Jewish Prayers for Our Government
In the U.S. and Canada, Independence Day is almost upon us! Both national holidays call for celebration and prayer, and each country has its own customs to ask for divine blessing on the land, people, and government – as does Jewish tradition. Reform Judaism, too, has a rich liturgical tradition of “prayers for the government” that tells us a great deal about who we are as Jews and as citizens.
On April 30, 1973, President Richard Nixon ended a speech with “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” Although neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter closed presidential speeches with a prayer, beginning with Ronald Reagan the theological “seal” to a presidential talk became a standard part of American culture. Of course, President Nixon did not invent the genre of prayers for the government, people, or country. It goes back to the dawn of history. “May you preserve the king,” a 4,000-year-old Sumerian prayer reads, “lengthen the days of his life, and give him kingship over the restored land.”
In Jewish tradition, prayers for the government are rooted in the teaching of the prophet, Jeremiah, who taught “seek the peace of the city where I have you to be carried away.” 29:7 Long viewed as the ideological basis of Jewish life in diaspora, Jeremiah’s teaching was amplified by a first century teacher, Rabbi Chaninah, who likewise urged his followers to “pray for the welfare of the government.” Pirkei Avot 3:2 Modern Jewish prayers for the wellbeing of rulers and countries are largely anchored in a 17th-century prayer, Hanoten Teshu’ah (“The One who gives salvation to kings”) which was rendered into English for the first time by a Dutch rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, on behalf of Oliver Cromwell.
The first Reform prayer book in the United States, compiled by the Reformed Society of Israelites (RSI) in 1825 and published five years later, included a prayer for the government of the United States. It was written by a local merchant, David Nunes Carvalho. In an article detailing the history of early Jewish prayers for the American government, included in Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue: Studies in the History of Jewish Prayer, historian Jonathan D. Sarna notes that the RSI prayer was “written entirely in English” and that “the new prayer had none of the regal language of its traditional counterpart.” Rather than “exalting” the president and other federal and state officials,” Sarna continued, “it simply asked God to “bless;” “preserve,” and (a reflection of their highest ideal) “enlighten” them.
Then, in an expression of patriotic piety not previously encountered in an American Jewish prayer book, it thanked 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;” for having removed from the republic “the intolerance of bigotry;” and for freeing its people “from the yoke of political and religious bondage.”
Finally, the original prayer “sought divine blessings upon “the people of these United States,” called for charity, friendship, and unity among them and prayed that “the lights of science and civilization ... defend them on every side from the subtle hypocrite and open adversary.” On the other hand, the hope for the coming of the Messiah, the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem “went unmentioned.”
An interesting variation in American Reform liturgy is Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf’s 1892 “Prayer for the Commonwealth,” included in his Service Manual, in which he calls on God to inspire the people of the country to live lives of righteousness instead of for divine protection for its rulers. “And we pray Thee, O God,” Krauskopf writes, “dispose the hearts of our people to aid their representatives in the work upon which they are engaged. Unless the people earnestly seek to walk in the way of righteousness,” the rabbi opines, “in vain will their representatives legislate, and in vain will be the blessings which fields and mines lavish upon us.”
Two years later, the 1894 Union Prayer Book reintroduced the idea of the Jewish people playing a role in world salvation in its classic prayer for country, “Grant Us Peace.” In it, God is asked to single out the Jewish people its universal redemptive role just as “country” was to be the agent of peace for the whole world. Again, on a universalistic note, God is asked to “strengthen the bonds of friendship and fellowship between all the inhabitants of our land.”
In 1975, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association of Reform rabbis in North America, published Gates of Prayer in which prayers for the congregation, country, the Jewish diaspora, and the State of Israel are conflated into a single passage. In the section on country, attention is mostly focused on elected leadership and the classic “mission of Israel” is transformed into requests for the protection of the Jewish people and a restrained acknowledgement of Israel as the “beginning of the redemption,” a foundational belief of religious Zionism.
Finally, in the 2015 Reform High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh, specific prayers for the United States and Canada are offered. In the United States’ prayer, both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are quoted and in the Canadian prayer the national anthem is quoted in English and French. In both, the responsibilities of citizenship again are emphasized and national purpose and prophetic justice are merged.
As we approach July 1 in Canada and July 4 in the United States, we have many informed choices from which to draw our prayers: “God bless America,” “Grant us peace,” “et ta valeur, de foi trempée, protégera nos foyers et nos droits!” (“and thy valour tempered with faith,/Will protect our hearths and our rights!”)
Happy Independence Day!
Read Alden Solovy's prayer asking for wise and dedicated political leaders who have the imagination and strength to address the problems of our time.