While one could say that Jewish liturgy is intrinsically wrapped up with belief in God, to participate in synagogue services as an atheist is no longer considered taboo. Some years ago, Moment magazine hosted an essay contest on godless Judaism, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies ran a podcast debate on whether atheists are permitted to be prayer leaders. But when it comes to assumed support for the State of Israel within a synagogue context, does the same pluralism exist?
Most synagogue services these days conclude with a prayer for the State of Israel. A rough survey I conducted of these prayers from across the denominations reveals some common themes: the State of Israel represents a step toward redemption, and God is asked to provide wise counsel to Israel’s leaders, strengthen the hand of Israel’s defenders, and blanket Israel’s inhabitants with peace, love and joy. The Reconstructionist version encourages Israel’s leaders to walk in “justice, freedom and integrity” while planting a “love of Zion” in the “hearts” of the people of Israel.
Some innovators have sought to write alternative versions. Sydney Nestel penned a text which he says he has delivered a few times at his Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, in which he removed reference to “redemption,” going “up to the land,” and “bless[ing] the State of Israel.” As Nestel said, “The State of Israel may or may not be useful or morally justified at this time, but it has no eternal or holy value… People have holy value. Land can have holy value. But to impute holy value to the state is flirting with fascism.”
In 2002, Tikkun magazine published a version of the Prayer for Israel by Aryeh Cohen. His prayer makes indirect reference to Palestinians, citing Israel as the land “which we inherited together with the sons and daughters of Hagar.” Commenting on the text, Cohen and Shaul Magid wrote that “the triumphalism of the early ’50s religious Zionism woven through the prayer and the religious problematics of sanctifying a political and military institution grate on those who pray with open eyes and an open heart.” In another Tikkun essay, Magid critiques the traditional Prayer for Israel by acknowledging that “[i]n its understandable exuberance and optimism, the prayer does not recognize that this new sovereignty is possible only at the expense and displacement of another people.”
At Fire Island Synagogue, in New York, where he serves as rabbi, Magid used to deliver Cohen’s prayer. But when some congregants registered their displeasure by walking out, he reverted back to the traditional version.
Among the menu of prayers recited in a given synagogue service, is there something uniquely problematic about the Prayer for Israel? The answer, to my mind, comes down to two things. One is the relevance of faith. At root, faith in God is a private matter. Only the actions that may or may not flow from faith should be of concern to one’s fellow community members. This renders the ordinary litany of prayers praising God – Adon Olam, Ein Keloheinu, etc. – utterly uncontroversial. And where they are more controversial phrases in the liturgy – resurrection of the dead, for example – the idea is so fantastical as to render them almost purely symbolic.
The purpose of politics, on the other hand, including invocations about the state, is different. Political discourse is meant to entail robust debate. But a recitation of a prayer is about quiet assent or at least silent indifference. Actions taken in the name of politics and nationalism – including Jewish sovereignty – matter. And they should be wrestled with. The aesthetic of the Prayer for Israel forecloses this opportunity.
Perhaps it’s time to open a new round of discussion of the role of Israel in our synagogues, and the moral possibilities of Diaspora communities in shaping the Israeli-Palestinian future. Discussing the purpose and potential of the Prayer for Israel might be a good place to start.