Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Just and rightful authority

On Shabbat mornings for the last several years, I have been chanting the "Prayer for Our Country" in the mournful Eicha trope. Yes, I understand that it's supposed to be aspirational, so that if our "leader and advisors" are not "administer[ing] all affairs of state fairly", we should pray that they will. But it seems to me that as long as the Bush Republicans are in power, this is a tefilah lashav (vain prayer), like asking God for something whose outcome has already been determined, and saying this prayer without an implied disclaimer would be a mockery. Therefore, I have been using Eicha trope to indicate that this prayer (expressing currently unattainable ideals) serves as a lamentation for the dire situation in this country.

(Yes, I generally get the phrasing right; no, it's not 100% rigorous with all the third-level disjunctives and such, per Jacobson et al. ASL has attempted to cantillate it more precisely. The problem is that pazeir doesn't exist in Eicha trope; all the pesukim in the book of Eicha are too short for it ever to come up. Also, making it possible to chant this in unison with other people who are just reading it requires liberal use of the makaf.)

Last week, "citizens of all races and creeds ... banish[ed] all hatred and bigotry." WHEEEE!!!!!!!!! A number of people have asked me whether I would continue chanting this prayer in Eicha trope. For now, the answer is no. That doesn't mean that I think that everything is suddenly better due to a mere election result. The Democratic majority hasn't even taken office yet! But it does mean that I no longer think that it is a tefilah lashav to even think about the possibility of change. This past Shabbat, the first since the election, I was visiting a minyan in a city where Bush placed third in 2000, and when we got to this prayer, there was a sudden groundswell of enthusiasm throughout the room, as people read the words as if for the first time, filled with hope that this country could indeed be "an influence for good throughout the world".

Now I'll just have to turn my attention to other pressing questions about this prayer, such as:
  • At minyanim that otherwise pray entirely in Hebrew, why are we saying this prayer and only this prayer in English?
  • At minyanim that identify as non-denominational (viz. Hadar and its progeny), why are we using a specific version of this prayer that is otherwise exclusive to the Conservative movement?
  • Why are we saying petitionary prayers on Shabbat?
  • Why only "citizens"?
  • "...ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country"!


  1. 1) When the Chief Rabbi of England instituted the prayer for the Queen he said it should be spoken in the native language so that if the Queen were to enter she would know what was being said.

    2) I can't be certain of their intentions, but I would guess that since most of the Hadar leadership grew up as products of the Conservative Movement they are used to the Conservative versions of the prayers. While they might have made ideological decisions about changes to some prayers, for prayers that weren't as ideologically loaded they just went with what they knew.

    3) Good question. We probably shouldn't be making petitions. But between people rushing to work and lower attendance in general weekday minyans are not concidered important, so all liturgical innovations tend to be focused on Shabbat.

  2. I think it's proper to say the prayer for "here" (wherever 'here' is for you) in the vernacular of "here", since it's expressing identification with the local polity. In my Upstate shul during the tenure of the rabbi who was there when i was, they used to say the Prayer for the USA in English and the Prayer for the Medina in Hebrew. I always thought that was a good idea.

  3. * "...ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country"!

    First of all, while non-restrictive clauses have to use "which" (and no native English speaker ever messes this up), restrictive clauses can generally have either "which" or "that". is a great explanation on Language Log, though I'm sure I could find some more rigorous defenses of this point than that link, both on LL and elsewhere.

    Second of all, the text of this prayer has changed over the years. I'm going to do this from memory, since I only have the Shabbat+Weekday Sim Shalom with me, but to the best of my recollection, the following changes happened in the Slim Shalom version:

    "to banish all hatred and bigotry" -> "to banish hatred and bigotry"
    "which are the pride and glory" -> "that are the pride and glory"
    "uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them..." -> "uniting all people in peace and freedom, helping them" [I think?]

    There were also a lot of changes from an earlier version, that's in the Harlow mahzor, to the Sim Shalom version.

    "God of our fathers" -> "God of our ancestors"
    "a common bond in true brotherhood" -> "a common bond in true harmony"
    "which are the pride and glory of our country" -> "that are our country's pride and glory" [or maybe "which"?]
    "neither shall men experience war" -> "neither shall they experience war"

  4. As you know, prayer for the local government is based on pirkei avot. Certainly in Ashkenazi shuls, saying these prayers on shabbat is a custom that dates back many hundreds of years. It seems that the original prayers were in Hebrew.

