Correction (published Feb. 19, 2016): The Satanic Temple in Tucson was the organization originally scheduled to lead the invocation at the Phoenix City Council on Feb. 17.

While as Americans, we are, indeed, free to worship as we wish without government interference, the reality is that there are blocs of citizens who feel uncomfortable with alternative religious groups’ desire to express their deep spiritual convictions (or lack thereof). Locally, this has manifested itself in the desire to block the self-described Church of Satan to lead the opening prayers before a Phoenix City Council meeting scheduled to take place Feb. 17. There has been furor over the group’s desire to open the meeting with a prayer, with many wondering if the group is a sincere expression of American tolerance of alternative religious values, or a ploy to gain attention for themselves and disrupt the normative “Judeo-Christian” value system.

The City Council, under pressure to issue a response, will cease the practice of an opening prayer altogether and move toward a more general “moment of silence.” This move, just as the premise of the Satanic group leading a prayer did in the first place, has engendered controversy. From a Jewish perspective, how should we approach a situation like this?  

For me, prayer is of the utmost importance. It is a manifestation of the heart’s wants and the soul’s desires. It is the primary channel for a Divine relationship. The essence of prayer is intrinsic to the well-being of the soul. The purpose of devoting time for prayer is to make mundane moments holy, to transmute base feelings into attuned moments of uplift and sanctification. All too often, the motives of prayers are misunderstood. They are seen as a means for instant Divine gratification or to satiate material needs. More perniciously, prayers (or, perhaps more precisely the invocation of certain prayerlike statements) can be used for suppression, a method to mark certain members from out of the mainstream. Throughout history, prayer has been used by governments to inculcate a certain, intractable societal point of view that must be observed; the American experiment continues to evolve to break this mold.

For all the prominence that prayer has in my life, that does not mean I want it foisted on the souls of others. The First Amendment, in its wisdom, and any evidence to the contrary, forbids the American government from officially establishing a national religious practice. George Washington, writing to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, during his presidency, commented on the new nation’s dedication to religious liberty that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” What kind of standard do we hold as a nation if we don’t uphold these values?

In the few times I’ve attended Phoenix City Council meetings, I personally found the prayers to be inspirational. They felt to me a like a real connection between everyone in the room, people from all backgrounds and political persuasions, giving them all a reason to come together for a brief moment of unity. Indeed, it was not so important what the prayer actually was, it was the process that mattered. I feel that, even if I disagree with the premise of the Church of Satan (which I do strongly), the inherent nature of a pluralistic cosmology means that I accept that they have a right to act in a public fashion according to their value system. But how many times have these sessions been opened by a Sikh leader? Or a Jain leader? A Muslim leader?

Prayer is another means to achieve justice in the world. But it is not only a formal, vocal recognition that is essential to its conveyance. Whether spoken out loud or internalized, the essence of prayer is immutable. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued: “We affirm the principle of separation of church and state. We reject the separation of religion and the human situation.”

I commend the Phoenix City Council on making the correct concession to have a silent prayer before meetings and not impose particular theologies upon that space, which would blur our sacred nation’s commitment to a separation between church and state. That separation has kept Jews and other minority groups safe and free from the imposition of the majority religion.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.

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