Marc H. Wilson
MARC WILUDZANSKI-WILSON is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, South Carolina.

Look at Public Prayer’s Substance, Not the Idiom in Which It Is Offered

All of us who claim to be people of faith, I realized, use idioms ordained by theology or culture in our valiant attempt to connect with the Infinite One.

 “Almighty.  Heavenly Father.  Rock of Ages.  Master of the Universe.  Lord of Mercy . . .”

All of them are names of God, right?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, they evoke an attribute of God.  Yes, they are verbal connectors to God.  But no, none of them names God’s infinite essence, which – try though we may – is beyond human finitude, beyond the confines of language.  They are all idioms for God, the best that our finite beings can do in trying to grasp the infinite.

The observation is not originally mine, but that of Moses Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Jewish theologian.  It is echoed by countless other theologians of every stripe of every religious persuasion.

Yet, the issue is not purely theological.  It addresses the sociology and legalisms of the here-and-now:

Once upon a time, I was, as a Jew and civil libertarian patently offended by public prayer invoked in the name of Jesus or some other sectarian deity.  I would voice my protest to the invocator, the city/county council, the newspaper, in harmony with the ACLU and the rest of the alphabet soup of defenders of church-state separation.

My epiphany, however, came about 20 years ago as I participated in a citywide ecumenical service during Dr. King Week in Atlanta.  Behind me, the magnificent choir of Big Bethel AME church rocked the floor and rafters with an unimaginably spirited gospel – the refrain, “Jesus!  Jesus!” louder and louder with each verse.  As always, I was quick to protest, and caught the ear of Dr. Joseph Roberts, a personal friend and Dr. King’s successor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Joe patiently explained to me, “You will never understand the African American religious experience until you recognize that singing out in Jesus’s name is a time- and culturally-venerated idiom that has, since slave days, connected us to the Divine.”

“A venerate idiom” is what got to me.  All of us who claim to be people of faith, I realized, use idioms ordained by theology or culture in our valiant attempt to connect with the Infinite One.  The Christian invokes Jesus.  The traditional Jew wears a skullcap.  A Muslim bows to Mecca.  The Catholic sees it in the bread-and-wine’s transubstantiation.

I daresay that even the now unduly controversial Ten Commandments are also an idiom – however sacred for most of us – for the essence of humankind’s highest moral and creative aspirations.  For those of us of religious faith, the Commandments elevate “recommended behavior” to imperatives.  But, cannot even the atheist think of “the Lord your God” as an idiom for the sum of the universe’s moral and creative forces?  Cannot even the atheist interpret “no other gods before Me” as a prohibition against self-adulation or glorifying the trivial or absurd?  And, can the Sabbath not be understood as an idiom for a hedge against lethal workaholism?

These prayerful and consecrated idioms, however, should never be confused with the substance of prayer and consecration.  Each faith may venerate its idiom as the most potent path toward God.  But, the rest of us ought not be offended by the particular idiom, even when it is invoked in public places.  If anything, we should celebrate it as a benchmark of the diversity with which people of faith may freely commune with God, or not, in the blessedly free country in which we live.

I am, thus, no longer offended by a prayer offered in Jesus’s name, and I have likewise never been criticized by even the most fundamentalist members of a county or city council for delivering an invocation while wearing my skullcap.  If anything, I would like to assume that they respect me for my convictions, not merely tolerate me, in the same way that I respect theirs – despite our theological disagreements.

It seems to me that we get ourselves in an awful tizzy about the idiom of public prayer but pay woefully little attention to its substance.  Might we come to some consensus as to what comprises a worthy public prayer?  Is the damnation of our enemies the ultimate objective of prayer, or is it the hope for mutual understanding and an end of strife?  Should public prayer be a vehicle for social or political editorializing, or should we pray that all our leaders be guided by wisdom and good counsel?  If we cannot come to consensus on any other yardstick, the substance of public prayer should at least remain focused on the Prophet’s plea for justice, mercy and humility and the virtues expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.  Thus, even if the idiom bespeaks a particular faith, the essence of the prayer will be inclusive of all people of goodwill.  That should more than suffice.

Perhaps you have heard the long joke about pastors discussing how they distribute the proceeds of their Sunday collections.  I cannot remember all of it, but the punchline has one of the pastors saying, “I throw it all up in the air, and whatever God wants, He can keep!”

I guess that is how it ought to be with public prayer and the variety of idioms we use to connect the finite to the Infinite:  Keep lifting it heavenward.  Let God decide what is worthy and what is not.  So much for nitpicking each phrase for perfect theological and political correctness or let the lawsuits roll.  I will cherish and defend the idiom in which you pray if you do the same for me.  God can certainly survive whatever indignity we toss His way, and probably wishes that we, too, would lighten up.

About the Author
Marc Wilson is a rabbi and activist, serving congregations for four decades. He lives in Greenville, SC, and is blessed with a compassionate wife and the 14 smartest grandchildren ever. He especially loves being with family, teaching Torah, and cooking a competitive kosher gumbo. Marc is especially passionate about inclusive Yiddishkeit and the long, strange trip his life has been. He considers his greatest achievement the seven years he cared for his homebound parents. Contact Wiludi (Rabbi Marc) at