    As a rule of thumb, personal requests on shabbat are nixed, but ones dealing with the entire Jewish people, even the whole world, frequently get a pass.

    In Germany in the '30s, siddurim were published that had Hanoten T'shua` printed for Adolf Hitler! I don't think you need to worry too much about a Republican government ruining your world.

  5. As a rule of thumb, personal requests on shabbat are nixed, but ones dealing with the entire Jewish people, even the whole world, frequently get a pass.

    Then what about the intermediate blessings of the weekday amidah (the most well-known example of no petitions on Shabbat)? They're all phrased in the first-person plural, but still omitted on Shabbat.

  6. What about mishebeirakhs for sick people? And that's why some communities don't say them, unless someone is deathly ill.

  7. Yeah, "Shabbat hi miliz'ok" is unconvincing.

  8. The Conservative prayer for our country is amazing. I think everyone should use it, especially all the Orthodox shuls I daven in. The current formulations we're stuck with either talk about our country like it's a monarchy, or don't ask for peace / justice / fulfilled potential at all -- just "make the government nice to Jews, and send Mashiach to get us out of here fast".

    I wonder which Prayer for the country Senator Lieberman says in shul.... youknow, I once stole his seat during shachris by accident!

  9. There are other alternatives out there. I am fairly certain Darkhei Noam and KOE say a prayer that is neither hanoten nor the Conservative prayer. Unfortunetly, I can't remember the exact text or the origin of it. I believe Darkhe's prayer is in English and KOE's is in Hebrew

  10. Re: petitionary prayers during shabbat. My understanding is that petitions said while the Torah scroll is out are somehow more efficacious or that when the Torah scroll is among us, that is a propitious time to petition God. I think the rule about not petitioning God during shabbat is overrided by the "bonus" of having the Torah out. But I have no idea if this has any theological basis... just an observation.

  11. "shabbat hi miliz'ok" has basis in the gemara, from when some rabbi doing bikkur cholim on shabbat.

  12. I've always assumed it's done in English "for the benefit of the goyim," that it's a public show for anyone who's paying attention that Jews pay appropriate homage to the state. That may be too cynical.

  13. I was in an Orthodox shul once (not a particularly liberal one, although the right-wingers had recently broken from that community) where the rabbi recited a prayer for the government -- and it was from Sim Shalom! I bet no one in that shul had a clue where he'd gotten it from.

  14. I am also troubled by the words "Just and Rightful Authority". See my editorial on the subject in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

    -- Dan Loeb


    Every shabbat just after the Torah service, most Conservative synagogues recite the Prayer for our Country by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg. Part of this prayer has troubled me since I first encountered it in 1998. I and others were independently led to "invent" an abridged, but more inclusive version of this prayer, by omitting three key words.

    However, before we discuss my variant we need to know a bit of the history and context for this ancient and familiar prayer.
    Why do we pray for our country?

    According to Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, the importance of praying for the welfare of the ruling body was established by the prophet Jeremiah after the first exile from Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. He tells the exiled Jews, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have caused you to be exiled, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper" By instructing the Jews to pray for Babylonia, Jeremiah is teaching them to recognize that in exile they were physically, economically, and politically dependent upon Babylonia and the good will of its rulers. The situation of powerlessness and dependence demanded that God be implored to direct the leaders of the country to rule the Jewish population in a just and merciful way.

    In Pirkei Avot Chapter 3 Mishna 2, it says "Rabbi Chanina the deputy [High] Priest said, pray for the welfare of the government (lit., monarchy), for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live."
    We are obligated to concern ourselves with the welfare of our country and government. The alternative of government is anarchy, and Rabbi Chanina points out our need to have a government to protect us... against ourselves.

    Natural and man-made disasters such as hurricanes and black-outs give us a brief glimpse into the nightmare of anarchy. Nobody is in control and nobody can stop us -- and both the best and the worst in people are brought out. And while some rise to the occasion to help others in need, others see nothing other than an opportunity to ignore all rules of justice and fair play. Such times test a person's true worth: do I truly fear G-d or do I behave because of the constraints of civilized society? But, advises R. Chanina, let us not wait and see who passes such a test. A civilized and ordered society is the best guarantee we will all live happy and productive lives, so we must pray for its well-being.

    The first siddur including a prayer for the government is from the 14th century, and the practice is described there as an "established custom." Hundreds of different prayers for various governments under which Jews have lived (and live) exist today, and are valuable windows to these Jewish communities.

