Just and Rightful Authority

Every Shabbat, just after the Torah service, most Conservative synagogues recite the Prayer for Our Country, written by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg. Part of this prayer has troubled me since I first encountered it in 1998. I and others were independently led to “invent” an abridged, but more inclusive version of this prayer, by omitting three key words.

Philadelphia City Hall. (Photo Flaura Winston)

Philadelphia City Hall. (Photo Flaura Winston)

However, before we discuss my variant we need to know a bit of the history and context for this ancient and familiar prayer. Why do we pray for our country?

According to Rabbi Ed Snitkoff:

The importance of praying for the welfare of the ruling body was established by the prophet Jeremiah after the first exile from Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. He tells the exiled Jews, ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have caused you to be exiled, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper’ (Jeremiah 29:7).

By instructing the Jews to pray for Babylonia, Jeremiah is teaching them to recognize that in exile they were physically, economically, and politically dependent upon Babylonia and the good will of its rulers. The situation of powerlessness and dependence demanded that God be implored to direct the leaders of the country to rule the Jewish population in a just and merciful way.

In Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3, Mishna 2, “Rabbi Chanina the deputy [High] Priest said, pray for the welfare of the government (lit., monarchy), for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.”

We are obligated to concern ourselves with the welfare of our country and government. The alternative of government is anarchy, and Rabbi Chanina points out our need to have a government to protect us — against ourselves.

Natural and man-made disasters, such as hurricanes and blackouts, give us a brief glimpse into the nightmare of anarchy. Nobody is in control and nobody can stop us — and both the best and the worst in people are brought out. And while some rise to the occasion to help others in need, others see nothing but an opportunity to ignore all rules of justice and fair play. Such times test a person’s true worth: do I truly fear G-d, or do I behave because of the constraints of civilized society? But, advises R. Chanina, let us not wait and see who passes such a test. A civilized and ordered society is the best guarantee we will all live happy and productive lives, so we must pray for its well-being.

The first siddur including a prayer for the government is from the 14th century, and the practice is described there as an “established custom.” Hundreds of different prayers for various governments under which Jews have lived (and live) exist today, and are valuable windows into these Jewish communities.

Jews in Diaspora over the last 2000 years have resided in a variety of usually less-than-welcoming host countries. Still we bless them. The Torah goes so far as to instruct us not to hold an Egyptian in contempt, “for you were resident in his land.” We honor our hosts, we support them, and we “seek their peace.” In much of the Diaspora, Jews prayed specifically for the king, and so did American Jews, until the American Revolution when the word “king” was replaced with “president.”

My wife Helen and I lived in Bordeaux, France, for several years, and I learned that in pre-Revolutionary times, Bordeaux’s Jewish community did not follow a fixed version of the prayer for the government, but would adapt it each week to the occasion, seeking health, victory in battle or successful negotiations for the king. The prayer was transcribed after Shabbat in an elegant handwriting and dispatched to Paris so the king would be aware of the Jewish community’s good wishes on his behalf.

I grew up reading the prayer for the government from the Birnbaum Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem and the Artscroll Siddur. This version of the prayer is very specific, calling for “He who granted victory to kings … may he bless and protect, help and exalt the president and the vice-president and all the officers of this country” [“hanoteyn t’shua lemelachim … yeverech, v’yishmor v’yintzor v’yazor veromeym vegadeyl venasey l’ma’alah et hanasi v’et mishneyhu v’et kol sarei ha’aretz hazot”].

In contrast, the prayer in Sim Shalom, originally composed by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, does not specifically mention any particular government official, but rather, requests G-d’s blessings for “all who exercise just and rightful authority,” and goes on to ask that G-d “teach them the insights from [the] Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly.”

Whom exactly — if anyone — are we blessing here? In other words, does anyone exercise “just and rightful authority”? If not, are we not making a brachah l’vatalah, a prayer in vain? In order to answer these questions, we must first consider what we mean by “just and rightful authority”?

“Rightful authority” means two things. First of all, that the officer holder obtained his office through legitimate means. Clearly, it is not in our power to discern what is going on behind closed doors, and many elections — from Lyndon Johnson’s election to Congress, Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon, Nixon’s defeat of McGovern, and Bush’s defeat of Gore and then Kerry — have been considered illegitimate by many critics.

Secondly, “rightful authority” means that the office holder is only exercising the authority inherent in his position, and not adopting unconstitutional means to advance his objectives. For example, whether or not one agrees with their goals, many considered the Nixon and Bush wiretaps to be outside the prerogatives of executive power vested by the Constitution.

Without having inspected every ballot, without being a constitutional scholar and without being privy to every decision made by the president or any other figure in our government, it is impossible for us to divine with 100% confidence whether or not the authority is “rightful.”

Similarly, it is difficult to determine if authority is being used “justly,” that is, equitably or fairly. Authority is being used justly when used to advance the well-being of everyone, not just the well-to-do or the well-connected. In Exodus, we learn that officials should “take no gift, for the gift blinds the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.” Just as surely as bribes corrupt a judge, political money corrupts politicians, whether from a legal PAC or from illegal sources.

When I say that “just authority” advances the interest of everyone, I mean that it advances the interests not only of our current generation, but of generations to come. Is it “just” to our children and grandchildren to cut taxes while fighting a costly war? Is it “just” to our children and grandchildren to squander our precious resources, ruin our environment and permanently change our ecosystem? Only God knows the full consequences of our actions and can say for sure who is “exercising just authority.”

Then what should we do if we are not sure those leading the government are exercising “just and rightful authority”?

When I read the prayer for the country, I recite an abridged version, dropping the words “just and rightful.” My version is more inclusive, asking for G-d’s blessings for all who exercise authority, regardless of the nature or source of that authority.

I know several people who stopped reading the prayer for the government following events such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, which to them were evidence of unjust or wrongful authority. However, I disagree with such a stand.

Even in Nazi Germany, many Jews continued to recite the prayer for the government, but of course, with a somewhat different kuvunah, or intent. They were praying for G-d to grant the government the wisdom to end its persecution of the Jews.

Imagine hypothetically for just a minute that our leader was exercising authority that was not his, and that he was doing so in a callous, unjust manner. If that really were the case, then our leader, our government and our country would be all the more in need of being taught insights from G-d’s Torah, so that they could once again “administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.”

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