On the face of it, a benign question. I cannot imagine there are many who would disagree that today’s youth would benefit from some etiquette instruction as well as a recalibration of values. In fact, society as a whole would be positively influenced with a shift in societal values.
The question is: to whom ought it fall to teach these standards?
According to Jannie Blackwell, member of the Philadelphia City Council, the responsibility is the school. And the approach? School prayer, as she stated in a hearing that she convened. “Prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools,”
Both of these statement may very well be true. Prayer can promote more virtueous living as well as encourage a more positive outlook in general. So can yoga. And other lifestyle activities.
Whose prayer will be the one selected to promote such behavior? I can state without hesitation that hearing a daily prayer “in the name of our Lord and Saviour, JC” would cause me to have a seriously negative outlook.
Which reminds me of a story…(I am a rabbi, after all)
Upon our return from Thanksgiving Break during my junior year of high school, I was greeted by a Christmas tree in my English class. Not only was I shocked to see this flagrant display of religion in a public school classroom, I was floored when asked to contribute, “voluntarily,” to the tinselly decorations of said tree.
When I pointed out to the teacher that the presence of a symbol promoting one particular religion in a public setting was upsetting, she replied that the tree was seasonal rather than religious.
“Which season?” I inquired.
“The holiday season”, came the reply.
“The tree doesn’t represent my holiday. In fact,” I countered, “the tree, though most likely pagen in origin, has come to be imbued with religious meaning.”
“You are more than welcome to hang some dreidels on the tree or place a menorah next to it,” she offered.
“Promoting two religions hardly seems like a sensible solution. It is not the place of the public school to promote any religion. Teach about them in a historical, sociological, or literary context? Fine. But the display of religious symbols does none of those things.”
“Well, there is nothing illegal about having a tree,” came the slightly-defensive answer. “You certainly don’t have to contribute to the decorations.”
I had no intention of doing so. Any money I would contribute will be sent to the ACLU in your honour, I silently grumbled.
“I just wanted you to know that if I seem a bit resentful, grouchy, or otherwise out-of-sorts for the next 31 days, it might very well have something to do with your decision to decorate the classroom in such an exclusionary fashion.”
Needless-to-say, I barely passed that class and had to fight my way to take APEnglish the following year.
It doesn’t take much to imagine what Frune Sarah would have been like if forced to pray in school.
What about a non-specific prayer? Or a moment of silence? Or an area designated for those students who desire to pray?
Each one is a respectable attempt to deal with the sectarian nature of prayer. And each one is problematic in its one way.
A non-specific prayer is liturgically unsatisfying to the pray-er.
A moment of silence? In a classroom filled with kids? Unlikely.
And a special area increases the likelihood for bifurcation among the student body.
You feel that it is important for there to be in school? Consider parochial school (day school, etc.).