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The Problematic Prayer Of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Current Supreme Court orthodoxy holds that, although the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America categorically prohibits the government establishment of religion, there are exceptions to this prohibition. For example, the Supreme Court asserts, in the recent ruling Greece v. Galloway, that it is not at all a violation of the Establishment Clause for government officials to choose priests from one religion, but never others, to conduct religious rituals of prayer at public meetings, forcing all who are present to participate in the ritual.

Even the more moderate members of the Supreme Court support a milder version of this mixture of church and state, saying that it’s not a violation of the Establishment Clause for government bodies to force people to sit through religious rituals, so long as they are forced to sit through different religious rituals from week to week. They assert that there is some kind of secular religious practice that all Americans can agree with, and are happy to practice without protest.

What are the principles of this official state religion, though? No Supreme Court Justice has ever pinned that down, exactly.

The absurdity of claiming that religious rituals of prayer can represent some kind of universally acceptable standard of an official government faith is exposed practically every time a government prayer is given. Just the latest example of this absurdity came on Friday, with the government-endorsed prayer ritual conducted at the U.S. House of Representatives by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue.

(There’s a National Synagogue?!? An official, U.S. government-endorsed Synagogue? No, it’s not really a national synagogue, any more than the church that calls itself National Cathedral has anything to do with the U.S. government. These are religious organizations that merely claim to be national, but are not affiliated with the government. They’re purely private institutions. A group could come into Washington D.C. and claim a building as The National Satanic Temple, and it would be just as official as the National Synagogue.)

The official government prayer delivered by Rabbi Herzfeld went like this:

“We remember with sadness and with pride those who gave their lives in service to our country, and we dedicate this prayer in their memory.
We give thanks to God for our lives, which are entrusted into Your hand, for Your miracles, which are with us every day and for Your wonders and favors at all times, evening, morning and midday. You are good – for Your compassion never fails. You are compassionate – for Your loving kindnesses never cease. We have always placed our hope in You.
May it be Your will, God, to bless our country and our men and women who serve this country so bravely.”

So, to start off with, much of this prayer simply makes no sense. If the loving kindnesses and compassion of the Jewish God never cease and never fail, why would anybody ever be sad? Are the wonders and favors of this God with American soldiers when they have their bodies blown apart on military missions that turn out to have been based on politicians’ lies? How is that a kindness?

Beyond the implausibility of the prayer, it simply isn’t representative. Rabbi Herzfeld speaks with the pronoun “we”, presuming to speak for the entire nation, but he doesn’t.

Herzfeld doesn’t speak for Americans who don’t believe in gods. Herzfeld doesn’t speak for Americans who believe in goddesses rather than gods. Herzfeld doesn’t speak for theist religious Americans who don’t share his belief that every event that takes place, no matter how much pain it causes, is a sign of compassion and kindness. Herzfeld certainly doesn’t speak for the many Americans who believe that religion should be free from government patronage.

Herzfeld also doesn’t speak for the many Americans who believe that a military career is not something to be proud of. There are many such Americans, but Herzfeld pretends that they simply don’t exist, perhaps because he knows that he’ll never be asked to return to conduct a religious ritual at the House of Representatives again if he acknowledges in front of Congress that many Americans oppose enlistment in the military, often for religious reasons. Rabbi Herzfeld has allowed the establishment favors he receives from the government to cloud his religious views. The U.S. Government God is a god of war, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is all too happy to be its priest.

When Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld rises up on a government podium to declare what “we” as Americans believe, and what “we” want, he’s being dishonest. He’s basking in the glow of the prominence given to him by the endorsement of his religious beliefs by Congress, swollen with pride.

And what can the rest of us do? What can those who belong to unfavored minority religions hope for? What about the atheists and agnostics, and the 15 percent of Americans who simply don’t follow any religion at all?

They’re excluded from the “we” of “We The People”. They’re never given access to government power in the way that Shmuel Herzfeld and his followers have. They’re given second class status, as Congress endorses, day after day, the very sectarian belief that a supernatural entity named “God”, instead of the democratic will of the people, is the rightful foundation of government power.

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