Jewish communities in pre-Emancipation Europe were beholden to rulers who permitted them to reside and conduct commerce within their borders. In return, the Jews were generally expected to provide capital and financial services to the royal estate and the local economy.
Only the benevolence of their sovereign could protect the Jews from hostile neighbors. Influential lobbyists, including wealthy financiers, Court Jews, and professional “shtadlanim” (intercessors) advocated for the community. When more dignified efforts failed to avert a crisis, they might resort to begging. For centuries, this arrangement — as demoralizing as it may now seem — allowed Jewish communities to survive and even flourish.
Jews were loyal subjects of the crown, but they did not idealize their own diminished political stature. They prayed for a messianic age in which their sovereignty would be restored. At the same time, they accommodated to political reality and could even have genuine feelings of affection for their sovereign-protector.
In this ambivalent political climate, an anonymous sixteenth-century author composed a Hebrew prayer for the monarch beginning with the words “Hanoten Teshua” (it appears to have originated among western Sephardic communities). The prayer spread quickly and is still widely recited.
Hanoten Teshua is made up of three sub-prayers: That God bless the king, the royal family, and his ministers, that He incline their hearts to act favorably toward the Jews, and that Israel be redeemed from exile. But, as noted by Jonathan Sarna and Barry Schwartz, despite the deferential tone, perceptive readers could discern between the lines a subversive message of spiritual protest (Hint: follow the biblical references).
Early on, American Jews realized that a blessing for the ruler to be “exalted, magnified, and highly aggrandized” was awkwardly out of place in their young Republic. America was fundamentally different from the monarchies of Europe — a disdain for anything that smacked of royalty and noble privilege was a pillar of its political ideology (one of the Constitution’s framers worried that the presidency could become a “fetus of monarchy.”) And the idea that God would seed the king’s mind with mercy for the Jewish people was inconsistent with the enlightened thinking of the nation’s first Jews.
With time, new and modified prayers for the United States emerged from all quarters of American Jewry, including Orthodox congregations (Prof. Sarna’s fascinating study on the subject traces the entire history). Some changes were sweeping. Rather than merely substitute “president” for king, queen, kaiser, or czar, several versions acknowledged the unique nature of American democracy and the American Jewish experience.
The Charleston Reform Movement, for example, introduced a completely new prayer in 1830, thanking God for having “numbered us with the inhabitants of this, thy much favoured land . . . where the noble and virtuous mind is the only crown of distinction and equality of rights the only fountain of power.”
An 1849 siddur of the Orthodox German Jewish community in New York City included a new Americanized prayer in Hebrew that was reprinted well into the twentieth century. It sought divine blessings for the president, vice president, governor, lieutenant governor, and even the mayor. Unlike its predecessor, the prayer also asked God to “grant peace, goodness and a blessing on all the inhabitants of the land.”
We can debate whether or not Hanoten Teshua remains an effective expression of gratitude and hope for our country and our religious community. But disregarding the culture in which it was written and its lingering anachronisms, it might be more productive to direct our attention to the prayer’s spiritual content — the “worship of the heart” that should inspire every prayer — rather than the text.
With respect to the Jewish experience in America, there is still much to pray for. No nation outside of Israel deserves our blessing more than the United States, which has been a source of countless blessings for its Jewish citizens. Unlike our ancestors, who prayed for their sovereign largely out of reverence or fear, patriotic American Jews can recite Hanoten Teshua, or perhaps an updated version, out of pride and deep love for the Republic.
When we bless the American nation, its institutions, and its elected officials, we may want to include a prayer, at least in our hearts, for American nationhood — that God help our leaders, and the citizens they represent, preserve the civic principles on which the nation was founded.
Patriotism itself has become a victim of exploitation and may deserve a prayer of its own.
To underline what patriotism means and what it excludes: There is no contradiction between patriotic loyalty and lawful political opposition. And there is nothing patriotic about hate. At a time when some Americans mistake exclusionary ethnic nationalism for patriotism, Adlai Stevenson’s words, from a 1952 address to the American Legion, strike a chord that sounds as timely as ever:
There are men among us who use “patriotism” as a club for attacking other Americans. What can we say for the self-styled patriot who thinks that a Negro, a Jew, a Catholic, or a Japanese-American is less an American than he? That betrays the deepest article of our faith, the belief in individual liberty and equality which has always been the heart and soul of the American idea.