Monday, May 22, 2017

A Rabbinic Dispensation to Fly in Air Force One on Shabbat?

Air Force One left Andrews Air Force Base on Friday afternoon for Saudi Arabia, and among those onboard were Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The family belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and Ivanka was converted to Judaism by a well-respected Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. White House spokespeople apparently told the press that they had received a “rabbinic dispensation” to fly on Shabbat, something Orthodox Jews are normally not permitted to do. Rabbi Lookstein has denied giving the couple permission to fly on Shabbat, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, but the fact of the matter is that he was never identified as the rabbi who supposedly gave this permission.


Is there such a thing as a “rabbinic dispensation”? Did Jared and Ivanka violate halacha by flying in Air Force One on Shabbat? My answer to both questions is “no.”


First of all, there is no such thing as a “rabbinic dispensation.” In the Catholic church, the pope or a local bishop can grant a “dispensation” when in their opinion, following a specific law would create an undue hardship. The most famous recent dispensation came earlier this year when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, and many bishops relaxed the prohibition on eating meat on Friday in Lent so that Catholics could eat the traditional corned beef and cabbage. Rabbis have no such power; no rabbi can release a Jew from following Jewish law due to severe hardship.


Since we don’t know who the rabbi was that allegedly gave this “dispensation,” we can’t know the reasoning behind it. However, Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, with a Ph.D. from Harvard and ordination from Yeshiva University, wrote that in his opinion Jared and Ivanka’s plane flight was perfectly permissible. He writes: “there are times when the conflict between observance and public responsibility cannot be avoided. In cases of life or death, the Torah commands that Shabbat be set aside to the degree necessary to save lives. This is the guiding principle of the Israel Defense Forces, and the reason that ministers in the Israeli government sometimes violate Shabbat in an emergency. Most such cases, though, are far less dramatic and occur when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew. The individual is then allowed to violate rabbinically legislated restrictions. This is not because a ‘dispensation’ is given (a Catholic term that has no place in Judaism). Rather, Jewish Law maintains that when these rules were enacted, very limited exceptions were built in for extraordinary circumstances and/or persons.”


To understand Rabbi Woolf’s argument, it’s necessary to know that in halacha there are two types of laws: biblical and rabbinic. Biblical laws cannot be suspended except in cases of life and death, but rabbinical laws can be suspended “when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew,” in Rabbi Woolf’s words.


Without getting too technical, it seems to me that flying in Air Force One on Shabbat involves violation of rabbinic but not biblical laws. While operating a car or other conveyance such as an airplane would be a biblical violation, riding in one is only a rabbinic violation at best. The main violation of riding in a conveyance on Shabbat would be amira la-akum, asking a Gentile on Shabbat to perform forbidden labor on your behalf. If the conveyance is operating regardless of whether you are on it or not, technically there is no violation at all. (The main problem with riding the Metro on Shabbat would be carrying the Smartrip card and operating the fare gates.)
Air Force One took off before Shabbat, so getting to Andrews wouldn’t have involved any prohibitions, and it would have flown the same route regardless of whether or not they were on board.  Of course, they landed in Saudi Arabia on Shabbat and then were driven in a car, but again the car wasn’t provided exclusively for them and at any rate they didn’t direct the driver, so I see no issue of amira la-akum here either.


It’s important to remember that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner didn’t go to Saudi Arabia on vacation or a private business trip. They both hold official, though unpaid, appointments as advisors to the President and as such are government officials. While I’ve seen suggestions that they should have flown a day earlier or a day later, I’m certain that meetings were held and speeches rewritten in the plane on the way over, and thus being on the flight was part of their governmental responsibilities.


They aren’t the first observant Jews to have to deal with tensions between Shabbat observance and their official duties. While Senator Joe Lieberman usually walked to the Capitol when important Senate business was conducted on Shabbat, there were times when he allowed himself to be driven there in an emergency or when the weather didn’t allow him to walk. He did this only for Senatorial duties, not for politics. He never campaigned on Shabbat and never attended the Connecticut State Democratic Conventions which nominated him, because they were held on Shabbat. Jack Lew -- someone I know personally and in whose house I have had Shabbat meals -- served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations as budget director and also served as both Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary under President Obama. During both administrations, it was reported that he had a telephone number which was known only to the Oval Office, and which was used only in cases of emergency -- and when it rang, he picked it up.


