Ask the Expert: Praying with Non-Jews
What's an appropriate ecumenical prayer?
Question: Sometimes for my job I have to attend events that include ecumenical prayers.
Typically this means that someone gets up at the beginning or end and offers some kind of prayer in English. Sometimes these prayers include references to Jesus, which makes me very uncomfortable. Recently I have been asked to lead the prayer at such an event, and I don't know what's appropriate to say in this kind of setting. How should I figure out what to say?
Answer: Ah, the old "ecumenical prayer." Is it me, or do those prayers often come off as regular Christian prayers, just with less Jesus?
Praying in an interfaith setting can be a tricky issue. I think most of the problems in these kinds of scenarios come from people who get up there and wing it, never thinking about how their words might strike someone from a very different religious background. So by thinking ahead of time about this, already you're ahead of the curve.
First, a note about Jesus references: if it makes you uncomfortable, you can speak to the organizers about ways they could make their events more respectful to non-Christians. Of course it's important to keep your remarks kind-spirited and constructive, but if the spirit of these events is really multi-faith, they should be happy to get feedback on how to make everyone feel more welcome.
I spoke to Emily Soloff, Associate Director for Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the American Jewish Committee, about the politics of praying with people whose faith background is different from your own. She introduced to me the concept of "being present in prayer but not praying." Essentially, you can be literally present and supportive in someone else's prayer, without participating. If someone's prayer is making you uncomfortable you can always mentally separate yourself from what's going on in the room. Just because they're praying, doesn't mean you must participate. You always have the option of simply sitting or standing respectfully.
Okay, now on to some thoughts on how to lead prayer with non-Jews. First I would look at some of your favorite Jewish prayers. If you don't already have a siddur, spend some time at a Jewish bookstore and find one that seems right for you. Look at the translations of the prayers, and consider how they might sound to non-Jews. A lot of prayers in the siddur focus on the concept of Jewish chosenness, which, though a valuable idea, is probably not a concept you want to dwell on in an interfaith setting. You may find a specific prayer that you'd like to use, but more likely you'll find themes and language that you like. Use this to inform the composition of your own prayer.
A good place to start is always with a selection from the Book of Psalms. Look through the preliminary blessings and psalms (Birkhot Hashahar and Pesukei D'Zimrah) that are said as part of the morning service every day for some solid possibilities. From the maariv service I like the paragraph that begins with the word hashkiveinu, “lie us down in peace.” That seems like a concept most people can get next to. There's also a nice paragraph in the Amidah that we say on Saturday nights following Shabbat: "Our Father, our King, may the coming days bring us peace. May they be free of sin and cleansed of wrongdoing; may they find us more closely attached to You. Grant us knowledge, discernment, and wisdom. Praised are You, Lord who graciously grants intelligence." Intelligence seems like a good thing to pray for, don’t you think?
What you write about specifically will be influenced by the theme of the event itself, I imagine, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to integrate existing Jewish terminology into the prayer. If you'd like to use Hebrew words, go for it, just be sure to add a translation. If you want to end with a blessing, I recommend the evergreen, Baruch Ata Adonai, shomeah tefilah. Bless you, O God, who hears our prayers.
As far as I know there are really no rules for interfaith prayers. It may feel strange to you because Judaism isn't big on spontaneous public prayer. Keep it simple, drop a couple of Hebrew words, and say Amen at the end. Sometimes it's the most basic language that brings us closer to a spiritual connection.
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