February 02, 2017

Pray for the Welfare of the State

It is amusing and disturbing to see the demonstrations against an elected president, not so much for what he has done but for who he is. We rarely empathize with politicians. The bitterness this time in a change of power, seems to be coming from a deep sense of outrage felt by Democratic voters at having their sacred cows challenged, as well as the fact that Trump is a TV showman and not a typical president.

In Britain there is no point in demonstrating against the queen. She has no power, does not make laws. I am not a monarchist myself. In my childhood we used to make fun of the prayer for the queen that mentioned a list of minor royalty of doubtful quality. We would wonder who Heehoo was (as in the opening words “He Who Gives dominion unto princes”) or change “a spirit of wisdom and understanding” into “spirits of whisky and vodka.” Nevertheless, where I come from we just accepted whoever won a general election regardless of how much one disapproved of, or even despised, the political platform and personae. The winner, having abided by the rules, was the winner and exercised power in the way he or she decided. Though we knew that parliament or the House of Lords often emasculated the strongest of policies.

And this even though for the past 50 years the most successful party in the UK has rarely got much more than 40% of the popular vote. No one tries claiming they are illegitimate. So perhaps it just the difference between “new” democracies and old established, mature, worldly-wise ones. There are, it is true, always major issues at stake. But that is what democracy allows for. For swings, for change, and for differences.

There are many different types of democracies. The British constituency system is different than Israel’s proportional representation, which is different than the USA’s specific feature of an electoral college designed to prevent populous states monopolizing power. No system is perfect yet they are all democracies and as the great Jewish Persian authority Shmuel said, “The law of the land is the law.”

Some liberal-minded rabbis in the USA have decided not to recite what has been regarded as the norm in America, a prayer for the president. Does it matter? The prophets insisted that the Jews going into exile should pray for the protection of the regimes they were exiled to. The Mishna in Avot says, “You should pray for the welfare (peace) of the government, for without it people would swallow each other up alive.” There are lots of things one ought to pray for. But this does not imply a formal public prayer in a synagogue. It more likely meant that we as individuals should worry about the state of our society and try our best to support and encourage law and order.

But in Spain it became the custom in medieval times to indeed pray formally in the synagogues for the monarch to protect the Jews. Ironically, such public prayers fell on very deaf ears. Despite them, the Jews were attacked, discriminated against, and finally expelled from Spain.

Prayers for the monarch were common in Europe, asking God to protect the monarch and guide him or her to be kind to their Jewish subjects. But as we know from Tuvia in Fiddler on the Roof, the prayer was often to “Protect and keep the Czar…as far away from us as possible.”

Texts varied from country to country. In Britain such prayers mentioned the monarch by name. In the USA they prefer praying for the position (given that the incumbent changes every four or eight years). Some preferred prayers for the health of the monarch. Others implored them to “deal wisely and truly with all Israel.”

Such prayers often imitated Christian liturgies to show how loyal the Jews were. During times when they were persecuted as outsiders, fifth columns, and agents of the Devil, Jewish communities depended on the king to protect them from zealous Christian fanatics, both in the clergy and the populace. In many countries the national flag was displayed in synagogues. But increasingly they are falling out of fashion, just as we stand less and less often for national anthems.

In Israel, bless us (or not as the case may be), the Charedi world has long refused to pray for the state of Israel or its presidents or Zahal, to salute the flag, stand or join in when the national anthem is being played, or even celebrate Independence Day. Most people just look on them as daft and pathetic. After all, they do benefit from the state, even if they seem incapable of accepting it. I don’t see the fuss, and besides, whenever one says any prayer, one adds one’s own layers of meaning, intention, and significance.

But there’s another issue, perhaps dearer to my heart. Why add more prayers to services which are long enough anyway? I know some Modern Orthodox communities like them because they are not obligatory, and therefore you can ask a woman to recite them! Some like the idea of expressing loyalty, even gratitude that we won the war! Others love the pomposity. But do we need them altogether? I am a great believer in short services, in cutting out unnecessary padding and formality. Our liturgy is full of prayers asking for good governance and protection. Why add a specific one for the state we reside in? I can understand why under conditions of warfare or threats one would pray for one’s security and the protection of those who protect us. But again, if one is going to start including soldiers, police, security and spying agencies, the prayer will go on and on.

Of course, in our private prayers we express our hopes and anxieties. Once upon time we could not rely on states for protection or rights. We felt insecure. Now in Western democracies we can be more or less secure in our Jewish identities (although the Left and resurgent anti-Semitism is making this less of a given than it once was). We no longer need to profess loyalty. All the more so, since we know it is the law that protects us, rather than the whim of the head of state.

Once we had no choice. We needed to suck up to the authorities. Now we can live in a state with laws supposedly fair and applicable to all citizens of whatever religion. If anything, we should be praying for a fair and just system, rather than for its representatives.

I find such prayers rather empty, pompous expressions of formality. We have only one ruler and that is the Almighty, and we do spend rather a long time in every service praising and extolling Him and beseeching Him to protect us. But it is God we pray to and for, not human beings.

What is more, in Orthodox synagogues we recite on Shabbat the Kabbalistic declaration Brich Shmey De Marey Alma (Blessed is the Name of the Creator of the World). In it we say, “We are the servants of the Holy and Blessed One. We do not put our trust in men nor in princes, but only in God of Heaven.” So, let’s take the words we say to heart and scrap the prayer altogether. If we abide by the laws of the land, we should be good citizens like everyone else, even those who never go to synagogue or church at all.

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