Rabbi Gregory S. Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen discusses his experience delivering the invocation at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
As senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Gregory S. Marx is used to packed houses.
But not like this one.
Marx was chosen to deliver the invocation — the lone rabbi of the clergy selected — before some 3,500 in attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama were among the dignitaries attending the event, which also included members of Congress, the administration's Cabinet as well as diplomats. The gathering, hosted by Congress, was held at the Washington Hilton.
Why was Marx given the distinctive honor? “Every year,” he explained, “two U.S. senators are chosen to chair the event, and Sen. Bob Casey," Democrat of Pennsylvania ,"was one of the two this year," joined by Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)
“He was looking to have a rabbi take part this year, and he approached Josh Shapiro,” chairman of the Montgomery County Commissioners, and a member of Beth Sholom Congregation, “for a recommendation. Josh gave him my name and — just like that — it’s a match!”
Indeed, an unexpected one. “It surprised me,” said the still delighted Marx, who even questioned Casey if he got it right. “When I got invited, I said to him, ‘You want a rabbi?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I want a rabbi!’ ”
The one he got has been serving Beth Or for the past 25 years and has an extensive communal bio that includes being a member of the boards of the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Center for Jewish Life, the area Anti-Defamation League and on the executive board of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
More surprising for Marx, he said, was discovering the annual breakfast’s “roots in evangelical Christianity; it is often seen as a day to commemorate the Christian faith.”Indeed, it is all put together by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian association.
Whether he is the only rabbi ever selected in the history of the breakfast — which dates back to the President Dwight Eisenhower administration in the ’50s — is unclear.
What is clear is that those attending heard a rarity — an invocation, running nearly four minutes, that included Hebrew. As part of his invocation, Marx referenced "the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln that religious devotion is not about having God on our side, which mistakenly prompts us to condemn the faith of others, but rather it is about being on God’s side, which requires devotion to civic duty, tolerance, humility, justice, mercy and peace."
How did it go over with the assembled? “Better than Obama’s remarks,” Marx quipped, referring to the comments the president made at the breakfast that generated headlines. Those comments linked religion historically to cruel and unusual punishments, delivered in light of the Isis crisis and the savagery committed in the name of Islam.
The event was marked by controversy but Marx said he was “delighted by the tenor of Obama’s remarks. It was courageous and a gutsy thing to do before this group,” which generally offers a conservative, right-of-center profile.
“Factually, his position taken is a true one,” added Marx. “Religion is a wonderful source of redemption and healing, but, through the years, there also has been a dark side to it," as alluded to by Obama, who recalled the Crusades and the Inquisition, times of torture and murder abetted by the Christian church.
Marx is currently on sabbatical at Beth Or but was, obviously, not too busy to take part in the prayer breakfast. It was, he concluded, an honor.