Rabbis Changed Prayers To Make Barack Obama's Inaugural Service 'Jew-ier'

Rick Jacobs, Sharon Brous, Julie Schonfeld Shifted From Texts

A Jew-ier Union: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at the inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral.
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A Jew-ier Union: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at the inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral.

By JTA

Published January 27, 2013.
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Preaching to a preacher man – or woman – doesn’t always play out as planned.

That’s the lesson learned this week by officials at the National Cathedral after several clergy, including three rabbis, made impromptu changes to the readings they were given to deliver at a prayer service following the Jan. 22 inauguration of President Obama.

Rabbis Rick Jacobs, Sharon Brous and Julie Schonfeld made changes to the texts they were handed in the hope of making the language “Jewier,” as Brous put it later: more conversational, more forthright and more reflective of the rabbis’ understanding of Jewish theology.

“I wanted to be able to pray with real kavannah [intention] in that moment, so the specific language mattered a lot to me,” Brous, the founder of the independent IKAR congregation in Los Angeles, told JTA in an email. “I worked to find a way to capture the essence of the prayer in a Jewish idiom, to translate the beautiful sentiment into words that would be more personally resonant.”

A spokeswoman for the National Cathedral said the institution had no problem with the changes. Neither did Josh Dubois, the White House’s faith-based initiatives boss, who helped coordinate the event.

Gina Campbell, the cathedral’s director of worship, “encouraged all the religious leaders to be faithful to their own traditions” and to emend texts as they saw fit, said the spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of not being named.

Clergy were assigned readings rather than asked to offer their own because the service was pegged to the inauguration’s theme, Faith in America’s Future, drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s determination 150 years ago to keep the nation united and to expand its liberties to all its people.

“The staff at the cathedral were sensitive about theological language and wanting people to speak in language that was comfortable and authentic,” said Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Jacobs was assigned the recital of the priestly blessing alongside Laila Muhammad, the founder of a Muslim family service organization in Chicago. Muhammad told Jacobs beforehand that she would change “The Lord” in the blessing to “Allah.” Jacobs replied that he, too, would not use “the Lord,” substituting “the Holy One” to reflect the Reform movement’s tendency to abjure gender-specific references to God.

Schonfeld, the executive director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, had no objection to the translation of a psalm she was assigned. But reciting it without context raised difficult theological questions about human responsibility, especially in the wake of the massacre of schoolchildren last month in Newtown, Conn.

The translation, as assigned by the cathedral, reads in part, “The Lord watches over the innocent.” Schonfeld changed that to “The Lord watches over the innocent and calls upon us to watch over the innocent.”

“God can only watch over the innocent insofar as human beings watch over the innocent,” Schonfeld wrote in notes on her emendations that she shared with JTA.

The services also featured Cantor Mikhail Manevich of Washington Hebrew Congregation, who sang the Shema prayer in Hebrew.

Christian clergy also made adjustments in keeping with their particular religious orientations. The Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination emphasizing outreach to the LGBT community, replaced five masculine pronouns in her assigned prayer, which opened the service.

The National Cathedral is both an Episcopal seat and a place of worship chartered by the Congress in the 19th century as the natural setting for national events. The church’s website emphasizes that it “welcomes all faiths.”


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