Praying for consensus

Praying for consensus

The evolution of a tefilla for the U.S. government affects both sides of the aisle

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Over the summer Joy Markel, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, decided she could no longer recite the “Prayer for Our Country” found in the standard Conservative siddur, Sim Shalom. “It feels as if it’s from a different time,” she said.

“There are so many … terrible things going on right now,” she told NJJN in a phone interview, and she objected to its plea to bless the country’s leaders who exercise “just and rightful authority.”

“The leaders may have rightful authority because they were elected, but it doesn’t feel ‘just,’” she said.

So while the rest of her congregation recited the prayer, Markel remained silent.

Meanwhile, at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (TBJ) in Short Hills, clergy found the “Prayer for Our Country” in the Reform movement’s Mishkan T’filah siddur lacking, but for a different reason: It does not adequately address the fracturing of the congregation in politically divisive times. “We have a really hard time speaking to each other,” said Rabbi Karen Perolman.

“Why shouldn’t we talk about the fact that we can rush to judgment, that we sometimes don’t read past the headlines, that we are willing to say things online to someone that we would never say to their face?” she asked. “Given the state of our world right now, the things that we wanted to be saying weren’t really reflected in the prayers that already existed.”

Both TBJ and Beth El decided it was time for a change in the liturgy.

After Markel and several other congregants approached Rabbi Rachel Marder following minyan one morning this summer, Beth El adopted a prayer written by Rabbi Joe Schwarz, a Conservative rabbi in Brooklyn and a colleague of Marder’s. Schwarz’s version is pointedly progressive and calls out specific issues the country is grappling with today. It asks for God’s protection to ensure the country is “a beacon of hope for the oppressed and the enslaved and a refuge for the homeless and tempest-tost, giving to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance.” And it specifically calls out treatment of the most needy: the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, quoting a verse in Deuteronomy that states, “if you do abuse them, they will cry out to Me and I shall surely hear their cry” (10:18).

At TBJ, Perolman and her colleagues tried to be consciously non-partisan when crafting their new prayer, focusing instead on people relating to one another. It reads in part, “When every force seeks to divide us let us come together in radical unity. May we see each person, especially those with whom we might disagree, as human, made in Your image.”

Tasked with writing the first draft, Perolman did not look toward previous incarnations of the prayer. Instead, “I just wrote from the heart,” she told NJJN. The final draft, used during High Holiday services this year, describes the reality of the political divide and offers not only a prayer for the welfare of the government and the democratic ideals of the United States, but also for the people in the pews.

It states, “More than ever, we live in two countries. We yell more than we listen.” Like other versions, it asks for leaders to be “guided by the best of ethics and values,” but it also prays that we “never be pulled down by world events so much that we miss the joy of the world around us; the smallest of moments that bring us a sense of safety and happiness.” It goes on to list other sources of joy, from favorite foods and new friends to good books and new jokes.

Longtime, third-generation congregant Ellie Cohen, a former Livingston mayor, didn’t consider the need for a new prayer until she heard the TBJ version on Rosh HaShanah. She was so taken with it that she brought it home to share with her 15 dinner guests. “It’s so thoughtful and healing,” Cohen said. “It’s so right on to help us think clearly when heated emotions take over our intellect.”

Some rabbis NJJN spoke to were reluctant to embrace similar changes in the prayer for the welfare of the government, either because they’re concerned that doing so would invite accusations of partisanship, or because they believe in the power of their denomination’s current prayer.

Rabbi Robert Wolkoff

Rabbi Robert Wolkoff of the Conservative Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick said that changes to the prayer would be divisive. “I feel the country is in great danger,” he told NJJN. “[I]t would be easy to write a prayer that reflected my concerns, and the concerns of very many of my congregants. But such a prayer would inevitably be viewed as partisan — and that is precisely what we don’t need right now.”