During the course of my career I’ve met many Jews in government service who have had to make decisions about what they will or won’t do on Shabbat. I’ve spoken with career military officers who have seen their careers suffer because, while they will perform mission-sensitive work on Shabbat, they won’t attend purely social events. Unless we want to maintain that observant Jews can’t serve in crucial government or public safety roles, we ought to respect the decisions about Shabbat observance that others make in good faith, even if we think that in their place we would have decided differently. We also need to make sure that our evaluation of a decision another Jew makes about their observance isn’t clouded by our disapproval of the administration in which that person serves.

I don’t have any problem with the decision that Jared and Ivanka made. I am concerned about the way it was presented. There are valid worries that presenting this as a “rabbinic dispensation” rather than a legitimate setting aside of rabbinic prohibitions for public necessity may make it harder for other observant Jews in the future. “Jared and Ivanka got permission from their rabbi to fly on Air Force One, why can’t you get permission from your rabbi to make this presentation on Saturday?” We may need to explain the difference between government officials fulfilling their public responsibility on Shabbat on the one hand, and making a sales pitch or finishing an audit or a legal brief on the other It’s always an issue when observant Jews are perceived to be acting contrary to Jewish law, even when in fact they are not. It would be a public service for the rabbi who supposedly gave permission to step forward and explain his reasoning. I’m not an Orthodox rabbi, and there is no reason that the Kushner family would turn to me, but had they done so I would have advised them that it was proper for them to accompany the President in Air Force One on Shabbat. But I would have insisted that my reason for doing so be made public as well.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Thoughts After A Civil Rights Tour of Atlanta

I returned very late last night from Atlanta where I attended a conference for “Jewish innovators” called The Collaboratory. As part of the conference, yesterday morning I participated in a Civil Rights tour of Atlanta lead by Billy Planer, a Jewish educator who runs tours of the South for Jewish student and adult groups looking at the history of the Civil Rights movement, including the involvement of Jews in the movement.


Our first visit was to the Pencil Factory. This apartment and retail complex in a gentrifying neighborhood was the site of the National Pencil Factory managed by Leo Frank, a Jewish man originally from New York. In 1913, a 13-year-old female employee of the factory was murdered, Frank was falsely accused and convicted of the murder in a trial replete marked by vicious antisemitism. The governor of Georgia, John Slaton, towards the end of his term in office, concluded the trial was unfair, commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, and then himself fled the state with his family for ten years. The prison where Frank was held was stormed by a mob and Frank was lynched, the only white person ever lynched in the South. Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia Parole Board in 1986. The Leo Frank lynching was the catalyst for the formation both of the Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan.


From there we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr., historical site and visited both the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached, and the gravesite of Dr. King and his wife Coretta next door. After that, we went to the headquarters of the NAMES Project, aka the “AIDS Quilt.” We heard from the project’s executive director Julie Rhoad about the history of the Quilt and how our society did very little to find a cure or treatment for AIDS/HIV as long as it was thought to be a disease which mainly afflicted the LGBT community.


The unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?


And then we returned to our hotel only to learn that a suspect has been arrested in connection with the spate of telephoned bomb threats to Jewish institutions. As we all know by now, the suspect is a Jewish teenager who lives in Israel and has both Israeli and American citizenship. From news reports, we learn that he was rejected by the Israel Defense Forces under circumstances which lead pretty clearly to the conclusion that he suffers from mental illness.


Before we breathe a sigh of relief that the hoaxer has been caught, let’s remember that it hasn’t only been bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and swastikas have been painted on Jewish institutions, and it’s not likely that these crimes, too, were perpetrated by a teenager living in Israel. Even if the JCC threats were a hoax, antisemitism remains real.


This arrest also brings up another question for me. Yesterday I studied antisemitism, racism, and homophobia. What of prejudice towards those who are mentally ill? What if Congress repeals laws which require that insurance companies cover mental illness treatments the same way they cover treatments for other kinds of illness?


Lots of things to ponder.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Jews As "Resident Aliens"

More years ago than I care to acknowledge, I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia. We had an association called United Ministry which included most of the religious groups on campus, except for the extreme fundamentalist Christians who didn’t believe in participating with non-Christians.  Every year we would have a day-long retreat. We would all read the same book in advance and that would be the focus of our discussions.

