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.