The Human Spirit: Power of prayer in Washington
Feb. 15, 2013
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
No matter your political
leanings, being in a room with US president is exhilarating, and the current
president is, of course, among the world's most charismatic.
1953, the US National Prayer Breakfast has been held annually in Washington
on the first Thursday of February, hosted by members of Congress. No matter
how vitriolic the fighting on Capitol Hill, the breakfast goes on.
This year's breakfast, for instance, was chaired by senators Jeff Sessions,
a Republican from Alabama, and Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas. Since
the days of Dwight Eisenhower, the president has attended, too. The audience
of 3,500 includes most of Congress, ambassadors and heads of state. Last
week, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took part in the
breakfast, as did Vice President Joe Biden. I was there, too, because my
husband Gerald Schroeder, the scientist-author, was the final speaker of the
day, discussing the congruence of modern science and Torah.
giant ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the crowd included a scattering of
Jews and Muslims with covered heads, as well as Indians of different
religions in saris. Like America itself, the participants were mostly
Christian. Our table included ambassadors and Christian leadership activists
who had flown in from Australia. Wrapped kosher meals and cutlery appeared
magically before us, and in a show of ecumenical striving, our friendly
table-mates joined hands in wrestling with the protective cellophane
wrappings so we could join in breakfast.
A few prayers were offered,
but the focus was on soulful speeches. The keynote speech was given by
well-known Baltimore pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an African-American
who described his childhood in poverty and his single but strong-minded mom.
He lambasted political correctness, and then went on to put forth his
views on health care and the national debt, which don't jibe with the
No matter what your political leanings, being in a room
with the president of the United States is exhilarating, and the current
president is, of course, among the world's most charismatic speakers. He may
have been annoyed by Carson's speech – this isn't a forum to debate – but he
took the high road and didn't strike back. His only mention of the speech
referred to Carson's mom's no-TV policy. Obama said he might try that on his
Said the president, "It says something about us that every
year, in times of triumph and in tragedy, in calm and in crisis, we come
together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as brothers and sisters, and
as children of God. Every year, in the midst of all our busy and noisy
lives, we set aside one morning to gather as one community, united in
Every day, it turns out, a member of his staff is
responsible for sending him a snippet of Scripture on which to meditate.
Who would have guessed? Most memorable for me was his emotional
description of the two Bibles on which he put his hand to be sworn in for a
second term: one belonging to Abraham Lincoln and the second to Martin
Luther King, Jr.
"As I prepared to take the sacred oath, I thought
about these two men, and I thought of how, in times of joy and pain and
uncertainty, they turned to their Bibles to seek the wisdom of God's word –
and thought of how, for as long as we've been a nation, so many of our
leaders, our presidents and our preachers, our legislators and our jurists
have done the same," he said.
AMERICA IS, of course, a religious
nation. A well-known 2008 Pew Research Center study showed that the
wealthier a country is, the less important religion is... with a notable
exception: the United States. In addition, Americans pray more often than do
others in the West. A majority of Americans (54 percent) report praying at
least once a day. Members of Congress actually get together each week and
pray for each other and for the benefit of the nation. We were invited to a
private dinner where senators from opposing parties said they disagreed
about almost every issue but felt a strong bond because they prayed
Israel isn't included in this survey of religiosity. We can
surmise that it would be placed in the exception category with the US. Few
here are neutral on religion in our country. Even those who are
anti-religious are fervent about it.
Indeed, the Bible plays a huge
role in our national consciousness. When David Ben-Gurion decided to declare
the State of Israel despite international opposition, he'd doubtless been
influenced by his own devotion to the Bible. Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu holds weekly study sessions, as did prime minister Menachem Begin.
And they aren't considered so-called "religious."
Decades ago, when
my husband was sworn in to the IDF, he was handed a Bible. His commanding
officer said, "Read it. If you don't know what's inside and you serve in the
IDF, you're no more than a thief."
Washington has formalized its
prayer habits by holding its weekly prayer for Congress members; the
breakfast is the culmination. The president suggested that prayer could, at
the least, contribute to humility. All we can do, he said, "is live our
lives in a godly way and assume that those with whom we deal every day,
including those in an opposing party, are groping their way, doing their
best, going through the same struggles we're going through."
wondering how a weekly prayer session would go over in the Knesset. I'm not
talking about a minyan with fixed Jewish prayers or those recited regularly
by Muslims or Christians.
I'm thinking more of direct prayers to the
Creator in our own personal words: prayers for each other and for the State
of Israel. Ironic, isn't it, that in our country, with its tenuous position
in the world, some of our legislators would be averse to the magnificent
prayer for the welfare of Israel composed by Nobel prize-winning writer S.Y.
Just picture a room full of Knesset members praying for each
other. Since this wouldn't be a formal prayer service, we wouldn't have to
make it look like a synagogue, with men and women separate, and the question
of the height of the mehitza wouldn't be argued. The various religious
parties wouldn't have to storm out if the Ashkenazi or Sephardi prayer
formula weren't used.
At the American prayer breakfast, the two
senators who happened to be at the opposite ends of our table expressed
affection for each other despite the rancor between Democrats and
Republicans – and gave credit to the prayer sessions. Several freshman
Congress members talked about how welcome they felt at the breakfast while
still learning to cope in their new jobs.
I like the idea of veteran
Knesset member Haneen Zoabi and newcomer Moshe Feiglin, veteran Nitzan
Horowitz and newcomer Orit Struck spending an hour praying together before
sessions on Sunday morning.
No one is pinning the resolution of the
deficit problem on prayer in Washington.
Despite the image of the
na?ve American, realpolitik dominates America's Capitol. Indeed, before
returning to the White House, the president wished that the morning prayers
at the Hilton would have a longer shelf life.
Still, upping the
prayer quotient for the 19th Knesset can't hurt.