Praying for governments with disagreeable policies

Synagogues should remain free from the political divisiveness overwhelming so many countries around the world.

SOCIALLY DISTANT prayer at the Western Wall on March 15. (photo credit: YAEL ZAMIR/FLASH90)
SOCIALLY DISTANT prayer at the Western Wall on March 15.
(photo credit: YAEL ZAMIR/FLASH90)
Every Sabbath, following the weekly Torah reading, congregations around the world recite a prayer for their national leaders. While this ritual usually passes without incident, sometimes it meets with protests when the current office holders support controversial policies. On occasion, it even sparks initiatives to change the prayer.
As Professors Barry Schwartz and Aharon Arend have shown, the first halachic texts that discuss praying for the kingdom appear in the 14th century. Some mention a generic idea to “bless the King,” with others adding that God should “help him and strengthen him against his enemies.” Yet the notion of blessing the local ruler originated in the Biblical era. Jeremiah, in addressing exiles from Jerusalem now living in Babylon, urged them to “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” In late antiquity, the sage R. Hanina asserted, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” These sources indicate that we should pray for the government, since we are dependent on it for our security and prosperity. The medieval commentator, R. Yonah of Gerona, added that there is a religious value to pray for the welfare of all countries around the world to ensure peace and tranquility.
Yet these prayers were also utilized to show loyalty to the governing reign with whom the fate of the local Jews rested. We thus have records of prayers for countless kings and feudal leaders, the pope, Russian czars, Napoleon, and many other historical figures. On many occasions, these prayers were recited in the vernacular, particularly on festive occasions when gentiles were present in the synagogue.
ONE OF the better-known prayers for the government, still recited to this day in many places, is “Ha-Noten Teshua,” a 16th-century prayer that seems to have originated with communities of Jewish exiles from the Spanish Expulsion. The prayer begins, “He that gives salvation unto kings, and dominion unto lords, He that delivered his servant David from the sword of the enemy… bless and keep, preserve and rescue, exalt and magnify, and lift up higher and higher, our lord…,” with the appropriate ruler named added to the prayer. It then goes on to add that God should protect him and extend the days of his rule.
Perhaps most significantly, it then adds a prayer that the ruler should act with mercy toward the Jewish community and that God should protect and redeem the Jewish people. The text, as many have noted, is laden with tension about the tenuous political situation of the Jews. Moreover, it utilizes expressions from various biblical texts in which the broader context indicates a hope for redemption and revenge from suppression and exile. In some circumstances, of course, even this ambivalent text was not appropriate. Thus after 1933, many German Jews stopped reciting the prayer or significantly altered it since they could no longer pray in good conscience for the welfare of the Nazi regime.
On the opposite extreme, many Jews in democratic countries altered this text to reflect less dependency on the merciful whims of the leader while toning down expressions of exaltation for a specific personality. Instead, as Prof. Jonathan Sarna has documented, their prayers made references to general executive offices and contemporary values such as peace, liberty and civil harmony. A certain amount of dissonance can still emerge, however, when one feels that current officeholders are acting in ways that undermine civil tranquility or the political situation of Jews in that country or in Israel, as has occurred recently in the United States under the Obama and Trump administrations.
Yet synagogues should remain free, as much as possible, from the political divisiveness overwhelming so many countries around the world. Prayers for the government may be reviewed to ensure that the prayer is sufficiently generic to bestow wisdom on the current leaders to institute policies that protect the tranquility and prosperity of general society and the Jewish people. In this respect, we can continue to pray for the well-being of the state without debating the current government’s policies.
TO A large extent, this goal is successfully accomplished with the standard prayer for the State of Israel that was instituted by the Chief Rabbinate. Composed by the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Issac Herzog, it beseeches God to bestow “[His] light and truth upon its leaders, ministers, and advisers, and grace them with Your good counsel.” Of course, not everyone agrees that they are regularly acting with wisdom or good counsel – which is precisely why we pray for God to grant it to them!
Nonetheless, during the heyday of the Oslo Accords, several senior religious Zionist figures, including Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Moshe Tzvi Neria, altered the text to no longer bless its leaders or to pray for alternative figures who would better lead the Jewish people. Rabbi Avigdor Nevenzahl, with the support of Rabbi Avraham Shapira, amended the text to pray that “bad counsel” should be eradicated while adding a passage to strengthen the residents of Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. These changes received some support but did not become too widespread, even among opponents of the peace accords, precisely because the original text was sufficiently broad and generic to not endorse any specific leader or policy. This is the right approach that we must continue to follow as we passionately pray for our beloved homeland while continuing to debate the wisdom of its leaders and their policies.
The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and runs the Jewish Law Live pages on Facebook and YouTube.