Praying for Our Country
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. The bitterness this time 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.
Where I come from, we just accepted whomever won a general election, regardless of how much we 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 that he or she decided — even though for the past 50 years the most successful party in the UK has rarely garnered much more than 40% of the popular vote. No one tries claiming they are illegitimate. So perhaps it is just the difference between “new” democracies and old established, mature, worldly-wise ones.
There are many different types of democracies. The British constituency system is different from Israel’s proportional representation system, which is different from the US’ specific feature of an electoral college designed to prevent populous states from 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 US 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 that 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 indeed to 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.
Prayers for the monarch were common in Europe, asking God to protect and guide him or her to be kind to their Jewish subjects. But as we know from “Fiddler on the Roof,” the prayer was often to “Protect and keep the Czar…far away from us.”
Texts varied from country to country. In Britain, such prayers mentioned the monarch by name. In the US, they prefer praying for the position (given that the incumbent changes every four or eight years).
Such prayers often imitated Christian liturgies to show how loyal the Jews were. In many countries, the national flag was displayed in synagogues. But increasingly this is 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 haredi world has long refused to pray for the state of Israel or its political leaders, to salute the flag, to stand or join in when the national anthem is being played, or even celebrate Independence Day.
But there’s another issue, perhaps dearer to my heart. Why add more prayers to services that 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. 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.
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. We no longer need to profess loyalty.
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.
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.