One year the Methodist campus minister, Rev. Brooke Willson -- who is still a good friend -- suggested we read what was then a new book, Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimons. The main thesis of the book is that for most of American history, White Protestant Americans controlled the culture and the government and simply got used to the idea that both reflected their ideals and beliefs. But since the 1960s, this was increasingly not the case. This is what gave rise to groups like the Moral Majority and similar Christian Right organizations. It was an attempt on the part of some White Protestants to turn the clock back.

Hauerwas and Willimons said this was a mistake. That first of all, it probably couldn’t be done. But even if it could be done, it shouldn’t be done. Something had gone wrong when Church and Empire fused under Constantine; and the Church, to be true to itself, should not seek to have coercive power or hold the reins of government. Hauerwas and Willimons said that Christians should learn to be more like the Jews, who lived for centuries under governments which were hostile or at best indifferent to their ideals and nevertheless managed to create supportive communities which met their needs and took care of each other.

Many of us are now concerned about the possibility that the United States may soon, or may have already, become a place where discrimination and xenophobia will become much more acceptable. It seems to me that these things are something against which we must all be vigilant, no matter who you voted for in the recent election.  I was glad to see that the President-elect promised to be the President for all Americans and reach out to those who didn’t support him for guidance and help. All of us -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents -- need to hold him to his word.

At the same time, Hauerwas and Willimons were on to something. As I said in my sermon on Kol Nidre evening, our experience as American Jews who are not subjects but citizens is, in historical terms, very novel. It may well be the case -- I hope not -- that as of January 20, we will be faced with a government that is opposed to many things we hold dear and supports many things we find reprehensible. This may be shocking to us but it would have been utterly familiar to most of our ancestors.

The prophet Micah said to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” He didn’t say “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God -- as long as the White House says it’s OK.” The Torah commands us 36 times to love the stranger -- our commitment to fulfilling that mitzvah isn’t dependent on which party holds the White House or the Congress. As individuals and as a community, we can continue to love the stranger, support the weak and the disabled, feed the hungry, heal the sick and love our neighbors. This is at the heart of why we are Jews, and we can do it no matter who is in the White House. So let’s continue to do it, no matter what.


Morning After Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I sent out a “Prayer Before Voting” which ends with the following words:

Creator of all flesh, we know also that the real work begins tomorrow morning. Whether or not I am pleased with the outcome of this election, help me to be a good citizen and work for understanding and reconciliation among all Americans. May we continue to work for the day when none shall hurt or destroy, when justice shall flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

That morning has now arrived. Based on the results in Montgomery County and also on the usual breakdown of the Jewish vote, most of you reading this are not pleased but some of you are. Now that the election is over, the hard work begins.

A few scattered thoughts:


  1. We really are two countries, almost evenly divided in population. One of the things which I’ve not seen receive too much notice is that although Donald Trump won the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote by over 100,000. We have got to, as a nation, figure out how to speak with each other more civilly, try to work together and try to understand each other.
  2. Our tradition wisely gives us a road map for dealing with grief and loss. When emotions are at their most raw we don’t do anything but focus on our loss. But there is a time limit. After sitting shiva we get up and ease back into our lives. If this describes you, it’s OK, in fact probably a good idea, to take some time and work through your grief. My only advice to you is be careful how you treat yourself and those around you for the next few days.
  3. If you supported the winning side, congratulations. Just be aware that many people around you are in shock and grief. Be compassionate. Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  4. Our commitments as Jews and as human beings don’t change or waver depending on who is in power. We are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. This hasn’t changed.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Prayer Before Voting

Early voting has begun in Maryland. Some of you reading this have already voted; it is my sincere hope that everyone reading this (unless you are not yet 18 or not a U.S. citizen) will vote either on Election Day or beforehand, via Absentee Ballot or early voting.

A number of years ago, on the morning of Election Day, I received an email from a classmate which said something along the following lines: “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. As a Jew, I am terrified of losing my right to complain.”

But the fact of the matter, as I explained in my sermon on Kol Nidre evening, is that throughout most of our history we Jews did not have a right to complain. Both democracy and full citizenship for Jews are relative late arrivals on the scene of world history. We ought to be grateful that we have this opportunity.

Barring a replay of the 2000 election or some other unforeseen occurrence, some of us will go to bed on November 8, or early in the morning of November 9, very happy, and others will go to bed unhappy. But for 220 years, since John Adams took over as president from George Washington, we have been blessed with a peaceful transition of power.

