June 2012: Politics
When I was still in cantorial school, there was a seasoned hazzan who used to like to tell the students his old “war stories” and give us his advice on how to succeed in congregational life. One of my favorites was this: There are two things that a cantor should never get involved in, because they are too controversial—politics and religion.
Although he was half joking, he was also half right. Politics and the pulpit have a fragile relationship, which includes many restrictions imposed on religious and other nonprofit organizations by the Internal Revenue Code regarding political activity. Because of this, I have always tried to follow his advice and keep my politics to myself. I do not put stickers on my car or signs in my yard endorsing specific candidates or political parties, nor do I share my political views publicly.
Despite this, I am often inundated with political messages in my e-mail inbox, and more so now that the 2012 presidential campaign is getting underway. I understand that people feel strongly about their political beliefs, and I do too. And as someone who votes in every election, I try to be diligent in educating myself on important political issues and which candidates stand for what. But truthfully, I choose not to get this information from e-mail messages.
I was thinking about all of this recently during Shabbat morning services. We were at the point in the service when we were about to recite the “Prayer for Our Country.” And as I looked around the sanctuary, I saw people who I knew to be staunch Democrats, staunch Republicans, or politically somewhere in between. And yet, here we all were together, praying for God to bless our country, its government, its leaders and its advisors.
“Rabbi, is there a prayer for the Czar?” asks a character in the celebrated line in Fiddler on the Roof. The line implies that such a prayer would be laughable, but there is indeed such a prayer. In fact, in a siddur published in Uman, Ukraine, in 1882, one year after the assassination of Alexander II, when Pobodoniestov, the foreign minister to Nicholas II, declared his infamous agenda that one-third of the Jews within the Russian Empire were to be killed, one-third were to assimilate, and one-third were to emigrate, Jews were still praying for the health of the Czar! Jews have been praying for their host government for centuries.
Historically, the idea goes back to Jeremiah 29:7, in which Jewish exiles were advised to “seek the welfare” of whatever city in which they found themselves. The first century Greek philosopher Philo mentions a prayer for the Roman emperor. The first known siddur that includes a prayer for the government is from 14th century Spain, 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 to these Jewish communities. The prayer we use in our siddur today, for a democratic government, was composed by Professor Louis Ginzberg in 1927.
I find it reassuring that, even in a time and place when cable news is always on, the pundits are continually spinning every political nuance, and it seems that everyone has their own strong views on the government and all things political, we Jews can still pray together for the well-being of our government. As the prayer goes, may God “bless all the inhabitants of our country with God’s spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.”
Hazzan Jamie Gloth