(RNS) — I am a Reform rabbi. Part of my invisible job description, which I have inherited from generations of Reform liturgists: “Change the wording of traditional prayers, in order to make them relevant.”
So, here is what we have done. A short list: Add the names of the matriarchs to the Avot prayer; remove or reinterpret the references to resurrection of the dead in the Gevurot prayer; change the wording of Aleinu to reflect universalist ideas.
So, when a Conservative rabbinical colleague publicly changed the wording of a traditional Jewish prayer, it was no big deal.
Except: That rabbi made a change in the traditional wording of the prayer for the state of Israel.
First, he omitted the words reishit tzmichat g’ulateinu, which refer to the establishment of the state as “the initial spouting of our redemption.”
And then, the prayer asks that God “send forth Your light and Your truth to its leaders, ministers, and advisors” (l’rashaeha, sareha, v’ yoatzeha).
That rabbi looked at the politicians who now comprise Israel’s right-wing coalition, and he concluded that he will not pray for those people. Frankly, my colleague would prefer to see the present government fail, and that the state of Israel elect itself a more blessing-worthy set of characters.
(Here is a sweet historical irony: The author of the original prayer for the state of Israel was Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Isaac Halevi Herzog, with some editing by the Nobel laureate Shai Agnon. Herzog’s son was the president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, and his grandson, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, is the current president of Israel.)
I am not offended that my colleague changed the words of that prayer. In fact, when I learned about that act of liturgical disobedience, I smiled. It brought me back to Rosh Hashana, 1973 — two months after the Watergate break-in.
I was sitting next to my father in synagogue. There came the moment in the service when the rabbi offered the traditional prayer for our country. He prayed, in the words of the old Union Prayer Book, for “the President and his council of advisors.”
My father turned to me and audibly said: “I’m not saying any prayers for Haldeman and Ehrlichman!” Apparently, my father was not interested in connecting God with any of President Richard Nixon’s henchmen.
We Jews have been saying some version of that prayer for centuries. It reflects the advice of the Prophet Jeremiah to the Jews in Babylonia — “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”
That prayer and I have had some good times together. It has been a nice traveling companion.
- I have offered that prayer in synagogues in London, expressly directed, in the words of British prayer books, to “Our Lady, Queen Elizabeth the Second (may her memory be a blessing) and the royal family.”
- I have offered that prayer in progressive synagogues in Prague and Warsaw, in which most of the worshipppers had only recently renewed their ties to Judaism and the Jewish people.
- I have offered that prayer in synagogues in Moscow, back in the days of the Soviet Union. I listened as captive Jews in that land said that prayer — knowing if they had omitted it, the KGB agents who were posing as worshippers would arrest them for sedition.
But, here’s the thing: That prayer has nothing to do with the particular personality, competence or disposition of the secular ruler who happens to be in power at the time. It is actually a prayer for the country.
True, it asks for guidance for various politicians, counselors and advisers, but not on a particular ruler or a set of counselors and advisers. Our love for our countries of residence transcends the immediate government.
I have said the prayer for America during presidential administrations I have both liked and disliked. The same for Israel; I have said that prayer when Menachem Begin was prime minister, and Ehud Olmert, and Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon — and yes, Benjamin Netanyahu.
And I will continue to do so.
And yet, I am sympathetic to my colleague’s — what is the right word here, disappointment? anger? despair? — over the current political situation in Israel and the election of the most right-wing government in its history.
Because each fresh announcement of a ministry choice — given to xenophobes, Arab-phobes, Islamophobes, LGBTQ-phobes and, frankly, American Jewry-phobes — sends my heart deeper.
It is not just my heart that sinks. It is the collective American Jewish heart. The “heart that turns to Zion” (to quote Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah”) has historically expected that the Jewish state would be a liberal Jewish democracy.
Excuse us, then, as our faces pale and our hearts sink when we see Israel in the process of un-becoming precisely that.
Few contemporary pundits and public intellectuals have the Zionist street cred of the literary figure Hillel Halkin.
Read his recently published words:
This time, it’s different…
Something very bad is happening. A former prime minister, currently on trial for graft and abuse of the public trust, his only demonstrated principles his own ambition and survival, has been voted back into office and is about to form — having driven every independent voice from a party in which he is now surrounded by political hacks and bootlickers — a coalition with four religious parties.
One of these, ultra-Orthodox and Ashkenazi in leadership and rank and file, has traditionally devoted its efforts to promoting the power of its rabbis and procuring all it could from government budgets for its followers and their institutions.
The second, which calls itself Sephardi, pursues similar goals; though its leadership is black-hat too, its base is religiously diverse.
The third, described as “religious Zionist,” appeals to a knit-skullcap electorate and is hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist in its attitude toward Arabs.
The fourth draws on all three of these constituencies and is more extreme than the third.
All agree on the need to weaken Israel’s judiciary and empower the Knesset that will be controlled by them to overturn High Court decisions. All are prepared to vote for legislation enabling the charges against the prime minister to be dismissed.
And this is just the beginning. Each day brings developments that were inconceivable a short while ago. No, it’s not the end of Israeli democracy. But it is the end of an Israeli consensus about what is and is not permissible in a democracy — and once the rules are no longer agreed on, political chaos is not far away. Israel has never been in such a place before.
So, would I continue to say the prayer for the state of Israel, unchanged?
Yes, precisely as my late father did at the prayer of the government. He confronted the irony of mentioning the president’s advisers in the prayer for our country, and even with his grousing, he knew that he was still, above all, praying for the country that he had defended in World War II, and the grandeur of which would survive that administration — as it has survived others.
But there is another reason why I would say that prayer, unchanged. We do not necessarily pray at a time when everything is going great. We pray at times of need, distress and anguish — and that is precisely where the state of Israel is right now.
There is no better time to intone these words: “Send forth Your light and Your truth to its leaders, ministers, and advisors.”
Because that is precisely what Israel needs — a refraction of the divine light of truth and wisdom and moderation to fall upon its leaders.
Pray away, my friends.