruel and ignorant things about gays, which angered many of the president-elect’s supporters, so Obama invited the openly gay New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson to speak at Sunday’s inauguration kickoff event. That, of course, enraged many of the same religious people pleasantly surprised by the Warren pick.

Like I said, Obama should have gone with the rabbi.

It’s a choice that is, surprisingly, not unprecedented. Clergy have participated in presidential inaugurations since 1937. Harry S. Truman was the first to ask a rabbi, Samuel Thurman of the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, Mo., to offer a prayer. (The rabbi praised Truman for recognizing the State of Israel).

Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, a Zionist leader, to deliver a prayer at his inaugural in 1953, then had Rabbi Louis Finkelstein do the same four years later.

Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles gave a prayer at Richard M. Nixon’s 1969 inaugural. In 1985, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of Hebrew Union College, spoke at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural.

Then, nothing.

Is it possible that the pursuit of the Southern strategy and the Christian evangelical vote put Jews out of the running for a spot on the podium?

Perhaps — beginning with George H.W. Bush and continuing through Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Billy Graham and his son, Franklin, pretty much ruled the roost.

So, since Obama didn’t pick a rabbi, I decided to.

I called Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom and asked him what he would say if Obama instead of, say, me, asked him to deliver the invocation.

It was a nightmare assignment as I asked the rabbi to come up with something that instant, in the space of a slightly rushed phone call.

His first words came quickly in his deep, resonant and just-Bronx-enough voice.

“The prophet Joel declared, ‘Your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your old shall dream dreams, and your young shall see visions.’ This is a time for visionaries and dreamers.

“As a minority, we are familiar with the toxins of xenophobia and the virulence of whispered libel and slander. As a people rooted in a biblical tradition, we rejoice in your commitment to raise the lot of the submerged communities.

“Now is the time to overcome the truculent triumphalism whose arrogance has estranged peoples and nations. Now is the time to cultivate a culture of respectful, peaceful dialogue and to cast out the divisions of bitter diatribe. Peace, like charity, begins at home, but it does not end at home.”
I interrupted the rabbi.

“What about Gaza and the Middle East, would you talk about that?”

“The truth is I wouldn’t talk about Gaza or Israel,” he said. “ There are many issues in the world of tremendous complexity, and it would be either platitudinous to talk about the notion of peace or contentious to take a particular position. I could only say, ‘The hearts and the souls of people of moral conscience are with you in your dreams and your visions to make this a world reflective of Divine image.’”

That would do, I said.

I asked how it works with rabbis when they deliver such benedictions, whether to a bar mitzvah child or a wedding couple or a president. Are you speaking to the person or to the general audience?

“I’m speaking through the child to the people. Likewise I’m talking through the president to the collective hopes of the people of the United States of America.”

If there is a goal to public prayer at such a moment, Schulweis told me, it is to draw people together and instill in them a common mission. For that, one needn’t be a Jew, a Christian or even a believer.

“The root of prayer in Hebrew means ‘self-judgment,’ — mitpalel,” he said. “And I think this is a moment of self-judgment and resolution. I think this is a moment where everyone participates, instead of just listening.”

At the same time, the rabbi said such moments are not a time to advance a narrow agenda, whether in faith or politics. “There is a transcendent element that urges us to overcome our own parochial partisan issues,” he said.

I wondered what would distinguish a rabbi on the podium from a cleric from another faith.

“The notion of oneness,” he said, “which I think is important without necessarily saying ‘Sh’ma Israel.’ We are involved in existential matters, and I don’t just mean Israel, I mean America. We are not only a strong country but a country of great moral vision, and in some sense we hold the future of civilization in our hands.

“I would have also quoted one thing from the prayer book, and I think it’s worthwhile: ‘For all who live on earth shall come to realize we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, to lift up, to love and to heal.’”

The rabbi paused to reflect on the two men who had indeed been selected for the job. He decided to weave that into his telephone invocation, as well.

“The very fact that Obama got a conservative evangelical figure on the one hand and on the other hand a guy who has opened up as a homosexual tells you something about what Obama is trying to do,” he said. “The psalm that would be appropriate is, ‘Behold how good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together.’”

Amen.

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