I have written a brief “Prayer Before Voting,” using many of the ideas contained in the Prayer for Our Country we say every Shabbat and holiday.  If it speaks to you, I’d be honored for you to use it:
Eloheinu v’elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers,
I thank you for the opportunity to cast this vote.
May it strengthen the bonds of unity among all inhabitants of this country. 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.
Creator of all flesh, we know also that the real work begins tomorrow morning. Whether or not I am pleased with the outcome of this election, help me to be a good citizen and work for understanding and reconciliation among all Americans. May we continue to work for the day when none shall hurt or destroy, when justice shall flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon: It's Not About the Whale

It was the summer of 1980 on the Georgetown University campus. I had just returned from spending my junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and because of credits I had received for taking Hebrew ulpan during the previous summer, I discovered that if I took two summer session classes I could graduate in December rather than June. So that’s what I did. One of the two classes was a foreign affairs course taught by a visiting professor from Tel Aviv University, and one of the other students in that class was Egyptian. Although he was from Egypt, for most of his life he had lived elsewhere, since his father was a member of the Egyptian diplomatic corps. So Hisham had spent many of his elementary school years in London, where his father was Consul, and went to high school in Nicaragua, where his father was the Egyptian Ambassador.
1980 might well have been the high point in the Egyptian - Israeli relationship. Israel had completed its withdrawal from Sinai and returned it in its entirety to Egyptian control. The land border between Israel and Egypt was open and you could take a bus from Tel Aviv to Cairo. Or, as I did with a friend, you could take a shared taxi from the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem to the border between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah, take another taxi from Rafah to the Suez Canal, cross the canal by ferry and then take a third taxi to Cairo. Israelis and Jewish tourists in Israel regularly visited Egypt, and there was some, although less, traffic in the other direction as well. It may have been this new spirit of cooperation that lead Hisham to take a course taught by an Israeli. At any rate, we soon became close friends and wound up rooming together in an off-campus apartment.
Although of Muslim background, Hisham considered himself an atheist, but like most Georgetown students he was nonetheless interested in religion at least in an academic way. I was taking an advanced tutorial in Hebrew bible and was beginning to think about going to rabbinical school after graduation. In 1980, Jerry Falwell and other elements of the Christian evangelical right wing were starting to come into prominence, and I remember one evening Hisham and I sat and watched a Jerry Falwell speech on TV. Hisham finally turned to me and said “this is the Muslim Brotherhood, except in English.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamist organization, created to make Sunni Islamic sharia the law of the land. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 and, although it exists all over the Arab world, Egypt remains its heartland. In 1980 the Egyptian governing class was very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed Sadat's government, and especially the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. And they were right to worry, since in the fall of 1981 Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In many ways I served as Hisham’s guide to all things American, and he wanted to understand the phenomenon of Christian fundamentalism more. He found my approach to religion somewhat puzzling, since in Egypt, whether Muslim or Coptic Christian you were either religious or not. The kind of religiosity exemplified by the Jesuits at Georgetown, or liberal forms of Judaism, which takes scripture seriously but not literally, was something new to him.
It must have been this time of year, because we were discussing the Book of Jonah, which we of course read on Yom Kippur afternoon. At any rate we were standing on Wisconsin Ave. waiting for the 30 bus to take us uptown to the corner of Wisconsin and Mass. Aves, where our apartment was, when we were approached by an attractive young woman. She had a name tag that identified her as a “WOW Ambassador.” I didn’t know exactly what group or denomination she represented but I assumed that she was a missionary of some type.
The young woman asked us “do you always stand around on street corners talking about religion?” I responded “well, I was just explaining to my friend here how fundamentalists get the Bible all wrong.”
She was somewhat taken aback and said “why, whatever do you mean?”
I responded “take the Book of Jonah, for instance. A fundamentalist will go to great lengths to try and convince you that there was an actual man whose actual name was Jonah, who was swallowed by an actual whale and actually lived three days in the belly of that whale and then was actually spit up on dry land and actually lived to tell the tale. Meanwhile, with all the emphasis on the actual whale, they miss the whole point of the story.”
“Which is?, she asked.
“That God forgives you if you repent.”
“How do you get THAT?”, she nearly shouted.
Thankfully, perhaps through divine intervention, our bus pulled up and the conversation ended.

I suppose for this young lady it may well have been difficult to understand that the point of the Book of Jonah is indeed that God forgives you if you repent. Because if you are a fundamentalist Christian, you don’t believe that. God doesn’t forgive you if you repent; God only forgives you if you profess your faith in Jesus. So that can’t possibly be the message of the Book of Jonah; it must, therefore, be a test of faith in our accepting of the literal truth of a story which scientists will tell you can’t have happened as described, since no one could survive for three days in the belly of a whale without being killed by the digestive juices.