    Jews in Diaspora over the last 2000 years have resided in a variety of usually less-than-welcoming host countries. Still we bless them. The Torah goes so far as to instruct us not to hold an Egyptian in contempt, "for you were resident in his land." We honor our hosts, we support them, and we "seek their peace."

    In much of the Diaspora, Jews prayed specifically for the king, and so did American Jews until the American Revolution when the word "king" was replaced with "president".

    Helen and I lived in Bordeaux, France for several years, and I learned that in pre-Revolutionary times Bordeaux's Jewish community did not follow a fixed version of the prayer for the government, but would adapt it each week to the occasion seeking health, victory in battle or successful negotiations for the King. The prayer was transcribed after shabbat in an elegant handwriting and dispatched to Paris so the King would be aware of the Jewish community's good wishes on his behalf.

    I grew up reading the Prayer for the Government from the Birnbaum Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem and the Artscroll Siddur which is very specific calling for "He who granted victory to kings ... may he bless and protect, help and exalt the president and the vice-president and all the officers of this country" [hanoteyn t'shua lemelachim ... yeverech, v'yishmor v'yintzor v'yazor veromeym vegadeyl venasey l'ma'alah et hanasi v'et mishneyhu v'et kol sarei ha'aretz hazot].

    In contrast the prayer in Sim Shalom originally composed by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg does not specifically mention any particular government official but rather requests G-d's blessings for "all who exercise just and rightful authority", and goes on to ask that G-d "teach them the insights from [the] Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly".

    Who exactly -- if anyone -- are we blessing here?

    In other words, does anyone exercise just and rightful authority? For if not, are we not making a brachah l'vatalah -- a prayer in vain?

    So does anyone exercise just and rightful authority? In order to answer that question, we must first consider what do we mean by "just and rightful authority"?

    "Rightful authority" means two things. First of all, that the officer holder obtained his office through legitimate means. Clearly, it is not in our power to discern what is going on behind closed doors, and many elections from Lyndon Johnson's election to Congress, Kennedy's defeat of Nixon, Nixon's defeat of McGovern, and Bush's defeat of Gore and then Kerry, were considered illegitimate by many critics.
    Secondly, "Rightful authority" means that the office holder is only exercising the authority inherent in his position, and not adopting unconstitutional means to advance his objectives. For example, whether or not one agrees with their goals, many considered the Nixon and Bush wiretaps to be outside the prerogatives of Executive Power vested by the Constitution.

    Without having inspected every ballot, and without being a constitutional scholar, and without being privy to every decision made by the President or any other figure in our government, it is impossible for us to divine with 100% confidence whether or not his authority is "rightful".

    Similarly, it is difficult to determine if authority is being used "justly". Authority is being used justly, that is, equitably or fairly, when it is being used to advance the well-being of everyone, not just the well-to-do, or the well-connected. In Parshat Mishpotim we learned that officials should "take no gift, for the gift blinds the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous". Just as surely as bribes corrupt a judge, political money corrupts politicians whether from a legal PAC or from illegal sources such as those being alleged concerning Abramoff or Delay.

    When I say that "just authority" advances the interest of everyone, I mean that it advances the interests not only of our current generation but generations to come. Is it "just" to our children and grandchildren, to cut taxes while fighting a costly war? Is it "just" to our children and grandchildren, to squander our precious resources, ruin our environment, and permanently change our eco-system?

    Only the kadosh baruch hu knows the full consequences of our actions and can say for sure who is "exercising just authority".

    Then what should we do if we are not sure those leading the government are exercising "just and rightful authority?"

    When I read the prayer for the country, I recite an abridged version, dropping the words "just and rightful". My version is more inclusive, asking for G-d's blessings for all who exercise authority regardless of the nature or source of that authority.

    I know several people who stopped reading the prayer for the government following events such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq which to them were evidence of unjust or wrongful authority.

    However, I disagree with such a stand.

    Even in Nazi Germany, many Jews continued to recite the prayer for the government, but of course with a somewhat different kuvunah or intent. They were praying for G-d to grant the government the wisdom to end their persecution of the Jews.

    Imagine hypothetically for just a minute that our leader was exercising authority that was not his, and that he was doing so in a callous unjust manner. If that really was the case, then our leader, our government and our country would be all the more in need of being taught insights from G-d's Torah, so that they could once again "administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst".

    Daniel E. Loeb is the publisher of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice

  15. As for me, I've been humming the tune to "Finlandia" during Prayer for Our Country and/or Prayer for the State of Israel.