By Rabbi Catharine Clark
Each week during the Torah service, I pray for Queen Elizabeth II. My congregation has composed its own Prayer for the Government, and it begins with seeking mercy and good counsel for the Queen and other officials. As a descendant of traitors against the British sovereign (some of my ancestors fought in the American War of Independence), this prayer sometimes makes me smile. With my American sensibilities, it just feels so weird to pray for royalty.
However, praying for the monarch is a long-standing Jewish tradition. From the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, if Jews prayed at all for the country in which they resided, they recited HaNoten Teshuah, “May He who gives salvation to kings.” In beseeching God that the king “deal kindly with us and all the Jewish people,” this prayer acknowledged the grim reality that the very lives of our people often depended on the monarch’s general stability and personal good will toward Jews. The version recited by the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof – “May God bless and keep the Tsar … far away from us” – is simply a more humorous version of the same sentiment.
While the Queen features prominently in the opening of my congregation’s Prayer for the Government, the remainder of the prayer reflects a very different reality from the Middle Ages and expresses a much greater hope. Its language is inspired by Professor Louis Ginzberg’s A Prayer for Our Country. This 1927 composition signalled the recognition of a fundamental change in the relationship between Jews and the governments under which many of us are fortunate to live.
Ginzberg’s prayer is appropriate to a democracy, in which authority flows from all the people and is intended to benefit all the people. The words we recite each week seek wisdom and understanding for government officials as they carry out their duties on behalf of everyone. This expansion of blessing beyond Jewish self-interest includes also the wish that “citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish all hatred and bigotry.” The prayer celebrates that good governance in a democracy is for and by everyone, Jews included.
My congregation’s version of Ginzberg’s prayer retains this language. Each week, we pray that Canada will live up to its ideals. We also acknowledge the role that all the inhabitants of the country must play in fulfilling the hope of the prayer. Our Prayer for the Government seeks God’s blessing for each of us as we strive “to advance the cause of freedom, justice, and peace.”
The prayer is a vital reminder that, because we are blessed to live in a democracy, we are obligated to act beyond prayer. The words should inspire us to greater participation in the political process. Almost 70% of Canadians voted in the most recent federal election, but only 10% of Canadians made political donations or volunteered for a candidate or campaign. By continuing to vote and by putting our time and our money into political affairs, we Jews can make an impact far beyond our numbers as 1% of the population.
We should do so in order to promote the values that we praise each week in the Prayer for the Government.
Rabbi Catharine Clark is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in London, Ontario.