There is a great video which you can find on youtube that deals with the different ways men and women tend to relate to problem-solving called “It’s Not About the Nail.” Perhaps a good tagline for the Book of Jonah would be “It’s Not About the Whale.” Our sages chose the Book of Jonah for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon -- the entire book. Why? Surely, it’s not about the whale.

Jonah was a reluctant prophet but he was also a successful prophet. The other prophets of the Bible like Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah were sent to the Israelites to get them to repent, and generally had very little success. Jonah, on the other hand, was sent to Nineveh. Nineveh was in what is today Northern Iraq and it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was the capital of the kings Sargon and Sennacherib who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Hezekiah and carried the ten tribes of Israel into captivity. The book of Jonah describes it as a metropolis of 120,000 people and three days’ journey to cross, and the archeological ruins extant today confirm this as possible. The book of Jonah describes Nineveh as a wicked city worthy of destruction, but God sends Jonah to get them to change their ways.

The whole business of the whale comes in because Jonah doesn’t want to accept this mission. He gets on a boat heading to Tarshish, which was most likely a city on the southern Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey. So Jonah headed northwest instead of northeast as he was commanded. Why? We don’t exactly know, at least not at first. But Jonah quickly learns that you can’t run away from God. His boat is almost capsized by a storm, and Jonah tells the sailors that it’s because of him and the only way to stop it is to throw him overboard. At first the sailors -- all of them non-Jews -- are reluctant to do so. They row hard, trying to get back to land, with no success.  Then they pray to God not to let them die because of another man’s sins. But their prayers are of no avail, and finally they do throw Jonah overboard. Then he’s swallowed by the whale and after three days spit out on dry land. He’s learned his lesson, and this time embarks on the mission he was given.

He gets to Nineveh and travels one day’s journey into the city. He proclaims that within 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. And now we begin to see a possible reason for Jonah’s reluctance. Prophets who were sent to Israel were met with hostility, sometimes thrown in jail, sometimes even killed, but rarely did they succeed in prompting a change in behavior. But the Ninevites believe Jonah. The people and the king proclaim a fast, and everyone wears sackcloth and ashes and refrains from food for three days -- even the cattle. The king urges everyone to turn away from their evil and violence. Maybe, if they do so, God will forgive them and not destroy the city. It’s not about the whale.

And so Jonah heads back to Israel, pleased with himself for a job well done, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right? Well, not exactly. He’s not happy at all, in fact he’s furious. He says to God: “see, I knew this would happen, and that’s why I tried to get out of this assignment in the first place. “For I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Why is Jonah so angry? A lot of commentators claim it’s because he’s been made to look foolish. After all, he proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed and now it’s not going to happen. But I don’t think this is what’s going on here. Although we often think that a prophet is someone who can accurately predict the future, that’s not what a prophet is at all. A prophet warns of what will happen if the people don’t repent and change their ways. Far from looking foolish and being a failure, Jonah was a smashing success. He wasn’t sent to Nineveh to predict the destruction of the city; he was sent to warn the inhabitants that their city would be destroyed if they kept up their evil ways. And they believed him! They changed their ways! The city wasn’t destroyed. It’s not about the whale.
And this, my friends, is precisely what gets Jonah angry. Maybe because he wanted Nineveh to be destroyed; after all, they were the enemies of the Jews. Or maybe he was upset because the Ninevites made the Jews look bad in comparison. God sends prophet after prophet to Israel, and nothing. But one little pipsqueak of a prophet sent to Nineveh, and boom, total repentance. We’re supposed to be God’s special people, schooled in morality and the ways of the Lord. What’s going on here? At any rate, it’s not about the whale.

But Jonah doesn’t give up hope. He decides to camp out east of the city and builds himself a sukkah, waiting to see if maybe the city will be destroyed anyway. So God makes a special plant grow to shade him, and Jonah is happy. Then God sends a worm to destroy the plant, and Jonah once again is furious and wants to die. So God essentially says to him, “you can have compassion on this plant, which you didn’t plant or water. It came up in a night and was destroyed in a night. But you get mad because I have pity on Nineveh, a city of 120,000, and all their animals besides.” You see, it’s not about the whale.

