Religion & Beliefs

How Should We Pray for Israel on Her 60th Anniversary?

What kind of prayer suits the relationship that American Jews have with Israel, a country they don't live in, but that many feel an affinity toward? What kind of prayer is appropriate where national politics, ideological differences, and theological concerns … Read More

By / May 7, 2008

What kind of prayer suits the relationship that American Jews have with Israel, a country they don't live in, but that many feel an affinity toward? What kind of prayer is appropriate where national politics, ideological differences, and theological concerns all vie for the attention and intention of the person praying?

Mishna (Avot 3:2) tells Jews to pray for their government regardless of who is in charge, and Jews have been doing so for hundreds of years—but we do not live in Israel. Why a prayer for a state and a government which is not the place where we live?

When the Prayer for the State of Israel was published in Israel in 1949, not everyone was immediately on board. The prayer was omitted from the 1951 Conservative High Holiday prayer book, and it does not appear as a formal element in Conservative worship until the 1957 edition of the Conservative Prayer book. In its 1975 prayer book, Gates of Prayer, the Reform Movement included a paragraph, in English, under the heading “For Our People and Our Nation,” praying for Israel’s peace and protection. The first stand-alone Prayer for Israel in American Reform liturgy doesn’t appear until 1978, when the High Holiday Prayer book, Gates of Repentance, includes it.

Even Orthodox Jews, who are the most inclined to closely follow the liturgy, exhibit some hesitation around the prayer’s inclusion in worship. The ArtScroll Siddur, one of the most popular prayerbooks among the Modern Orthodox set, comes out in two versions: One that contains the prayer, and one that does not.

As you might expect, the contents of the prayer differ from prayerbook to prayerbook. Each of the four major American denominations has its own version of the prayer, and organizations and publications like Rabbis for Human Rights and Tikkun magazine have penned and published their own versions of the prayer to suit each of their respective relationships with Israel. Some might be considered revisions; others are totally new creations.

What can we learn from the history of this prayer that might help us make sense of why we—who live at a distance and who feel ambivalent at best about Israel’s political leadership and policies—might want to offer a prayer at all. And what, finally, should American Jews pray for when they pray for Israel? I’m reminded of that joke from early on in Fiddler on the Roof:

Jew: Rabbi, what kind of prayer should one say for the Czar? Rabbi: May the Lord Bless him and keep him…. Far away from us!

Essentially, the original version of the prayer beseeches God to bless and protect the State of Israel, guide and counsel its leaders, strengthen its defenders, and so on and so forth. Pretty typical of prayers for one’s country, written by inhabitants of that country. In fact, it resembles (in sentiment) other traditional prayers for one’s Jewish and broader communities. This semblance is reinforced by its placement within the structure of a worship service, where it appears alongside prayers for the Jewish community, the community of worshippers, and for the government of one’s home country.

There is however, one striking difference: It does not stop with supplications for the land itself, its leadership and governance, but adds a paragraph for Jews in the Diaspora and for the hope that they will “return” to the land.

When the Conservative Movement issued its new prayer book in 1985, it decided to omit the prayer’s lengthy paragraph about “speeding the return” of Jews to Zion, focusing instead on Israel’s well-being, peace, and strength. Oddly, however, the Conservative Movement retained a phrase that has recently raised questions and eyebrows about whether or not it belongs in American Jewish prayer. The phrase refers to Israel as “reshit tzmikhat ge’ulateynu,” or “the dawn of our redemption,” which sounds a little too messianic for many American Jews. Moreover, and maybe more troubling: Why would our spiritual redemption be connected to the State of Israel?

Is the State of Israel—this State of Israel—really a sign of the dawn of the messianic age? What does that mean for the majority of American Jews, for whom Israel is more a vacation destination or an ideology than a sign of the messianic age? Is there a more suitable metaphor for the State of Israel, whose imagery and echo might resonate more deeply with Jews in the diaspora?

To be sure, this is not exactly a crisis for American Jews. Traditional worship is full of strange phrasings and theological assertions that I would venture most of them do not exactly believe (the issue of God’s “chosen people,” to name just one). So why does the phrase “the dawn of our redemption," with its eschatological overtones, appear so troubling that it's become the subject of debate at this moment? Israel holds a unique place in the minds and hearts of Jews. Even amidst reports that illustrate a declining attachment among younger Jews to Israel, such a finding is “news” only because certain segments of American Jewish life are worried about this changing attitude. Since the early 20th century, American Jews have invested a lot of time, money, and energy in Israel. Buying trees, donating to UJA, sending teenagers to visit, volunteering on kibbutz, eating falafel, and learning Hebrew all illustrated American Jews’ commitment to Israel. So what now, that American Jews’ relationships to Israel are in the midst of a moment of significant change and interrogation?

Many American Jews’ attitudes about Israel are best characterized as ambivalent or contradictory. The “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel” rhetoric that organizations like AIPAC and others like to throw around don’t serve us particularly well when trying to describe the complicated feelings that many American Jews hold toward Israel. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here, but most American Jews—even those most critical of Israeli politics—are not “anti-Israel” any more than they might be “anti-China” for its violations of human rights.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the mish-mash of feelings goes something like this: I like the idea of a Jewish home, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with the policies of the State, particularly as they pertain to the treatment of Palestinians. It’s a beautiful place, but so is Paris. It’s an historical place, of particular importance to “my people,” but most of my immediate family has never spent a whole lot of time there. The historical importance of the place is ancient, which makes it important, but I can probably name more famous Greeks than I can Ancient Israelites who lived in Canaan, back in the day.

To be sure, ambivalence is not new for American Jews—nor is it only directed toward feelings and attitudes about Israel. The majority of American Jews have felt and acted on a commitment to Israel since the establishment of the State in 1948, but most American Jews never planned on moving there. So much so, that in 1950, American Jewish Committee President Jacob Blaustein had to tell Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to stop hawking the idea of aliya (migration to Israel), or he would alienate too many American Jews and sabotage his own fund raising efforts.

Israel, in the minds, hearts, and actions of American Jews, has best been observed at a distance.

Which brings us back to the central question of what, precisely, American Jews ought to be praying for when they pray for Israel on her 60th anniversary, and into the future. Maybe the new versions of the Prayer reflect and give voice to the conflicting emotions American Jews hold toward Israel. And maybe that fictitious rabbi from Fiddler (itself a modern American re-visioning of a place and a past) revealed more than a quick wit and a sense of humor.

Maybe it’s the things that we find most challenging that are most in need of our prayer.