06 February 2010

School Prayer

A 1964 letter written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

In reply to your inquiry as to whether there has been a change in my views on the questions of prayer in the public schools, inasmuch as this issue has again become a topic of the day in connection with congressional efforts to introduce a constitutional amendment to permit certain religious exercises in the public schools.

As I stated then, my views are firmly anchored in the Torah—Toras Chayim [the Torah of Life]. Their validity could therefore not have been affected by the passing of time. On the contrary, if there could have been any change at all, it was to reinforce my conviction of the vital need that the children in the public schools should be allowed to begin their day at school with the recitation of a non-denominational prayer, acknowledging the existence of a Creator and Master of the Universe, and our dependence upon Him. In my opinion, this acknowledgment is absolutely necessary in order to impress upon the minds of our young generation that the world in which they live is not a jungle where brute force, cunning, and unbridled passion rule supreme, but that it has a Master, Who is not an abstraction, but a personal G–d; that this Supreme Being takes a “personal interest” in the affairs of each an every individual, and to Him everyone is accountable for one’s daily conduct.

Juvenile delinquency, the tragic symptom of the disillusionment, insecurity, and confusion of the young generation, has not abated; rather the reverse is the case. Obviously, it is hard to believe that the police and law-enforcing agencies will succeed in deterring delinquency and crime, not to mention completely eliminating them at the root, even if there were enough police officers to keep an eye on every recalcitrant child. Besides, this would not be the right way to remedy the situation. The remedy lies in removing the cause, not in merely treating the symptoms. It will not suffice to tell the juvenile delinquent that crime does not pay, and that he will eventually land in jail. Nor will he be particularly impressed if he is admonished that law-breaking is an offense against society. It is necessary to engrave upon the child’s mind the idea that any wrongdoing is an offense against the Divine authority and order.
Children have to be trained from their earliest youth to be constantly aware of “the Eye that seeth and the Ear that heareth.” We cannot leave it to the law-enforcing agencies to be the keepers of the ethics and morals of our young generation. The boy or girl who has embarked upon a course of truancy will not be intimidated by the policeman, teacher, or parent, whom he or she thinks is fair game to “outsmart.” Furthermore, the crux of the problem lies in the success or failure of bringing upon the children to an awareness of a Supreme Authority, Who is not only to be feared but also loved. Under the existing conditions in this country, a daily prayer in the public schools is for a vast number of boys and girls the only opportunity of cultivating such an awareness.
On the other hand, as I have emphasized on more than one occasion, only a strictly non-denominational prayer, and no other should be introduced into the public schools. Any denominational prayer or religious exercise in the public schools must be resolutely opposed on various grounds, including also the fact that these would create divisiveness and ill-feeling. Moreover, the essential objective is a religious expression that would cultivate reverence and love for G–d, and this can best be accomplished by prayer, while Bible reading is not so important in this instance.

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