National prayer breakfasts evangelical overtones threaten American Jews

Each year for the past several years, my local congressman, Steve Rothman (D-N.Y.), has invited me to attend the National Congressional Prayer Breakfast in Washington. For the first time, this year my schedule was clear, and I graciously accepted.

Rothman’s invitation read in part as follows: “This prestigious breakfast was initiated 52 years ago, and is an opportunity for members of Congress, the president, the vice president, and prominent national and international leaders to collectively recognize the healing power of prayer. I have attended this non-denominational, national event each year that I have been in Congress.”

As soon as I arrived at the Washington Hilton Hotel on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 2, in advance of the Thursday morning breakfast, however, I knew something was wrong. To put it bluntly, I felt as if I had landed on Mars. Thousands of people milled about, yet each one reminded me of John Boy of “The Waltons.” Everyone I met was unfailingly friendly and polite, but I was clearly out of place.

I went to register and discovered that this year’s breakfast was actually part of a two-day “leadership conference” in which I had been enrolled without my knowledge. Meetings were in session in numerous rooms off the main lobby, yet I was unable to discern from any posted material what “leadership” this conference was about.

At the registration booth I was handed a packet of printed information. You can imagine my consternation when I retired to my hotel room and began to read a passage with the headline “Jesus Transcends All.”

It said: “Jesus Christ transcends all religions! Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism … He is greater than all these — including Christianity.

“Religions are the inventions of men. They may begin with a great leader in mind — Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha … But human tradition soon reduces the original to a mere set of ethical standards and a dead letter of the law which no one can follow.

“Jesus transcends religion because he is the incarnation of all that is true, good, loving, gentle, tender, thoughtful, caring, courteous and selfless.

“Jesus does not want you to become a Christian. He wants you to become a new creation! There is a great difference between the two.”

Stunned, I sat in my room and debated whether I should actually attend the breakfast the next morning. I decided it would be impolite to Rothman to fail to show up, and once I was here I wanted to see what this was all about.

The next morning, I and 4,000 other participants found our seats in two large ballrooms, and the breakfast began. Punctuated by selections of gospel singing, speaker after speaker rose, each invoking the “spirit of Jesus.” The only two exceptions were California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who without comment read two sections from Jewish literature, and President Bush, who thankfully spoke in more generic theological terms.

The climax for me came when Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) referred in glowing terms to the ongoing prayer meetings regularly held on Capitol Hill, as “held in the ‘spirit of Jesus,’ and I attend as a Jew.”

Throughout the morning the message seemed powerful and clear: “This is a Christian country, and if you really want to be part, all you have to do is embrace ‘the spirit of Jesus.'”

Rothman, who is Jewish, informed me that he had wanted me to come to see how bad things really are. I wish he had warned me.

Most shattering was the seductive nature of it all, from the powerful gospel tones to the warm friendship that pervaded the room. You could easily find yourself thinking, “Why not? Why can’t we really be the same? Why not embrace the spirit of Jesus and then be Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim?”

Looking back, how dangerously attractive it all seems. I left that room profoundly changed, aware as never before of a frightening threat confronting us today as American Jews. Clearly there are people, many in high places, who through a mixture of ignorance and intent are bent upon convincing us that Christian belief is not antithetical to our Jewish tradition.

All this leaves us in a complicated place. The president, senators and representatives who participated in the prayer breakfast are considered friends of Israel and the Jewish community. We have forged alliances that on many levels must be maintained and strengthened. At the same time, however, we ignore the danger represented by the prayer breakfast at our own peril.

Clearly we must respond. I for one will write to the representatives and senators involved in this event and let them know how profoundly troubled I was by its evangelical overtones. I will certainly write to Sen. Coleman and inform him why this rabbi is aghast when a Jewish senator publicly proclaims fealty to the spirit of Jesus.

More important, however, we need to arm ourselves for the future by teaching the clear and deep theological differences that exist between Judaism and Christianity.

For centuries we have maintained our tradition and beliefs in the face of great enmity. I shudder as I wonder whether we will have the strength and wisdom to maintain those beliefs in the face of the seductive friendship and warmth of a national prayer breakfast.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is an Orthodox spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J. This column previously appeared in The New York Jewish Week.