Governors and Christian leaders in the Gulf Region called for a day of prayer on behalf of the devastating oil spill. Why haven't Jewish leaders also come together in prayer over this? Does Judaism allow prayer in this form?
There have been a number of ritual responses from the Jewish community to the devastating oil spill in the gulf. I can speak most directly to those within the Conservative movement, with which I am affiliated, though I know that others have responded as well. Conservative Rabbis and communities have been encouraged to participate in a national day of prayer services on Friday, July 30th- materials and further information are still in development as I write 12 days before.
Our Jewish tradition sets important role for prayer in response to specific events in the world, on both the micro and the macro scale. The Talmud (tractate Ta’anit 19a) describes days of communal prayer, fasting, and sounding of the shofar that were enacted in response to disasters, natural and man-made including drought, crop disease, wild animal attacks, building collapse and warfare. The Amidah, which is part of every daily service, includes points where the worshipper may address current situations and concerns in a more personal way.
With these ideals in mind, a number of rabbis have already been organizers and participants in national and local gatherings addressing the disaster in the gulf. To take just two examples, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, visited the Gulf of Mexico with other rabbis as well as religious leaders of other faiths, on a trip that was covered widely by the media. Rabbi Ethan Linden of congregation Shir Chadash in Metarie, Louisiana, was one of the officiants at an interfaith prayer service in the New Orleans area. While this perhaps goes beyond the scope of your question, it is worth noting that among Jewish communities, there are disagreements as the the types of interfaith prayer that might be permitted- some would only participate in a gathering where prayers of all types are reflected, while others would only participate if prayers were non-denominational, without reference to a non-Jewish religious concepts or forms of worship, and some might not participate at all.
Let me close, then, by noting that there have already been a number of efforts to address this disaster specifically within the context of Jewish prayer and Jewish community. So, for example, in May 2010, soon after the scope of the disaster became apparent, Rabbis Danielle Upbin and Rabbi David Weizman, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, FL composed a prayer, which has already been used in hundreds of Jewish communities across the country. I share it here, with their permission, and with hope for healing for the gulf and for the well-being of all people whose lives and liveihood depend on its waters.
A Prayer for the Gulf of Mexico- composed by Rabbis Danielle Upbin and David Weizman
Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, “Maker of the heavens and earth, the seas and all they contain, “Oseh shamayim va’aretz et ha’ayam v’et kol asher bam”(Psalm 146):
Grant protection and sheltering peace to the myriads of living creatures who make their watery home in the Gulf of Mexico. Shield them from the slick, suffocating forces of the oil geyser. Guard every turtle and every fish, every crawling creature and every swimming creature. Protect each and every organism, from microbe to mammal. As the Psalmist said: Mah Rabu ma’asecha Y-AH kulam b’chochmah asitah… “How great are your works, Oh, Breath of Life, with Wisdom you created it all. The earth is filled with your creatures. Here is the great, vast sea, teeming with numberless living things, great and small… All of them look to You” (Psalm 104). Let us cease from obscuring Your countenance with our contaminants.
Ha’Borei- Creator of the Universe: Grant us the ability to act responsibly with Your planet. To till and to tend it, to guard it and to guide it, to preserve it and to ensure that there is a healthy earth for us and for the next generation to enjoy. Awake in us the spirit of stewardship, to use our resources wisely, to create alternative sustainable energy , and to love and to live deeply in harmony with all of Your Creation. We are but sojourners on this planet of Yours, as it says in Your Torah, “Ki li ha’aretz, ki gerim v’toshavim, atem imadi” (Vayikra 25:23).
We recall Your covenant, never to destroy the earth again; may we be strengthened as partners in Creation, also, to never destroy the earth. May we return from our environmental aveirot, and set our path straight for a cleaner, clearer and healthier planet.
Please do not jump to conclusions. And why do you not pose the question in the following manner - why has it taken all these months for those leaders to call for a day of prayer?
