I read an article in the Forward that Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, rabbi of Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in the Upper West Side, plans to stop reciting the prayer for the State of Israel. He said, “I don’t hope that this government succeeds; I hope that this government falls and is replaced by something better. I just could not imagine saying this prayer that their efforts be successful. I think their efforts are dastardly.” Rabbi Kalmanofsky and over 300 rabbis, either totally or mostly from the non-Orthodox community, wrote a letter pledging to block members of the Religious Zionist bloc from speaking at their synagogues. But he felt that he needed to do something more. Is stopping the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel the right thing to do?
About six years ago, after the Obama administration opted not to exercise its veto option on UN Resolution 2334 which stated that Israel’s settlement activity constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law and has “no legal validity,” and shortly before President Trump was inaugurated, I found myself uncomfortable with the prayer for the US government which flattered our country’s leaders. In one version of the prayer we exclaim, “may He sustain them and protect them; from every trouble, woe and injury, may He rescue them” and in another version, we ask God to “bless and protect, guard and help, exalt, magnify and uplift” our leaders. What if our leaders do something that we believe is dangerous for us as Americans or as Jews or that is dangerous for the State of Israel? Should we still flatter our leaders each and every week with the current language of the prayer? After consulting with a posek, I amended the prayer so that its focus is solely on asking God to bless the United States and its citizens and to provide our American leaders with the wisdom to act favorably to the Jewish people. In doing so, we express gratitude for the country in which we live and to our government in general and we remove any future question of reciting it, whether we agree or disagree with a particular government’s policies.
At that time, I noted that no language flattering the government exists in the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel. We simply ask God to “send Your light and truth to her leaders, officers and counselors, and direct them with Your good counsel,” but we don’t ask God to bless them personally. That’s why I was a little taken aback by the suggestion of Rabbi Kalmanofsky that he plans to stop reciting the prayer altogether. We ask God to guide our country’s leaders to make the correct decisions. Isn’t that something that everyone, regardless of their politics, would want the country’s leaders to do?
For the first 29 years of the existence of the State of Israel, the country was run by the secular socialist Mapai and Labor parties. Many of the early leaders of our country were non-religious and some were even anti-religious. However, we still prayed for the State of Israel and we still prayed that God should send His light and truth to its leaders. We realized that we were living in historic times, even with a secular government, and our prayers reflected this realization. We realized that perfect is the enemy of the good, and that after 2,000 years of persecution, the modern State of Israel, even with its imperfections, was a gift from God. We understood that the State of Israel is a safe haven from antisemitism, but it is much more than that. It connects us with our roots. It awakened an entirely different aspect of our national religious personality that had been dormant for 2,000 years.
Once we condition our prayer for the State of Israel to the makeup of the Israeli government, then our connection to the Jewish homeland is severely weakened. Rabbi Kalmanofsky asserts that he is a Zionist rabbi and he believes that seeing a Jewish homeland in the holy land is a fulfillment of a fundamental tenet of our faith and there is no reason for me to doubt his sincerity. However, his congregation is likely made up of congregants who are less committed to the State of Israel than he is. As such, won’t his act further weaken their commitment to the State of Israel?
How should we view the beautiful country of America, a medina shel chesed, a country despite its imperfections that has been so good to Jews? How should view the modern State of Israel, a dream that despite its imperfections has been the source of Jewish pride, Jewish security and so much Torah over the past 75 years? What if we think the government in either America or Israel is beyond the pale? First of all, we need a little humility. If a lot of really bright people have a different political view than us, let’s try to consider that perhaps there’s another legitimate perspective than our own or maybe the reality is a little more complicated and nuanced that our own view. If, at the end of the day, we conclude that the government is beyond the pale, then I think it’s reasonable to recite a prayer blessing the country and its citizens and asking God to guide its leaders to make good decisions. It’s also reasonable to ensure that the prayer does not “flatter” our leaders such that it will cause tension in our synagogues when some segments of our congregation think that our leaders do not deserve our “flattery.” My amended prayer for the United States government does just that and the current prayer for the State of Israel also does just that.