The people of Nineveh became, for the rabbis, the classic paradigm of what true repentance, teshuvah, means. There is a tractate in the Mishnah called Ta’anit -- a Ta’anit is a fast which is proclaimed in the wake of some extraordinary catastrophe, the classic paradigm being a drought. And so if there is a drought, tractate Ta’anit tells you how the community is supposed to respond -- the assumption being, of course, that the drought is sent by God as punishment for the community’s sins.

When the drought has gotten really severe, this is what the sages tell us to do:
What is the order of the fast-days? The ark containing the scrolls of the law is to be brought to the city square… the elder shall then address them in heart-moving terms: "My brethren, consider that it is not written in respect to [the repentance of] the Ninevites, that God regarded their having wrapped themselves in sackcloth, and considered their fast-days, but that 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways' (Jonah 3:10), and the tradition of the prophets also is, 'Tear your hearts, and not your garments' (Joel 2:13)."
The town elder as cited by the Mishna conveys the powerful idea that fasting and sackcloth are merely the outer trappings of repentance, whereas the requisite change must be a fundamental reorientation of lifestyle. Nineveh epitomizes this ethic. Though they did fast and don sackcloth, this was not the critical element. Instead: 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways.'

It’s not about the whale.

This afternoon we will read the Book of Jonah. Shortly thereafter is Ne’ilah, the hour of the “closing of the gates.” We’ll hear the Shofar, our fast will be ended. What happens the next day? Will we as individuals, as a community and as a country, have changed our behavior? Will we turn from our evil ways, love the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked? If so, our fast will have meant something. Let us make it so. It’s not about the whale.


Yom Kippur Sermon: A Prayer for Our Country

It was 1812 and Napoleon and his armies had invaded the Russian Empire, where the plurality of world Jewry lived.
Napoleon was a paradoxical figure. He had risen to prominence during the French Revolution, and despite having crowned himself as Emperor he still espoused the revolutionary ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The success or failure of his army had a tremendous influence on Jewish life. Although the United States had been the first country to extend full citizenship to Jews, in the early 1800s America was really a backwater for world Jewry. The majority of Jews in the world lived in Europe. They lived in Europe but they were not of Europe. They were not citizens of the countries where they resided, no matter how long their families had lived there. In many cases they did not speak, or barely spoke, the local language, speaking Yiddish and learning, praying, and writing in Hebrew. But wherever Napoleon’s armies advanced, that changed. In the spirit of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Jews were made equal citizens. They could participate in society on an equal basis. They could have the same education as everyone else and could enter any profession they wished.
So as Napoleon and his army approached the heartland of Hassidism, the rebbes had a decision to make. Should they support Napoleon? Some of the rebbes, most prominent among them Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, did support him, since he would free the Jews from Czarist oppression and antisemitism. Others, such as Shneur Zalman of Liady, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, supported Czar Alexander I, arguing that while Napoleon might well liberate the Jews from their physical shackles, he would also introduce them to “enlightenment” ideals which could lead them away from their religious strictures as well. The rebbe did well to worry. While Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was rebuffed, Enlightenment ideals did eventually make their way east, and by the late 1800s most Jews in Eastern Europe were no longer fully observant.

The chasidic rebbes’ debate over whether to support the Czar or Napoleon was a marker of Jewry having entered into the modern era. Although Fiddler on the Roof was set in 1905, 91 years later than the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, the Rabbi’s blessing for the Czar -- “may God bless and keep the Czar, far away from us” reflects a pre-modern understanding of the relationship between Jews and the government. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hanina the Deputy High Priest, says: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” Rabban Gamaliel says “Be cautious with the people who govern, for they draw a man near in friendship only for their own purposes. They show themselves as friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a man in his hour of difficulty.” In other words, throughout most of our history, the Jews viewed government as a necessary evil. Necessary, because even a repressive government was better than anarchy. But evil, because in the best of circumstances Jews were tolerated as long as they proved useful to the ruling authorities, but could never count on that goodwill being permanent let alone enshrined in law. A good government, not to put too fine a point on it, was one that persecuted Jews no more than necessary.
If Joseph Stein, who wrote the script for Fiddler on the Roof, had been more attentive to small details of Jewish religious practice, he would not have had a character ask the Rabbi if there was a blessing for the Czar. The rabbi responds that of course there is, since there is a blessing for everything. But in point of fact, there was a blessing for the Czar in the siddurim printed in Imperial Russia, and it even mentioned the Czar and his family by name. Jews were instructed to pray for the welfare of the government under which they lived by Jeremiah during the Babylonian exile: 'Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.' (Jeremiah 29:7).

