The American Orthodox Jewish world is currently arguing over whether or not to change what has become the traditional prayer for the welfare of the the United States in general and the president in particular. Some, including friends of mine, are changing the text of this prayer now that Donald Trump will be president.
I believe they are making a mistake.
I will yield to no one in my opposition to having Trump in leadership. Nor do I join those voices on the right who believe (suddenly, it must be said) that it is wrong to mix religion and politics. Politics should never dictate our religion, nor must our religion ever be reduced to pure politics. But religion should constantly inform and inspire our politics, and explicitly so. Otherwise our religion will be a toothless sham, and our politics will be shallow and cruel.
Still, this Shabbat, and for the foreseeable future, count me in for the usual prayer for the president and the rest of the United States.
There is no human being unworthy of prayer, and no human being too good for it. To pray for Trump is not to agree with him. Nor is it to cease fighting him as long as he persists in pursuing evil.
We should not be troubled by the implication that praying for President Trump means praying for his success. We should pray for President Trump’s success—remembering that in prayer we refer to success not on any human terms but on God’s terms. (Whatever those terms may be.)
Let me go a step further: even though I agree with every word in the text of the revised prayers I have seen, and even though I feel that those prayers better reflect my current feelings today than the text of the prayer in my prayerbook does, I still oppose this change, for one important reason: changing the prayer to suit the moment does injury to the concept of ritual prayer.
Much of the power of public ritual prayer is in its continuity. There is a real place for spontaneous prayer, but there is also a vital role for the kind of ritualized, repetitive prayer that may change over centuries, but usually doesn’t change significantly over individual lifetimes.
Ritual prayer isn’t meant to be an accurate expression of whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. If it were, the whole idea of a prayerbook would be nonsensical. No, the point of prayer is to hold our changing lives up to an unchanging light; to see today’s feelings reflected back to us after colliding with an idealized spiritual world.
That world may be more or less congruent with the real world, which is precisely the point. Holding our world up against the ideal, we are able to judge ourselves (the etymological root of lehitpalel, to pray). Some days we may feel exalted when reciting traditional prayers; some days bitter; some days any number of other emotions.
This is part of what moves us in religion—as in art. We hear a leitmotif at the beginning of an opera and it is hopeful; the same notes in the next act bring despair; later they may evoke triumph or poignancy. Keep the notes the same, while the story changes, and you have an incredibly powerful leitmotif; but the more you change the series of notes, the less recognizable the leitmotif becomes, until finally you lose the opportunity to make the connection between disparate parts of the story in such interesting and complex ways.
When I say a prayer tomorrow for President Trump, I will feel and mean very different things than I did saying the prayer for President Obama. My right-wing friends may feel an emotional shift similar in scale, but opposite in direction. Still, we will pray together, we will pray with one and the same words. And, as the years and decades pass, we will continue to hear those words a little (or a lot) differently every single week, precisely because the words will not change to keep pace with the daily news.
Every bit of that is as it should be.