We all remember the line from “Fiddler on the Roof” when the rabbi of Anatevka exclaims, “A blessing for the Czar? Of course. May God bless and keep the Czar … far away from us!”
So here’s a timely question that touches on religious ritual, American history and current presidential politics: Should American Jews pray for governments they dislike? And if so, how?
First, a bit of context: It’s been the custom for many hundreds of years that Shabbat services include a prayer for the leaders of the country, even if those leaders treat the Jews terribly, as has happened all too often in our history.
In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, Jews were encouraged to “pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since but for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive.” At the time Pirkei Avot was compiled, Jews were suffering under the Romans, but the rabbis, ever practical (as noted above), reasoned that “even an oppressive government is superior to anarchy,” noted Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “From ancient Babylonia to the contemporary Soviet Union, Jews have thus prayed fervently for governments that they actually despised.”
Writing for the website Lehrhaus, an online forum on issues relevant to the Orthodox community, Sarna was engaged in a discussion prompted by a decision by Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of the Young Israel of Oceanside, L.I., to revise the traditional prayer recited in the synagogue each week for the government. The rabbi’s motivation, he explained in a Lehrhaus essay, was to avoid “flattering” the leaders of the government, especially those with whom he strongly disagrees.
One often-used American variation of the prayer, whose origin dates back some 500 years, employs lofty language in calling for Divine favor on behalf of our president and vice president. Rabbi Muskat was suggesting dialing it down and focusing the blessing on the country and its citizens.
“It is one thing to say, ‘bless all of the leaders of this country,’” Rabbi Muskat observed. “It’s another thing to say, ‘bless and protect, guard and help, exalt, magnify and uplift.’”
When I heard about this theo-political debate, I assumed Rabbi Muskat was concerned about praising incoming President Donald Trump. But I was wrong. He had President Obama in mind, and was reacting to the U.S. abstaining on the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel and its settlement policy.
Feeling “betrayed” by Obama’s actions, Rabbi Muskat explained that he was uncomfortable reciting the prayer as is, but said the decision about amending the language “became less of a liturgical debate and more of a practical question.” He knew many congregants agreed with him but assumed others did not, either because they weren’t as upset as he was with Obama and the U.S. abstention or because they didn’t feel it warranted making the change in text.
In the end he decided to make a change in the text, noting that it actually serves to “de-politicize” the prayer, and to remind congregants they could choose to recite the traditional text if they wanted.
No doubt in other, more liberally inclined congregations across the denominational spectrum, the issue will arise — with a very different perspective — when Donald Trump becomes president.
This debate over the prayer underscores the seismic shifts our community, and the country, is undergoing, and the deep division within American Jewry. While a significant percentage of Orthodox and right-of-center Jews are still steamed over Obama, surveys indicate that most American Jews are deeply worried about, if not fearful of, a Trump presidency.
Indeed, nine weeks after the election and a week before the inauguration, a lot of people are still having a hard time accepting the fact that Trump is about to become the living embodiment of “the bully pulpit.” And they seem to divide into distinct groups in terms of how they are dealing with this new reality.
There are those who seek to oppose it vigorously, like a group calling itself Refuse Fascism, urging people to sign on for “a month of resistance” to “fascist America” in an effort to “stop the Trump/Pence regime before it starts.” Calling on people to “create a situation where the Trump/Pence regime is prevented from ruling” sounded pretty ominous to me. But the ad went on to call for huge public “protests that don’t stop, where people refuse to leave,” presumably until the new president sees millions of angry Americans on the street and has a change of heart. Perhaps he would then tweet that he has come to recognize the error of his ways and has decided to go back to running his business empire full time (in case he was planning to cut it back to part time from the Oval Office).
Well, that’s about as likely as Trump naming Barack Obama to fill Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court.
Hewing to a less radical course, some Trump critics will take part in rallies like the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, to vent their concerns about human rights, and more specifically abortion laws. Some, like the thousands of people who have made donations to Planned Parenthood in honor of Mike Pence, will engage in forms of activism that defy the incoming administration’s goals. (House Speaker Paul Ryan has made defunding Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services, a priority; Pence refers to himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic,” and has long been a vocal opponent of abortion rights.)
In the Jewish community, we are already seeing petitions calling on Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to withdraw from his participation at the Trump inauguration; Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group, organized an effort to block the appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, based on his “appalling record on civil rights and liberties,” according to the group’s press release.
Meanwhile, the Zionist Organization of America has been a leading voice in supporting alt-right champion Steve Bannon as chief strategist for the White House under Trump and in criticizing the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt for voicing opposition to the appointment.
While the vigorous back-and-forth views are aired, one wonders how many people have simply opted out of the political tumble, disillusioned or depressed by the long, nasty presidential campaign and the election results.
Finally, there are those pragmatists who, having licked their wounds, are preparing to do their best, personally and professionally, to move forward and work with the new Washington as best they can. I am thinking especially of Jewish professionals and lay leaders of nonprofit organizations who hope to sustain if not advance their efforts in providing vital social services to Jews and others in the community in the coming years.
But there’s a rubber-meets-the-road moment looming for these service providers: What happens to federations’ funding for refugee resettlement (largely through HIAS) if a Trump administration, as promised, cracks down on immigration from Syria? What happens to funding for Israeli coexistence programs if administration efforts to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem make such programs dangerous for those on the ground?
The Jewish values that have long defined the community’s civil religion will almost surely clash with at least some of a Trump administration’s actions.
Whether you are inclined to curse or pray for Donald Trump and his new administration, the new president could surely benefit from Divine guidance. And it might be a good idea for each of us to take a deep breath and focus on what we have in common — a love of our country and its freedoms — and do our best to ensure that America moves forward with both strength and compassion.