Magazine article Tikkun

A New Prayer for the State of Israel? Introducing a Liturgical Alternative

Magazine article Tikkun

A New Prayer for the State of Israel? Introducing a Liturgical Alternative

Article excerpt

Shaul Magid is the Elaine Ravich Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and chair of the department of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is also the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Seaview, New York.

Liturgical poetry has often been the way Jews exercise their creativity and react to contemporary events in a devotional world otherwise focused on the distant past or unrealized future. The Prayer for the State of Israel is an example of this creativity. The history of its composition, however, is not without significant controversy.

Most scholars, including Moshe Ishon, Bernard Casper, and Marcel Marcus, now maintain that it was composed by the two chief rabbis of Palestine (and then Israel), Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac ha-Levy Herzog and Rishon l'Zion Rabbi Hai Uziel, with the aid of the Chief Rabbinate Council. Others, including David Tamar and Dan Leor, claim the initial draft was authored by the great Hebrew writer and essayist Shai Agnon. Zvi Noriah maintains that Agnon made certain suggestions to the initial draft by the council, one of which was the famous and problematic phrase "the first flowering of our redemption," a play on a similar locution made decades earlier by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook "reshit zemihat yeshuatenu" (the first flowering of our salvation) in his letter to Lord Rothschild upon receiving the Balfour Declaration.

While the debate on the true authorship is not relevant here, the certification of the Chief Rabbinate adds an almost halachic stamp to this piyyut. But even so, like so many others, this piyyut can ultimately have no halachic authority and Jews are free, as they have always been, to recite, ignore, or rewrite liturgical additions to the siddur outside the formal prayer service. And, in fact, this initial prayer was revised, rewritten and adapted in many Diaspora siddurim over the past fifty years, as Moshe Ishon points out in his article "The Prayer for the State of Israel and Its Distortions," [Hebrew] in Ohr HaMizrakh 27 (1975).

The Prayer for the State of Israel is modeled after, and is also an overcoming of, the myriad Jewish prayers for foreign governments recited since the fourteenth century, responding to a prophetic verse that constitutes part of Jeremiah's epistle to the Jewish captives in Babylon: Seek the welfare of the city where I have caused you to be exiled, and pray to the Lord for its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper (Jeremiah 29:7). This verse, and the prayers composed from it, is part of the exilic promise, a promise not of redemption but of captivity, dependence, and subjugation. Yet this promise also holds onto a covenantal thread, one that acknowledges both the reality and temporality of exile evidenced in an accompanying verse (Jeremiah 29:10). Most prayers for foreign governments fashioned on these verses conclude with a glimmer of hope, albeit couched in the laconic recognition of the tribulations of exile, as if to say that a prayer for a foreign government without recognizing ultimate Jewish (messianic) sovereignty was too heavy a burden for Jews to bear.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the liturgical imagination of Jews was liberated from this exilic/redemptive dichotomy. As Bernard Casper notes in his essay, "Reshut Zemichat Geulatenu" (printed in Tradition and Transition, edited by Jonathan Sacks), "The establishment of the State of Israel meant in effect a reversal of the conditions of homelessness and helplessness which had marked the Jewish people for almost two thousand years." The Prayer for the State of Israel was a triumphalist celebration of the sovereignty implied at the end of those exilic prayers. At the center of this new Zionist prayer stood its crowned jewel "the first flowering of our redemption" (reshit zemikhat geulatenu). However, the acceptance of this proclamation was not unequivocal. Many communities in the Diaspora were uncomfortable with its underlying message. …

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