While Jeremiah instructed his people to pray for the welfare of the city, he did not specify the exact words to be said. The prayer which eventually became the standard prayer for the government with the spread of printing was, ironically, written in the 15th century in Aragon for King Ferdinand -- the same King who subsequently both financed Columbus’ expedition and gave all Jews in his kingdom the choice of conversion or exile. This prayer became known as “HaNoten Teshuah,” meaning “he who grants salvation,” from its first two words.

This prayer originally written for Ferdinand continued virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, except of course for the names of the rulers and their specific titles. For example, a Machzor printed in Vilna contains the following, as translated by Rabbi Robert Scheinberg:
May He Who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers,
Whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternity,
Who releases David, his servant, from the evil sword,
Who places a road in the sea and a path in the mighty waters –
May He bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards
Our master CZAR NIKOLAI ALEXANDROVICH,
With his wife, the honorable CZARINA ALEXANDRA FEODOROVNA
Their son, the crown prince ALEXI NIKOLAIOVICH
And his mother, the honorable CZARINA MARIA FEODORAVNA
And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.
May the King of kings in His mercy give him life, and protect him,
And save him from every trouble, woe and injury.
May nations submit under his feet, and may his enemies fall before him,
And may he succeed in whatever he endeavors.
May the King of kings, in His mercy, grant compassion in his heart
and the heart of all his advisors
To do favors for us and for all Israel, our brethren.
In his days and in our days, may Judah be saved, and may Israel dwell securely,
And may the Redeemer come to Zion.
So may it be His will – and we say:  AMEN.
Many Orthodox prayer books continue to use this prayer to this day. Depending on the particular edition of the Artscroll siddur, for example, the prayer is either printed only in Hebrew or not at all, with a notation at the appropriate place in the service that this is the point at which the prayer for the government is said. Now Artscroll publishes many different editions of their Siddur, and it’s possible that there are editions which do have an English translation, but as I said, I haven’t seen it.
If we look at the content, we see that this is a prayer for the government but it isn’t a prayer for the country. There is no mention of the inhabitants of the country other than the ruler and his family and advisors, there is no mention of the welfare of the general society, and there is only one desire expressed for the ruler: to have compassion on, and to do favors for, the Jews. This prayer does not view Jews as citizens of the country or as having anything in common with the other inhabitants. It merely seeks to prove that the Jews are loyal to the authorities and expresses the hope that in return for our loyalty, the rulers will be kind to us.

When Jews first came to this country, the practice of saying HaNoten Teshuah continued unchanged. The first Jews came to what was then New Amsterdam in 1654 and had to appeal to the authorities back in old Amsterdam to be permitted to remain, so naturally the Jews wished to prove their loyalty and of course hope that they wouldn’t be persecuted. The congregation that the first Jews of New Amsterdam founded still exists as Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and today is in its 3rd building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Its archives are a treasure trove of information about early American Jewish life, and they reveal that by at least 1760 this prayer was recited at Shearith Israel in English but the names or titles of the authorities -- by this time including not only the British King but the chief magistrate of the New York council -- were recited in Portuguese, a language which by then few of the congregants could understand.

As historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University wrote:  “Within a few years, however, this longtime practice had become a problem for American Jews. It was not just that their loyalties had changed  -- this, after all, was common to many Americans of the day and had in any case been a feature of Jewish life for centuries (causing no end of problems when prayer books extolling a previous sovereign in the text of Hanoten “Teshu'ah had hastily to be withdrawn.) The more vexing problem Jews faced in the wake of the American Revolution was whether the prayer familiar to them from regular use and fixed in their liturgy was appropriate at all in a country where leaders were elected and sovereignty rested with the people.”
There are no records from Shearith Israel or any of the five other Jewish congregations which existed in the United States from during the Revolutionary War, but by 1782 the congregants of Mikve Israel congregation in Philadelphia were praying for "His Excellency the President, and Hon'ble Delegates of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the Federal Army of these States," the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, and "all kings and potentates in alliance with North America." Shortly afterwards, editions of the Siddur printed in the United States began to leave out the name of the President and just used the title, since otherwise it would be necessary to replace all the siddurim every four or eight years. But other than replacing the King with the President, the prayer continued unchanged -- perhaps because traditional congregations -- there were no other kind -- were slow to change, perhaps because the prayer was said in Hebrew which most congregants couldn’t understand anyway.