Based on my own experience in situations such as these, wherein the community is imperiled, my calculated guess is that Rabbis have been praying for a long time with their congregations, and not just for a day, but regularly.
A day of prayer makes the headlong leap into media receptivity, but that is more likely to be a public relations gimmick. I will take daily, or weekly prayer, under the radar but straight from the heart, over a media ploy, any time.
Regarding the oil spill, Judaism not only allows, it welcomes prayer, whether it be that BP succeeds in capping the leak, that the waters recover their vibrancy, that the people affected are able to rebuild their lives, that the devastated economies recover, that the wildlife be saved, etc.
Question – “Governors and Christian leaders in the Gulf Region called for a day of prayer on behalf of the devastating oil spill.Why haven't Jewish leaders also come together in prayer over this?Does Judaism allow prayer in this form?”
One could assume, on reading this question, that Jewish leaders have not assembled their resources, sought answers, or guided us regarding this ecological disaster.The opposite is true.For current events regarding the Jewish response to this horrendous act of human negligence, you may wish to listen to a recording of a conference call involving leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements who have toured the affected area, and who advocate action.Go to www.coejl.org/Gulf-Call-07162010-small.mp3. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, or COEJL, has become the American Jewish community’s premier resource for ideas, liturgies, and action plans for addressing ecological needs.See www.coejl.org for further information.
First comes their call to worship created for the occasion:They set out “to pray for the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico and its impacts on the people, the water, the land, and all creation.With one voice and with one heart we join the people living near the American Gulf Coast seeking the power, the wisdom, and the compassion of the God who makes all things possible.For if God is with us who can be against us.”
Next, they quote the second book of Chronicles 7:14 from the Hebrew bible:“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
They also offer this call-and-response for their congregations:“We turn to You seeking your direction for a crisis in our nation.Our brothers and sisters around the Gulf of Mexico struggle in fear, grief, and despair.Life dreams and vocations have been destroyed for generations to come.Natural marshes and beautiful lands necessary for life have been affected for decades.Wildlife, both birds of the air, and creatures of the sea continue to face suffering and death, all because of human induced disaster, the raging oil that spews from a hole in Your earth and pours into Your creation.Almighty God, forgive us our sin, and renew our lives to be the good stewards as You created us.And as we turn humbling ourselves, and placing our lives into Your care.We pray: For the oil flow to stop, give us the wisdom to end this tragedy; for the people in despair that you would provide peace and hope.We seek restoration for the sea, the land, and all who live and inhabit them.We turn to you O God for You are our hope, our peace, our joy, and our salvation.”
From a historical standpoint, Judaism has for almost two millennia included intercessory prayer in daily worship.The Tefilah, the central most set of benedictions of our prayerbook, includes in weekday worship thirteen bakashot, or petitionary prayers, that petition God for rain, the restoration of Jerusalem, health for the sick, knowledge and understanding for the individual and the world, justice, and even death for Jews who would report on the activities of other Jews to the non-Jewish civil authorities.
Yet today, and in most eras of the past, Judaism well understands that God does not directly intervene in the affairs of humanity when petitioned by people, and that these prayers were metaphorical, or symbolic, at best.A common phrasing of this understanding is that “God is not a cosmic candy machine into which you place a prayer, and then you receive a reward.”The language of our worship is figurative and not literally intended to generate expectations of a response.
On the other hand, prayer can move the individual’s soul, motivate a person for action, console one at a time of sadness, or heighten one’s joy.It can move societies, and can help communities determine their joint response to affairs of the day.In this regard, the prayers of the National Association of Evangelicals mirror very closely some of the intercessory prayers of the Jewish prayerbook.In my opinion, they are evocative and allow the worshiper to empathize with those in peril.And when worshipers are, indeed, able to identify with the victims of tragedy, the worshipers are moved to emotion, and then to action.Perhaps they will help in a practical way, and when they do, they will be performing God’s intervention themselves.
As we say, we are God’s partners in the ongoing perfection of the world, and through this kind of worship mechanism is our partnership sealed.
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