This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Blessed State *

Since medieval times it has been customary for Jewish communities to recite prayers for the welfare of the governments in whose realms they reside. This was in keeping with the admonition voiced by the prophet Jeremiah to “seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captives.” Jeremiah was speaking to his fellow Jews who had been exiled to Babylon, the very state whose armies had destroyed Judea and sent its citizens into exile. And indeed, diaspora Jews in later ages continued to pray even on behalf of governments whose attitudes and policies were not particularly amicable toward them.

In 1948, following the declaration of independence by the newly established State of Israel, the religious authorities there realized that the Jewish state deserved at least as much liturgical support as the gentile overlords of previous generations; and so they set to composing a prayer on that theme that would be recited in synagogues during the Sabbath morning services. To be precise, a number of such prayers were proposed—including one by the Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv who submitted his text immediately following the November 29 1947 United Nation partition decision—but none of those efforts had sufficient institutional leverage to ensure their widespread adoption. For the most part, those prayers consisted of modified versions of the familiar exilic “prayer for the monarch,” with the name of the State of Israel and its citizens substituted for the foreign rulers.

On the other hand, the version that is in current use was issued by the Chief Rabbis of Israel, the official body that been inherited from the Ottoman and British Mandatory regimes to regulate the religious activities of the local Jewish community. This authorized “Prayer for the Welfare of Israel” was first published in the September 20 1948 editions of the Hebrew daily newspapers Ha’aretz and Hatzofeh. It was accompanied by a declaration that the Chief Rabbis of the Land of Israel, Isaac Halevy Herzog and Ben-Zion Ouziel had established and revised the text to be recited in all the synagogues in Israel and the diaspora. The press release also contained a notice from Rabbi Herzog stating that the author S. Y. Agnon had assisted in the crafting of the prayer. Agnon was one of Israel’s most distinguished literary figures, and he would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967. He died in 1970.

Taken at face value, Rabbi Herzog’s declaration seemed to be saying that the two chief rabbis had been responsible for the actual wording of the text, and that Agnon had served only as a consultant, perhaps to polish the style or correct a few errors in the Hebrew idioms. This was how the story was understood for a generation. Agnon himself, according to the testimony of acquaintances, described his role as merely editorial; however he never explicitly denied the rumours about his being the prayer’s principal author.

In 1986 an Israeli scholar published an article in the daily Ma’ariv in which he declared with great fanfare that he could shed a completely new light on the question of the prayer’s authorship. The principal evidence for this assertion was the discovery among Agnon’s files of a photocopy of the prayer in the writer’s handwriting. In the wake of this revelation, it became conventional for two subsequent generations of writers to identify the original author the Prayer for the Welfare of Israel as S. Y. Agnon, while limiting the Chief Rabbis’ contributions to their official authorizations.

More recently, the story has been subjected to a thorough rethinking based on examination of the original documents, including both the text of the prayer by Rabbi Herzog and Agnon’s hand-written version (not the photocopy) which had come to light in the meantime and are now available for viewing in Israeli museums. The inscription attached to Agnon’s manuscript bears out Rabbi Herzog’s original claim that Agnon contributed editorial revisions and was not the prayer’s author. The fact that he insisted on writing out a completely new draft of the prayer, rather than merely inserting his corrections and emendations to the text he had been given, was ascribed to his pious desire to uphold the integrity of what would in effect be acquiring the status of a sacred document.

Rabbi Herzog took pride in the fact that his prayer referred to the state of Israel as “the first blossoming of our redemption.” If taken literally, this expression implied that the establishment of the Jewish state was not merely a great and welcome political achievement, the creation of a haven for a persecuted people and an opportunity for Jewish cultural renewal—but that it represented a crucial stage in a divinely ordained scenario for final redemption. Hopes for imminent redemption are indeed a standard rhetorical convention in Jewish prayers and homilies. At any rate, these kinds of theological niceties had little practical relevance in the years immediately following the birth of the state.

This situation underwent a decisive reversal in 1967 when Israel found itself in control of territories captured from Jordan in the Six Day War. Though most Israelis formulated their attitudes regarding the fate of the territories based on conventional political, strategic or ethical considerations, a sizable minority in the religious Zionist camp had by then been raised on the faith that the birth of the Jewish state was an actual blossoming of the messianic redemption. Advocates of this extremist ideology applied their belief to concrete political issues, especially in their obsession with holding on to Israel’s biblical borders. Towards this end, they established unauthorized settlements and opposed any political negotiations that involved withdrawal or territorial compromise. Ultimately, it was this same “first blossoming of our redemption” perspective that inspired the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and which encouraged militant resistance to the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. A fundamental premise of their apocalyptic philosophy was that no elected government possesses the authority to obstruct the path of God’s historical plan for national redemption.

I find it quite ironic how a prayer whose original purpose was to express support for the institutions of the Jewish state (and thereby to distinguish those congregations that recited it from anti-Zionist sects) now provides a rationale for undermining the legitimacy of that same state. An analogous mindset has led to the demotion of Israeli Independence Day, the celebration of a national exploit, from the roster of festivals, to be supplanted by Jerusalem Unification Day which focuses on more narrowly religious and territorial themes and is observed by many religious nationalists as a confirmation of Israel’s imminent messianic fulfilment.

It would certainly be more prudent for us all if we were to divert our attention from the futile second-guessing of messianic timetables, and focus instead on the part of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State in which we urge the Almighty to “send your light and truth to its leaders, ministers and counselors, and direct them with wise counsel.”

Indeed, with all the external and internal challenges that must be dealt with by our beloved Jewish state, I can think of no more precious blessing than a judicious dose of wise counsel.

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A Time for Every Purpose

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 20, 2012, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Arend, Aharon. Israel’s Independence Day: Research Studies. Ramat Gan: Chaplain’s Office, Bar-Ilan University, 758.
    • Sheleg, Ya’ir. “Ushelaḥ Orekha Lerasheha Sareha Veyo‘aṣeha.” Ha’aretz. Tel-Aviv, May 5, 2008.
    • Yoel Raffel, “Tefillah Meyuḥeset Bat Shemonim,” Maḳor Rishon (Tel-Aviv, September 19, 2008).
    • Tamar, David. Eshkolot Tamar: Meḥḳarim Ve-ʻiyunim Be-Toldot Tsefat Ṿe-Ḥakhmeha U-Gedole Yiśraʼel Ba-Dorot Ha-Aḥaronim. Edited by Michael Riegler. Jerusalem: Reuben Mass, 2002.