Rabbi Laurence Malinger of the Reform Temple Shalom in Aberdeen said he thinks the current prayer in the Mishkan T’filah siddur is fine as is. Particularly strong, he pointed out, is the text that reads, “Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance. /May they govern with justice and compassion. /Help us all to appreciate one another, /and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.” He said the focus on justice, compassion, and appreciating one another resonates for him. “Some of my members and I are challenged because we do not feel that many of our elected leaders, on both sides of the aisle, really appreciate the ‘other,’” he wrote to NJJN in an email, “nor do we feel that governing with ‘justice and compassion’ is being considered.”

Some prayerful history

Looking at the history of prayers for the welfare of the government, it turns out that those who want change and those who don’t both have precedent on their side. While certain prayers for the welfare of the government have had long periods of stability and widespread acceptance, leaders have played with the language and formulation to better resonate with the times, especially during pivotal moments in history.

In his 2005 article, “Jewish Prayers for the United States Government,” historian Jonathan D. Sarna offers a brief overview of the prayer, revealing that by the middle of the 17th century, a prayer beginning Hanoteyn t’shuah, May He who gives salvation, became fixed in the liturgy for most of the Jewish world.

Overall, according to Sarna, the prayer for the government “serves as a revealing historical barometer of the relationship between American Jews and the state.”

Prayers for the welfare of the government date to the first diaspora, when the Jews were exiled to Babylonia. By the 13th century Jews were allying themselves with monarchs and praying both for the monarch and their own safety. The text professes allegiance and faithfulness to the king; requests that God bless, protect, aggrandize, and otherwise exalt the monarch; and in turn, pleads for the monarch to treat the Jews with benevolence.

As the United States does not have a monarch, the prayer evolved, and by the 19th century the language began to reflect democracy and a growing sense of security. God’s blessings were now invoked to reach the highest ideals of this country, rather than to bring good fortune on a sovereign ruler.

By the early 20th century, different denominations settled on — and tweaked — their own formulations of the prayer for the government. Many Orthodox congregations retained the original Hanoteyn t’shuah prayer, with some minor revisions, including dropping the plea for benevolence.

During the Vietnam era, some congregations deleted the prayer altogether and the Orthodox ArtScroll siddur omitted it entirely in its 1984 edition, though the text returned in later printings. Some congregations started reciting it only on festivals and special occasions to save time.

Rabbi Donald Rossoff

Two local Orthodox rabbis, Elie Mischel of Suburban Torah Congregation in Livingston and Daniel Geretz of Maayan, a partnership minyan in West Orange, replaced Hanoteyn t’shuah early in their respective tenures in favor of a prayer crafted in the mid-1990s by Rabbi Yaakov Bieler, who has since retired from the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Md. Both rabbis favored Bieler’s modern text, which asks God to “implant” within the hearts of its leaders “a spirit of wisdom and understanding in order to establish the peace of the land and its freedom.”

Given the polarized state of today’s nation, it should come as no surprise that new versions of the prayer for the government have proliferated since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and not only among liberal congregations.

The Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz in Phoenix drafted a new prayer in January 2017. It reads in part, “Guide the incoming leader of this country away from his basest instincts, thwart his plans to target certain groups and strengthen white supremacy.”

Of course, the changes come not only on the Democratic side of the aisle. NJJN’s sister publication, The New York Jewish Week, reported in 2017 that Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of the Orthodox Young Israel of Oceanside, N.Y., changed the prayer for the government when Barack Obama was president because he didn’t agree with Obama’s policies.

So far at Beth El there haven’t been any objections to the updated prayer, which is recited at morning minyan and during Shabbat services. Although the new text doesn’t quite capture Markel’s feelings, she’s happier with it than she was with the original.

“It is aspirational,” she said. “I guess that’s all we can hope for with prayer.”

At TBJ, Ellie Cohen has kept a copy of the new prayer, which was only recited during the High Holidays. “This gives us something to strive for,” she said.

In the meantime, Rabbi Donald Rossoff, who retired from the Reform Temple B’nai Or in Morristown in 2015, pointed out that now might be a good time that those congregations that had dropped the prayer except on special occasions — a list which includes B’nai Or — might do well to consider reinstating it, even with traditional language.

“When citizens are not happy with what their government is doing,” Rossoff said, “a prayer to grant wisdom to their leaders and to reinforce the importance of pursuing peace and justice might be needed all the more.”

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