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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.