To understate, this has been an unusually toxic election season.
No matter what your party or whom your candidate, the hurled insults and dripped scorn have left scorched earth behind. It can’t possibly end soon enough.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes isn’t going to wait until the election, on Tuesday, November 8, is over to start the necessary healing process. Instead, on the Friday night before — that’ll be November 4 — he plans to include prayers and quotes from American history, offering “an opportunity to step back and think deeply about the steps that we are going to be taking,” he said.
“I specifically wanted to address the issue in the context of prayer, rather than debate or study or some other public forum, because I believe that Jewish prayer has three important elements,” Rabbi Prouser, who is Conservative, continued. “In prayer, we aspire to our higher selves, we recognize that we have a responsibility that goes beyond ourselves to a greater good, and — this part I think is unique to Jewish prayer — it puts us in touch with our history as well as our hopes. So much of Jewish prayer is not petitionary or confessional, but immerses us in our past.
“I think that as Americans, heading into this election in particular, getting in touch with our higher selves and feeling responsible for the history that is entrusted to us, that is in our temporary safekeeping, is critical.”
And yes, he added, in this case, the history he’s talking about is American history.
“What are the values and ideals that animate the American experiment? These are the historical ideas that people should be grappling with. What represents the best of our history? What represents continuity with the vision of the best of our history and our founders?”
Rabbi Prouser is not a historian by training but American history seems to be a magnet for his interest, “a recurrent theme in my rabbinate,” he said; he frequently finds himself drawn to the places where Jewish and American values intersect.
That certainly will be true next Friday night.
Rabbi Prouser plans to structure the evening as a traditional Friday night service, he said. A few lines from 10 presidents — Washington, Madison, Adams, Lincoln, among others — will be read during Kabbalat Shabbat. Most of the longer texts will come in place of Bameh Madlikin, the Mishnah about the specifics of candle lighting that many shuls — most of them Orthodox — read between the end of Kabbalat Shabbat and the beginning of Arvit; he hopes that a discussion will follow.
Those readings are the work of figures as diverse as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Bob Dylan, and the Netherlands’ Queen Juliana. There also is a quote from Margaret Chase Smith, the Republican from Maine “who was in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate, for 30 years, was the first woman to be a presidential candidate, and was such a powerful and articulate spokesperson for American governance and the American dream,” Rabbi Prouser said. “She was the only woman member of Congress at the time, and the first member of Congress to denounce Joe McCarthy.” She did so in a speech that was clear, forceful, straightforward, and extraordinary. “It took a great deal of courage,” he said. “She was a Republican, but she did not want to see her party come into power on what she called the ‘four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smears.’”
Rabbi Prouser plans to conclude the service with the words of the Reverend Peter Marshall, who was chaplain of the United States Senate from 1947 to 1949. “I’m a real fan of his,” Rabbi Prouser said.
“Save our leaders, O God, from themselves and from their friends — even as Thou hast saved them from their enemies,” Rev. Marshall wrote, just a few years after the end of World War II. “Let no personal ambition blind them to their opportunities,” he continued, as he could have at any time in the world’s history. “Help them to give battle to hypocrisy wherever they find it. Give them divine common sense and a selflessness that shall make them think of service, not of gain.”
Rabbi Prouser’s service will be not only bipartisan but actively apolitical. He advises people to leave all political buttons, shirts, hats, and other regalia at home. “I hope that this service will be an event where people from a variety of different perspectives can participate in a cooperative and affirming manner,” he said.
Everyone is welcome to the service, but “I specifically did not invite any public figures,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It really is intended as a focused exercise of prayer in preparation for a consequential event that requires prayer, and that requires us to really think about who we are and what stands we are required to take.”
Or, as George Washington said, “I now make it my most earnest prayer, that God would include our hearts to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for our fellow citizens of the United States at large.”
As James Monroe said, “Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.”
And as Abraham Lincoln said, “Having chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear.”
All these quotes, and many more, will be included in Rabbi Prouser’s service.
What: Pre-Election Day Prayers
Where: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes
When: Friday, November 4, at 6:30 p.m.
What else: Shabbat family dinner follows; registration required by Monday, October 31.
For information or dinner registration: www.tenjfl.org or (201) 560-0200.