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When Charedim Followed Tradition And Prayed For The State
The charedi community proclaims itself to be the champions of tradition. They follow the path of Chazal, of the Rishonim, of the Acharonim. As Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, wrote in Ha'aretz this week, charedim just want to live their lives as their ancestors did.
So let's look at Jewish tradition with regard to the concept of praying for the welfare of the state in which one lives. Yirmiyah says, "Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to Hashem on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper" (Jer. 29:7). Chazal say "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, people would swallow each other alive" (Avos 3:4). Jews, like everyone else, require a government, and they should express their need and gratitude for this. In line with this, there is a long Jewish tradition of reciting Hanosen teshuah lemelachim, which prays for the welfare of the government.
Now, it's true that Hanosen teshuah was not recited in every community. Still, it was recited in many communities. Yet there are countless people today who grew up in such communities, and who proclaim the importance of mesorah, but who do not recite that prayer, whether they are in the US, UK, or Israel.
Why are they breaking from tradition? It seems likely to relate, at least to some degree, to charedi hostility to Zionism. With many Jews in Israel becoming increasingly nationalistic and civic-minded, charedim - even those in the diaspora - reacted by becoming less nationalistic and civic-minded, even with regard to the US government.
In "The Piety of Politics: Jewish Prayers for the State of Israel," my former teacher Rabbi Professor Joseph Tabory reports some fascinating history to this topic. When it came to creating a prayer for the State of Israel, there were two schools of thought. One was that a Jewish State of Israel should not have the same Hanosen teshuah format that was used for gentile states in the Diaspora. But another view was that Hanosen teshuah should indeed be used, to make it difficult for the ultra-Orthodox to refrain from participating in it. From a contemporary standpoint, the latter view now seems very naive. Charedim don't even say hanosen teshuah for Diaspora countries anymore! In any case, it was the former view that triumphed. Sure, you might quibble over the phrase reshit tzmichat ge'ulateinu, but the miracle of the Jews returning to Israel, and having political control of the Promised Land, deserves a special prayer.
At any rate, there was one occasion when the charedi community reverted to the traditional practice of praying for the state. In fact, the prayer was specifically focused on praying for the welfare of the armed forces. Amazingly, this occurred in Israel. Even more amazingly, it occurred under the direction of none other than Rav Elazar Menachem Schach, the fiery leader of the Litvishe charedi world!
Unfortunately, the State that they prayed for was not the State of Israel.
This was during the first Gulf War. Yated Ne'eman reported that Rav Schach had ruled that the charedi community should pray for the welfare of the coalition forces. The Yated was careful to note that this was a matter of following the tradition of praying for the state. The ruling was to use the traditional text of Hanosen teshuah, mentioning "the government of the United States and its partners." As Dr. Marc Shapiro commented to me, this means that the charedim were willing to recite a special prayer for the success and welfare of Syria and Saudi Arabia - but not of Israel! (This brings to mind the charedi anti-draft rally in New York a few months ago, in which they wouldn't express their gratitude to the IDF, but they thanked the NYPD.)
For many years I did not - I would not - recite the prayer for the State of Israel. Eventually, I changed my practice, for several reasons. First of all, it dawned on me that I should follow my family tradition from my shul in England - a black-hat shul that nevertheless recited the prayer for Great Britain. Second, I realized that the practice of praying for the state was declared by Yirmiyah and Chazal to be important, and with good reason. Third, I looked at the text of the prayer for the State, Avinu shebashamayim, and I couldn't see anything in it that was disagreeable (except perhaps for the phrase reshit tzmichat ge'ulateinu, which I couldn't be sure was true; but it certainly would be great to express it as a wish, and in any case it wasn't reason to discard the entire prayer).
With all that is wrong with the State of Israel, are we not extremely grateful to have it? And do we not want it to be blessed? And doesn't expressing gratitude and the desire for blessing for the Jewish People reflect the traditional values of Torah? I'd like to be a traditional Torah Jew.