It wasn’t until 1830 that a Jewish congregation wrote an entirely new prayer, in recognition that a representative democracy is different than a monarchy. That prayer was written in Charleston, S.C. and appeared in the prayer book of the “Reformed Society of Israelites,” the first and rather short-lived attempt at founding a more liberal Jewish congregation. Although the society itself soon disappeared, the attempt opened the floodgates and other new prayers for the government began to appear.
In 1837 Isaac Leeser, the “minister” (he was not an ordained rabbi) of Mikve Israel in Philadelphia issued his siddur with an English translation. Since he hoped to market his work throughout the English-speaking world, he retained the traditional Hebrew “HaNoten Teshua” but offered two different English translations, one for a republican form of government, as he put it, and one for a royal form. The republican version was mostly traditional but removed some of the more flowery and obsequious language used in the royal form. Professor Sarna notes “the symbolic importance of offering two alternative prayers in the liturgy. By distinguishing monarchies and republics as he did, Leeser (perhaps unconsciously) divided the Diaspora into two kinds of polities, implying that they stood differently before God. Everywhere that Leeser's prayer book reached  . . .this dramatic distinction was underscored, reminding Jews who still lived under kings and queens that an alternative form of government existed.”
For 90 years after Leeser, various editions of the prayer book had various attempts at formulating a prayer that would accurately reflect the role of the Jew in our society. Most of these efforts were in prayer books published by the Reform movement; Orthodox congregations were mostly unwilling to change any part of the liturgy while the Conservative movement published no liturgical texts of its own, unwilling thereby to acknowledge that it had definitively broken with Orthodoxy.
In 1927 the United Synagogue published the Festival Prayer Book which was the first siddur or machzor published under Conservative auspices. Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, the outstanding Talmudic scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was asked to write a completely new prayer for the country. With slight adaptations as language changed, and with a revision that made it appropriate for Canadian as well as American congregations to recite, it remains the prayer which is said in Conservative as well as Reconstructionist congregations to this day.

Let’s take a look at what it says:
Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country - for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your 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.
May this land, under Your Providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom - and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more." And let us say, Amen.

Many of the prayers we say, especially when we say them in Hebrew, are said simply because they are traditional. It gives us comfort to know that we are saying the same words, and in many cases singing the same melodies, that Jews have said and sung for hundreds of years. For example, our siddur and our mahzor have prayers which look forward to a rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of worship there under the kohanim. The musaf service we pray every Shabbat and holiday has this as a central theme, and the Avodah service on Yom Kippur focuses on this in its entirety. Personally, I have my doubts that such an eventuality would be desirable, given the disunity within the Jewish world, the control of religious life and religious sites in Israel by a medieval-minded rabbinic bureaucracy, and so on. But I’m happy to say these prayers nonetheless to connect with my ancestors who said them.
But a specially-written prayer which we say in English is meant, I think, to reflect the values we believe in and the reality we hope to create. Unlike HaNoten Teshua, Ginzberg’s prayer sees American Jews not as “subjects” but as “citizens.” We are connected to our fellow Jews but we’re also connected to our fellow Americans. We don’t ask that the king who rules us make decisions and decrees favorable to the Jews. Rather, we ask that our leaders -- who we elected, and who therefore exercise “just and rightful authority” -- make decisions and enact policies which will bring us peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom. And we want them to do so, using insights from our Torah. We believe, as American Jews, not that the Torah or Judaism should be imposed as the law of the land; but that “insights from our Torah,” Jewish values, can guide the leaders of our country to make it safe and secure, just and peaceful.

In HaNoten Teshua, we are asking God to make the rulers of the country be good to us. Since historically we were not citizens and had no rights, that is the best we could do. HaNoten Teshua mentions only the rulers and not our fellow-inhabitants, since we are not part of the same polity with them, they probably don’t like us, and we’re not too fond of them either. But here it is different. We ask that God help citizens -- not subjects -- of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony. We know from our painful experience that America is different, but it is different precisely because it protects the rights of minorities, whether those minorities are religious or racial. And what insures that America remains different? Not the goodwill of the ruler but “the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.”

We ask God to bless our leaders -- but in a democracy, our leaders are chosen by the

people and reflect the character and desires of the people. May this land, under God’s

providence, continue to be an influence for good throughout the world, and may citizens of

all races and creeds continue to enjoy its blessings. Ken y’hi ratzon.